Sometimes, I think, that we forget what energy food has to offer. In this sound bite, quick win for easy gains, fast paced nation, the concept of food has become capsule meals of efficiency – providing sustenance but not always joy. The high street struggles to captivate our attention beyond the immediate satisfaction of a flaky pie or spicy breast of chicken. These fast food kings unwittingly monopolise on our food-culture often denying choice in our urban areas.
Yet collectively and thankfully there are people and places that are making waves.
Hawkers have been around since the dawn of economy in food. In one form or another, each offered and became known for their uniquely distinctive recipes. They succeeded or failed on a reputation of taste and word of mouth. Then – over the last century, as our cities grew and became hung up on cleanliness, we evolved to leave the humble hawker behind. Yet in the warmer climes of our European neighbours, eating al fresco is such a common occurrence. Drifting towards the equator, meal times even slow down the nature of life, and as a priority seem to focus more wholly on social and familial etiquette. Something, observably neglected in the UK today.
Yet now, in larger British cities, there are steps being made to reflect this more joyful approach to eating out. Places to socialise, to celebrate food in the shadows of hawker tradition are popping up (some legal, some not so). Over the summer and winter months these are the places to find independent taste-makers hawking hits of flavours in simple cardboard trays and paper cones.
There is something marginally quixotic about these centres and revolutionary soldiers of food with their get-it-before-it-runs-out menus, whilst you stand queuing. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, as we have trained ourselves to prefer the inside restaurant food experience. However, take a step back and give it a chance. Observe with me, surrounded by this plethora of culinary choice: what is different?
Firstly, in a bustling hawker centre, taste starts with your eyes and ears. The busy crowds are not dull queues of jaded people in a tired looking takeaway, mulling numbered menus. These are the sorts of people expecting an adventure from taste, bubbling with anticipation, talking with vibrance, accepting the invitation to real world food. They have come for the entire experience with friends and to rejoice and socialise. Then – the seven or eight open kitchens within reach of a little gust or breeze tempt you closer with their own smells of blended spice and intoxicatingly fill your nostrils. Choice is tough, but we have all night – and mindfully, it’s not a race. Lastly (as if your mouth wasn’t watering by the time you’ve reached the front of the queue) every bite of hot, fresh food from each stall is different and full of vibrant flavours. And what’s more, you are not bound by social convention and can eat what ever you like, in what ever order you like. Places like these are abundant in both savoury and sweet stalls. So start with a maple syrup covered waffle, why not, and end with ribs. Chicken wings. Churros. Pad thai. Goan curry. Chicken wings (again). Hot doughnuts. Quesadillas. Satay. All with in ten easy steps of where I stand, right now.
Food like this animates urban spaces. It provides new energy on more than just a nutritional level. This revolution is gently breathing life back into pockets of our cities otherwise reserved for the nine-to-five routine, utilising carparks after hours or derelict warehouses and making world food accessible to everyone. Shared amongst the like-minded looking for something different – it is a far cry from the beat-up kebab shops open until late, or the bland chicken chains that offer very little variety.
So I dare you. If you want a mini food adventure and some great conversation, then grab your friends and get outside this summer. Try one of these to get you started: