Re-Thinking Street Food with Professor Krishnendu Ray

Grounding gastronomy, embracing micro-entrepreneurship and building liveable cities.

Grounding gastronomy, embracing micro-entrepreneurship and building liveable cities were all themes within Professor Krishnendu Ray of NYU’s ‘Re-Thinking Street Food’ at SOAS Food Studies Centre, London, a presentation which explored the concept of street food as a broadly attainable livelihood, and, as such, a mainstay of sustainable cities.

Starting with its origins, Professor Ray referenced street food as simple, affordable products, ingredients and dishes as sold from functional stalls, carts and bicycles at markets and on roadsides by migrants and immigrants - an entry-level enterprise available to all.

Now, this global and indiscriminate entrepreneurial opportunity creates, by default, lively cross-demographic scenes of multiculturalism, social interaction and bustling street life. Vibrant, down-to-earth ventures, permeating parks and open spaces with perches and places to linger, enjoyed by a healthy variety of city dwellers, talking, walking, cycling, passing through. A spontaneous energy the envy of people the world over.

And so we see this energy recreated in today’s Business Development Districts, found in many major cities, which boast a wealth of hip street food vendors in vintage trucks and the like - an exciting creative opportunity, inspired by the hard endeavour of ingenuity in poverty but fuelled by the fortunately-timed exponential rise in gastronomic experiences. So far so good.

But this is where it gets sticky.

The districts and vendors are promoted and popularised by the ever-more colourful dishes rampantly shared via social media. So much so, in fact, that dishes become created with this in mind, using imported, unusual ingredients, all the more to meet higher expectations for innovative, competitive dishes and eye-catching ‘insta-moments’. So the competition becomes fierce, with customers increasingly attuned to seeing the new and different each time. The products are then priced in parallel to indicate their high quality and uniqueness, but also to reflect the costs of meeting tight regulations and high fees; insurances, business licenses, vehicle licenses, health and safety certificates. And the risk of falling foul of regulations is high - in New York City, for example, park your truck too far one way and you’ll receive a $1000 fine.

But lower-income vendors don’t have the necessary means to make the upfront investment, or the contingency funds in reserve for risks, or the security to experiment with new flavours for internet fame. The barriers to entry become higher, only to be overcome by those with means already in place.

And so the opportunity becomes exclusive, confined to a very specific demographic and postcode, and the standard is set. As such, it means that these vendors and their offerings are accessible to only a few, and the original entrepreneurs are priced out of the game. Who now trusts the food from a street vendor anymore that doesn’t have a custom-converted Piaggio Ape, or Citroen HY? Who will buy a single choice of dish, when you can choose novelty and customisation, with added instagram capital? Yet it’s abundantly clear who would need the immediate income and support more. But they’re gone. And with them, the social dynamic we seek.

Why is this happening? The balance is off. Too much attention on the food, not enough on the people, to paraphrase a stand-out line from Professor Ray. Instead of food being a tasty common tool to build sustainable communities, it has become a focal point for the well-to-do, a shiny distraction from the needs of wider society.

‘Unlimited scaling up can destroy the nature of the thing’, said Professor Ray, and it’s true - rigorous attempts to recreate organic experiences do not tend to lead to more of the same as intended, but instead simply break the original. David Mitchell wrote similar about chain cafés and restaurants in The Guardian, in particular reference to the failing Pâtisserie Valerie: “Pâtisserie Valerie was a small good thing and now it’s bloated and broken, a dispiriting echo of the effect of too much cake,” Mitchell wrote. In other words, like in so many other examples, we play with things until we break them.

And so, as Professor Ray stated, authentic street food is on its way out, and it’s ironic that the truly authentic experience we want to recreate, inspired by the rich global cultures brought to us via immigrants, is now only found on the fringes, where police less frequent - not at the heart of our city life, where we intended it to be. And that, instead, we must be careful not to create total demand for a homogenised version, a sort of Disneyland effect, where the offering is without doubt colourful and delicious - the variety in itself a symbol of affluence in our gentrified world - but does not support the impoverished from whom we’ve taken inspiration (or safeguard the planet we share). They’re relegated to the benefits queue, instead.

But all honest entrepreneurial endeavours are valid in their own right, and each should be appreciated and celebrated for their own enterprising nature - so the main questions that linger in my mind following Professor Ray’s talk are these: How can we develop multi-level entrepreneurial opportunities that support multiple demographics, rather than removing them from one to give to the other? How can we level the playing field, so that people of all backgrounds and experiences can join in? And how can we scale up purposefully and responsibly, without pulling the ladder up behind us?

Because it’s only when the focus swings back from the food itself, to food as a tool for fixing social infrastructure, that we’ll design the living cities that sustain all walks of life.

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