Van-tastic! Why street food is this year’s hottest trend
Richard Johnson has been travelling round Britain, meeting the people turning street food into a gourmet experience – and asking them their favourite recipes
Sunday 19 June 2011
In my time as a food writer and broadcaster I've travelled the world. And some of the best food I've eaten has been on the streets – whether that was in Bethlehem, with its hole-in-the-wall falafel shacks, or the streets of Mandalay, with bowls of fishy noodles still salty from the sea. Coming back to Britain, though, was always disappointing. It was a bag of chips, a Mr Whippy, or a sausage from a rusty handcart.
But that's all changing. Last year, to reward the good and punish the bad, I set up the British Street Food Awards. At the finals, in Ludlow, the judges were amazed by what they saw: a new generation of street-food heroes – men and women who wanted to be part of the food revolution that's happening in this country, but didn't necessarily have the capital they needed to open a restaurant.
Street food, in many ways, is better than restaurant food. For a start, it's cheap and fresh – rather than left standing on a hot plate till a sniffy waiter deigns to pick it up– but it's also all about offering the kind of food we want to eat, not some received notion of "good food". And its sellers buy local and seasonal as a matter of course because that's what's cheapest – margins are so tight that there's often no choice.
We have a noble tradition of street food in Britain – as far back as the 12th century shopkeepers sold hot sheep's feet. By the 18th century they were hawking pies and pasties, and by the 19th it was warm eels, pickled whelks, oysters, fried fish and hot peas, with a slice of rhubarb tart for dessert. By the end of the Victorian era, however, eating in public was considered suitable only for the working classes. It took the farmers' market movement to make it acceptable (and acceptably middle class) again to eat a sausage in a bun – if the sausage was rare-breed and the bun sourdough.
Gordon Ramsay claimed we had a long way to go before we became a great culinary nation, because food wasn't enjoyed from "the bottom up" – well, street food is making that happen by reclaiming our public spaces. And it is showing us that good food doesn't need to be eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a menu no one understands.
This is an edited extract of 'Street Food Revolution' by Richard Johnson, published by Kyle Cathie, priced £14.99. This year's British Street Food Awards take place at Harvest at Jimmy's festival, 9-12 September ( britishstreetfood.co.uk)
The Meatwagon, south London
When Yianni Papoutsis first set up The Meatwagon – which serves the best burgers in Britain – he used to wear chef's whites. Then he went to the Burning Man festival – a celebration of self-expression in the American desert – and "found himself". "All of a sudden it felt like I was doing it under false pretences," he says. So Papoutsis took the whole thing back to basics. "It's not trying to pretend to be a three-star dining experience," he says. "We make burgers – we just happen to make them very well indeed."
Running The Meatwagon at pubs, parties and festivals is a full-on life. But Papoutsis is used to hard graft: as a technician for touring ballet companies, he was always the "go-to guy". While pondering a career change ("I liked dragging bits of steel around, but everything was being computerised"), he went away to America. Over the course of the trip, he fell in love with the country's street food – from lobster-roll vans in Maine to Mexican food trucks in LA.
He returned to the UK with an idea. "I thought, 'I don't have the necessary experience to open a restaurant, so I'll buy a trailer instead.'" And a cast-iron griddle. "I had to go to America to find one heavy enough to get that lovely caramelised crust on the meat. It was 40 years old." But it was worth it. After The Meatwagon opened in 2009, people were soon making the pilgrimage from all over Britain.
The original van was stolen last year. But Papoutsis turned misfortune into opportunity: to raise money for its replacement, he set up a pop-up burger joint, The Meateasy, above a pub in New Cross. For three months, it was the talk of the capital. And, as well as the glowing reviews, he now has a new vehicle, in the striking shape of a converted US ambulance, for his troubles.
