August 22nd, 2012

What is Street Food?

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Robyn Eckhardt asks a deceptively simple question today on Eating Asia: what is street food? The answer seems obvious, because street food is food that is bought and consumed on the street. Pretzels? Okay. Noodle soups? Sure. Satay? Of course. But there’s more to it. Eckhart writes that, beyond location, the essence of street food comes from three crucial elements: “immediacy, proximity and specialization.”

It’s an interesting argument because it upends traditional notions of street food. Hong Kong’s dai pai dong are generally seen as street food, but when they serve two dozen tables with a menu of 50 dishes, they fail to meet any one of Eckhardt’s criteria. They’re outdoor restaurants more than anything else. By the same token, the hawker centres of Singapore and kopi tiam of Malaysia serve street food even if they are technically off-street food courts.

Last March, I found myself in Puerto Vallarta, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where tequila and mariachi music come from. Vallarta is a balneario — a seaside resort town — and it was little more than an obscure fishing village until tourists began arriving in the middle of the twentieth century. But it’s a surprisingly pleasant place, without too much of the spring break tackiness associated with resorts like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. It doesn’t take much effort to stray into neighbourhoods that feel pretty normal, and this being Mexico, normal means an abundance of street food. So much of what makes Mexican cuisine great — slow-cooked meats, hand-pressed tortillas, fresh herbs and condiments — lends itself to the immediacy, proximity and specialization of street food.


January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: Uncertain Future

This is the second part of a two-part series on the future of Hong Kong’s dai pai dong street eateries. Read the first part here.

Steaming hot chicken in Yiu Tung Street, Sham Shui Po

While the dai pai dong in Central have been given a new lease on life, it’s another story in Sham Shui Po, where the survival of 14 dai pai dong remains uncertain.

In 2009, the Central and Western District Council accepted the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s proposal to loosen dai pai dong licence restrictions, but the Sham Shui Po District Council rejected the offer.

“The current mode of operation of dai pai dong in the district had given rise to environmental nuisances such as street obstruction, noise, littering, waste water and greasy fumes, resulting in a number of complaints from nearby residents,” said a spokesman for the FEHD.

As a result, the spokesman said, the district council refused to support any change to the status quo until these hygiene problems were dealt with.

But the district council’s vice-chairman, Tam Kwok-kiu, said that the council’s position on dai pai dong was actually more nuanced. “Some types of dai pai dong just provide breakfast, night meals, coffee or toast, and they’re quite welcomed by the residents of the district,” he said. “On the other hand, there are some that operate like restaurants with fried food and Chinese dishes, and they really cause much nuisance.”


January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: A Bitter Taste

Toy dai pai dong model in the G.O.D. Street Culture Gallery

When six dai pai dong vanished from Hong Kong’s Central district last year, fans of wok hei street food were worried that the street food stalls had disappeared for good.

Now they’re back, shiner than ever after five months of renovations. New gas lines, sewers and electric cables have been installed, and the old green dai pai dong stalls have given way to custom-built stainless steel booths.

Dai pai dong are an emblem of Hong Kong street food; their names literally mean “big plate stall,” referring to the special licence plates issued for the stalls in the 1950s. New change of rules by the government allows dai pai dong licences to be passed down to the owner’s offspring, meaning that, for the first time since the 1970s, dai pai dong can outlive their licence holders.

But dai pai dong owners are far from happy. They say the renovation process was hampered by red tape and bureaucratic indifference, leaving them penniless and seething with anger.

“I’m very frustrated,” said the owner of Yue Hing, a Stanley Street tea stall, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Ah Fei. “The government dropped the ball and now we’re suffering because of it. It shouldn’t have had to be like this.”