Why Southeast Asian Street Food Matters

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.

BY MICHELLE ZHU

If there was one thing that brought Southeast Asians together, it would be our common love for food – specifically, affordable and satisfying food that can be found on street corners everywhere in the region – street food. Despite the many differences in flavours, food is a uniting force for Southeast Asians overseas, and for good reason.

Southeast Asia’s food history is a complex one. Much of the cuisine in the region is based on rice, the primary staple for most of the region. Also common are a variety of fresh herbs and vegetables available across the region, and a variety of soy products: soy sauce as a key flavouring, with tofu coming from China more than a millennia ago and tempeh being developed in Java in the 15th century. Southeast Asian food has been described as a mix of hot, sour, salty and sweet, with the mainland countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) using more aromatic herbs such as coriander while the island countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Brunei) use more dried spices such as cumin and cinnamon.

Why Southeast Asian Street Food Matters

1. Food is a reflection of our history.

Cuisines often reflect the histories of the places they come from, and Southeast Asian food is no different. Historically, there have been three key trends that illustrate the historical interconnectedness of our region to other places in the world. The first is Sinicization of food – our northern neighbour, China, has had a large influence on food all over the region through the import of ingredients such as soy sauce and tofu, as well as noodles. Techniques such as stir-frying likely also originated from China. Similarly, Indianization of food is most evident through coconut-milk based curries popular in Burmese food.

The third, most recent wave of influences comes from European colonisation, with each European country leaving its mark on the food cultures of their colonised countries, and in many cases vice versa. For example, the distinctive bánh mì incorporates the French baguette and Vietnamese meats and vegetables, similar to the roti john in Malaysia and Singapore. Perhaps the most distinctive contribution that Europeans brought to Southeast Asia’s food culture was the chilli pepper from Central America, which replaced many local spices as a source of the “hot” taste.

Our food is a reflection of the cultures we’ve interacted with over the centuries, and different parts of Southeast Asia bear the hallmarks of the cultures that have had the strongest influence on them. It is worth noting, however, that the uniqueness of food in the region comes from the selective absorption of foods, flavours, and techniques from elsewhere. Whatever was adapted has been redefined as distinctively local.

2. Food, and street food in particular, is a part of our culture.

As previously explained, food reflects a shared history. Beyond history, meals are a crucial part of our lived cultural experiences: think, for example, of the comfort foods we crave when things aren’t going well in our lives – do they happen to correspond to the foods we had growing up? For immigrants living in countries other than the ones they grew up in, food from home is a often a crucial force for unity, accounting for the many ethnic restaurants that inevitably spring up wherever a critical mass of immigrants gather. Food is a means of connecting us to our heritage and identities, and should be treasured as such.

It is difficult to explain why street food holds the attraction that it does, yet the culture is a growing one today, and not just in Southeast Asia: the increasing prominence of food vans in Europe and the USA is testament to that. KF Seetoh, founder of the World Street Food Congress, believes that street food is not just a way of serving food but a cuisine in itself that can be professionalised. There has been increasing recognition for street food vendors in the past few years, particularly in Southeast Asia: Thailand’s Jay Fai and Singapore’s Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken have received Michelin stars, typically given to high-end restaurants. Yet street food’s origins are humble: arising from a need for affordable, filling, convenient and tasty food that comes from life in Southeast Asia’s crowded cities. The food we eat is often associated with memories of the contexts in which they are eaten, since food has the ability to activate multiple senses: smell, sight, and taste. A study conducted in 2007 found that two-thirds of families in Bangkok ate at least one meal a day of the street – given how important street food is to such a large part of the population in Southeast Asia, is it any wonder that it is such a cornerstone of our culture?

3. Street food is an important element of the economy.

By 1988, Malaysia’s 100,000 (a conservative estimate) street food stalls contributed US$2.2 billion to the economy. The convenience and low price of street food is a crucial link in the economy, attracting families and busy office workers alike for a quick and satisfying meal. Street food is often a family business, and employs a large population of people that find it difficult to get formal employment – especially women and those without educational qualifications. This informal economy employs 60% of the working population in Indonesia, and more than a quarter of these are food vendors.

Street food is also a crucial place for entrepreneurship, especially in developing areas where local regulations are less clear-cut. For women, selling street food can be a means of providing for their families while seeking economic independence – surveys have found that over 90% of street food enterprises in the Philippines involve women. Because of the small and informal nature of street stalls, little capital is required: essential when regulations mean that individuals can find it difficult to receive loans to start businesses. The economic potential of street food is huge, and governments in Southeast Asia should support and tap into these networks as a source of economic growth.

Of course, there are downsides associated with street food: chief amongst this is hygiene, as well as the possible exploitation that vendors in the informal economy face. But I would argue that the solution to this is not to try to remove the presence of street vendors from Southeast Asian cities, but to harness their enormous potential. Street food matters because it is part of our history, shapes communities, and creates jobs, and we should continue to embrace the unique street food culture in Southeast Asia.

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