Papoutsis knows a burger isn't a trend, it's a classic. So he doesn't monkey about with it. But he's put a lot of research into creating the perfect burger. There are no offcuts, just whole joints of chuck steak, minced into a patty. The patty is 5 per cent less fatty than a standard burger. If it were the standard 20 per cent fat, there would be lumps of hard fat inside which, because it's cooked quickly and served pink, wouldn't have reached a high enough temperature to melt.
Papoutsis had a taste for processed American burger buns – but couldn't get them here. So he decided to work with a bakery that has been in business since the 17th century to make his own.
Food purists still frown on the fact that his cheese is processed. But, he counters, "Cheddar, if you heat it, will separate – oil on top, melted cheese solids underneath. American cheese is so homogenised that it can take extremes of temperature without splitting. I wouldn't have it in a sandwich, but on burgers, it's perfect."
The Meatwagon ( themeatwagon.co.uk) is often to be found at The Rye in Peckham, London SE15, but will be at festivals including Glastonbury this summer
Serves 1 drunken guest
A fistful of freshly minced chuck steak
Generous amounts of salt and pepper
1cm-thick slice of a large white onion
1 burger bun
2 American-style processed cheese slices
Heinz tomato ketchup
A few slices of dill pickle (not the sweet ones)
Lots of cold beer
Light your charcoal. It's hot work, so grab yourself a beer to cool down.
The coals will need to burn down to cooking temperature and this will take a while. Use this opportunity to enjoy a couple more icy beers.
When the coals are coated with a white ash (they will glow red in the dark) and all the flames have died down, you're ready to cook. And quite likely drunk.
Pull out a wad of minced chuck steak and form it into a ball in your hands. It should fill both hands when you cup them together. Squash this down on to a sheet of greaseproof paper so that it forms a burger-sized disc. It does not need to be a perfect circle.
Put it on the barbecue grill and season the top side with a healthy dose of salt and pepper. Wash your hands after handling the meat: you don't want to get your beer bottle dirty. Put the thick slice of onion on the barbecue, too.
Cut the bun in half and toast the cut sides over the barbecue. This will take only a few seconds.
When the bottom of the burger has formed a good brown crust, it will easily lift off the barbecue without sticking. Flip it and cook the other side. It won't take nearly as long. Flip the onion while you're at it. Lay a couple of slices of cheese over the burger while it's on the barbecue.
Layer the bottom of your bun with a squirt each of Heinz ketchup and French's mustard. Stick a couple of slices of dill pickle on there too.
Lay the burger on your bun base and slap the cooked onion on top. The melted cheese will hold it in place. Put the bun lid on top and serve immediately with the rest of the beer.
Bánh Mì 11, east London
The street food in Vietnam is the best in the world. Whether it's from the woman who carries her soup kitchen in a don ganh (a yoke, with baskets at each end of a wooden pole) or the man who pushes a bicycle cart and rings a little bell to announce the arrival of his fish stew, you won't be disappointed.
But the people of Vietnam are most proud of their bánh mì – crusty baguettes filled with pork, home-made mayonnaise and a heavenly pâté, layered with crisp pickles and fresh herbs – sold on every street corner at every hour, as long as the baguettes are still warm.
In the days of colonialism, the French would go to the deli for their filled baguettes. But when the French left Vietnam, the "French sandwiches" (bánh mì Tay) went native. Because wheat had to be imported, the Vietnamese made their baguettes with half rice flour. They replaced the duck-liver pâté with a pig-and-chicken-liver pâté, the butter with a mayonnaise made from egg yolks and oil, and cornichons with a radish and carrot pickle. What started off as a pale imitation ended up as a huge improvement on the original.
Bánh Mì 11 began as a culinary venture of Anh and Van, two school friends from Hanoi who couldn't satisfy their cravings for bánh mì in London. But now it's bigger than that – three generations are working together to bring bánh mì to the people. Anh and Van came up with the name because, in their mind, the perfect bánh mì is 11 bites big.
"It's not a simple food," says Van. "It's complex. And it's not just pulled off the shelf. It's cooked right in front of you."
