Instead of preparing to move one day, I decided to start watching Netflix’s Street Food series. I am a big fan of street food generally – it is fun, showcases the creativity of evolving cuisines, feeds lots of different people, and is usually very tasty. (I have a special soft spot for roasted chestnuts or peanuts on the street.) The series looked beautiful too, with a focus on street food vendors and their food in ten different Asian countries. So, I turned on Netflix and began watching the first episode, about Jay Fai and her famous drunken noodles. I was hooked.
The show is not just about the food, but about the extraordinary “ordinary” people who cook it. While much of the show focuses on the delicious food, most of the time is dedicated to the people who cook it – and particularly, one vendor in each episode. The chef narrates his or her story, his or her history, and his or her life. The show shines here: it makes the show about the food and its wider context. This focus is often lost elsewhere. When a food is divorced from its social or political context, it becomes easy to dismiss the concerns of the people who cook it as well. Street Food avoids this trap by plainly putting that context in your face. You cannot watch the show without noticing the influences from various places, or how people adapt to difficulties through food, or how history informs the very basis of the cuisine – and not some sort of “authentic essence.” In fact, Street Food is markedly critical of authenticity, and proudly displays new foods like Korean baffle (egg waffles) right alongside traditional fare like Filipino nilarang.
Street Food is not just critical of authenticity, but also shows the dynamism of each country’s street cuisine. The vendors talk about inventing new methods and preparations – from Jay Fai’s Japanese-style crab omelet in Bangkok to Aisha Hashim’s modernization on the process of making putu piring, a rice and coconut cake, in Singapore. Scholars on the show talk about the influence of war, globalization, colonialism, or political trends on the cuisine. Western food writing and media often treats street food as something unchanging, and the show challenges that. Often, the newer foods are the most appealing – for example, the flour-based knife cut noodles (kalguksu) from Seoul.
Of course, the food is mouth-watering. My favorite episodes were the ones for India and South Korea. The former featured huge plates of delicious curries, stews, and fried goods, often cooked for hours at a time. The meaty Nihari stew is something I would love to try. The Korea episode was also wonderful for the food: Cho Yoon-sun’s kalguksu noodles look perfectly filling, with a luscious texture and delicious (albeit treyf) broth. The banchan featured in the Seoul episode – particularly the lotus root pickles – were so mouth-watering that I had to go get a snack immediately. And, of course, all the other episodes have delicious food too.
My one big critique is that the episodes are too short! At thirty minutes, one can sense that many of the stories and histories were cut short. I would love even an extra fifteen minutes to more deeply explore the making and history of some of the dishes. I would have also loved to see an episode featuring Cambodian or Central Asian street food (plov anyone?), but I also understand the difficulty of producing media in those countries.
I look forward to future installments of the series. We still do not know which countries will be featured, though I am hoping very fervently that Mexico’s incredible street food culture gets featured. Ditto for Turkey and Morocco. And, given the quality of this season, we can expect a real treat for the second installment too.
Accessibility notes: audio description is available, and all episodes are captioned in several languages.