There have been worse times to walk hungry through East London. If you roam through its lanes, where graffiti and Victorian brickwork meet plate glass and open yards, there will be a pop-up stall or street food market. The food served in these places is always the same – it’s based on working class street food from another culture, tarted up with something unexpected and local then sold under a clever name. For example, ‘Fleisch Mob’ will do you ‘rare breed pork schnitzel in light rye sourdough with our homemade plum compote.’ It’s food that engenders a cult following as people track their favourites on Facebook or Twitter to see where they’ll be trading that day. Throughout regenerated areas of the capital, the street food craze has firmly established itself as a serious competitor to old-school dining out. In an economic climate where restaurants are a luxury and we’re becoming time-poor, why not go for something new that was made in front of you and that you can eat outside somewhere? The calorie guilt doesn’t matter because you just supported a local small business, it cost you the same as lunch in Pret or McDonalds, and this way you got to experience food from a different culture.
No you didn’t. What starts out feeding Kansas City, Guadalajara or Hanoi is brought to the UK and fundamentally altered. A Thai market is an arcade of filth: stallholders wave rags on a stick to keep insects away, meat is left unrefrigerated on splintered blocks and everything from live songbirds to fish sauce is sold in clear plastic bags. Under a thick stench of diesel fumes and unknown foods in various stages of fermentation, traders who were up long before sunrise watch cats snatch breakfast from the writhing buckets of eels. Scraps of meat, often just fat and sinew are grilled, dredged in MSG and served on rice. The customers drink lurid sodas or iced instant coffee from a bag. This is far cheaper than cooking at home for them.
That won’t sell over here. But charcoal-grilled chicken satay will, and to the young middle classes who are jumping on the poverty-chic bandwagon as it gives out food that fuels the workers of an entire country. Juicy, smoky, sexy, Shoreditched versions of original dishes are all over the place and we know damn well that tomorrow they’ll be somewhere else. Purely and simply, they’re pop food: Western, heavily branded, a little bit edgy and suited to social media, light wallets and vibrant areas. It means we can go to Taipei for bubbletea, New York for pastrami and Laos for beer using nothing more than an Oyster card. The problem in popularizing these is that we forget the originals sustain entire countries in positions much worse than ours. Pop food is a fantastic movement, allowing us to eat things which restaurants would never do, support emerging small businesses and experience something genuinely different. But, however much London falls in love with it, the rest of the country has its own rich food culture to enjoy.
Some people will say thinking about the origins and consequences of your food is for the out of touch, and ask does it really matter? It can be said to. By using independents and forming groups or cooperatives to keep pubs open, improve food in local schools, providing a ‘meals on wheels’ service for the old or ill and so on, you help other people like you. So, next time you feel like seeing what pop food you could get in Brick Lane on Sunday, you could try making a difference closer to, instead of throwing the world into your mouth.