"It's all cooked to order," adds Anh, "and the barbecued pork is so aromatic that you can follow the smell right up to the stall."
Then there's the baguette. The bread has to be light so it doesn't overpower what's inside. Which means that it has to be proved that little bit longer. In the heat of Hanoi, that's not hard. In London? It's just that little bit harder. And freshness is all. For a baguette, one hour is considered old. Three hours, it's dead. When Anh and Van found a baker who could make them fresh, warm baguettes with a thin, golden crust, and a soft, pillowy texture, they were ready. Bánh Mì 11 was born.
They made everything from scratch – even the hot chilli sauce, which is the flourish on top of a classic bánh mì. They roasted and shredded the pork themselves. They even pickled their own daikon, in brine, and squeezed it dry – five times. Then they set up shop in east London's Broadway Market. In the beginning, they put up the Bánh Mì 11 sign by climbing on to a bike seat. They "borrowed" electricity from the laundrette next door. And they carried water from the cellar of the grocer to make their coffee. But it was worth it. The queues just get longer and longer.
Bánh Mì 11 ( banhmi11.com) is at London's Broadway Market, E8, from 10am to 5pm, and then Shoreditch's late-night Red Market from 7pm to 3am, every Saturday
Imperial BBQ Pork Bánh Mì
4 tbsp granulated white sugar
100ml/3 fl oz hot water
600g/1¼lb pork shoulder, thinly sliced
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 spring onions, finely chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, minced (optional)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp pepper
Fresh French baguette
Pâté de campagne
Half a cucumber, sliced into thin slivers
A few sprigs of coriander
Chopped hot chilli, to taste
Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan and ensure there's no water residue in it before you pour in the sugar. Stir the sugar in a circular motion using a wooden spoon. When the sugar has turned light brown, carefully pour in the hot water and cook on the stove for just 20 seconds. The key is to be swift here and err on the lightly brown side, as the sugar burns quickly and could build up enough smoke in minutes to set off your fire alarm.
In a bowl, combine the pork, shallots, spring onions, lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, salt and pepper; finally, pour in the caramel sauce. Mix well and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes to marinate.
When you are almost ready to cook, thread the pork on bamboo skewers and put on the barbecue, ideally a charcoal one to give the meat a smoky aroma.
Lightly toast the baguette on the barbecue and then halve lengthways and spread the lower half with a thin layer of mayonnaise and pâté. Remove the grilled pork from the bamboo skewers on to the baguettes and add cucumber, coriander and some fresh chilli (if you dare).
Cover with the top baguette half and you are ready to enjoy your bánh mì.
The Fish Hut, Southwold, Suffolk
Southwold is an old-fashioned seaside town with elegant, Victorian shop-fronts. It's ridiculously picturesque. Which is why the DfLs (or Down from Londons) have moved in. And why, during the week, Southwold is so quiet. But there is life in Southwold. You just have to know where to look. Blackshore, for instance – the busy, working wharf on an unmade track that runs between Southwold and Walberswick. The dock was built in 1783, when it was home to Suffolk's white-herring fleet. It's more genteel now. But at the end of the track is a little fish-and-chip van called The Fish Hut. And there's nothing genteel about The Fish Hut.
The beach-hut-style van is bold, brassy and comes with its own (wooden) seagulls and sandpit. The owner, Nick Attfield, has even installed a fish tank. With plastic fish. "It's at kid height," he says, "so they can point, and go, 'I want that one.' The area around Southwold is famous for seagulls swooping down and eating your fish and chips as you sit on the beach. Ours are on sticks. Much safer. People like our seaside tat."
The Fish Hut is Attfield's business card. It's there to advertise his next-door pub, The Harbour Inn. Because it's not the mainstay of his business, he can be choosy about where he takes The Fish Hut. "I'm not going to drive to Scotland to do a christening, for instance." He will travel, however, for A-list parties. Attfield catered The Independent's restaurant critic Tracey MacLeod's 50th birthday, in fact, as well as Piers Morgan's wedding. "There was a stunning marquee with a lady making sushi, and a whole lamb and pig on a rotisserie. Then there was my silly little Fish Hut. But they loved it."
Given its location, it makes sense that The Fish Hut specialises in fish and chips. But which fish? Despite scares about overfishing, Attfield is happiest using cod. "I use the local dayboats, which work within very strict quotas. If they are catching cod through long lining, I think it's perfectly all right for me to use it." And the clean white curds of fish work perfectly with Attfield's mushy peas.
"I have tried other fish," he says, "pollock, coley and whiting, for instance. They're all right on day one or two. But they deteriorate very quickly. And I won't use anything from the trawlers that come down from Lowestoft, or up from Essex. I want to support the guys in Blackshore as best I can. I grew up round here."
He now has a taste for working on the street, and has set his heart on a wood-fired pizza oven – bolted on to a Vespa Ape. The three-wheeler won't be able to move once it's weighed down with the oven, but Attfield has thought of that: he'll put it on a low-loader. He already has the oven. "Now we just need the Ape. But because we're going to chop it up [to fit on the oven], it would make sense to find one that's been in an accident..."
When not outside the pub, The Fish Hut will be travelling to the Heveningham Hall Country Fair (10 July), Harvest at Jimmy's (9-12 September) and the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival (24-25 September)
Perfect Fish & Chips
1.2 litres/2 pints of lager
500g/1lb plain flour
1 tsp Bird's custard powder
12 potatoes (not new potatoes), cut into chips of equal thickness
Sea salt and pepper
Oil, for deep-frying (anything but olive oil)
6 x 150g/5oz cod or haddock fillets
For the mushy peas:
1kg/2lb bag of frozen peas
300ml/ pint double cream
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 vegetable stock cubes
1 large bunch of mint leaves, stalks removed
To make the batter, pour the lager into a bowl and slowly whisk in the flour until you can draw a figure of 8 in the mixture with the top of the 8 disappearing by the time you have reached the top again. Whisk in the custard powder, and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
For the chips, blanch them in water, which reduces the saturated fat and makes them fluffier in the middle. Have a bucket of iced water ready and a pan of sea-salted water, which has been brought to the boil. Cook your chips, two handfuls at a time, in the pan of water until they are just cooked and immediately scoop them out with a slotted spoon into the iced water. Drain your potatoes in a colander until the water has gone (never put them into a fryer immediately after boiling them). Heat your fryer to 180C and cook the chips until crisp and golden. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper. Keep them warm while you fry the fish.
Pat the fish fillets dry with kitchen paper, then dip into the batter. Carefully lower into the deep-fat fryer, one or two at a time, and fry for 3-4 minutes, until golden-brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
For the mushy peas, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Add the peas, cook for 3 minutes, and refresh immediately in cold or iced water. Meanwhile, put the cream, garlic and stock cubes in a pan, bring to a simmer and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.
Drain the peas and place in a food processor with the cream mixture and mint. Blitz until it resembles a coarse paste. Season to taste and serve with the fish and chips.
Choc Star, central London
Petra Barran's business is flourishing. Her Choc Star brownies are on sale in delicatessens in and around London – but she doesn't want to expand. "I don't want to be in the kitchen – I want to be on the road." That's where she can sell her chocolate loveliness from the window of a converted ice-cream truck, be that frozen (as ice-cream), baked (brownies, cupcakes and flourless sponge), warmed (real hot chocolate) or iced (milkshake).
Barran grew up around food: her father was a herbalist, with a rambling farmhouse in Tuscany. Her family reared pigs, made olive oil and drank rough red wine. Dinner was more likely to be tripe than truffles, and there always seemed to be a calf's head boiling in the cauldron.
The family moved to Africa, then to England. The only thing expected of Barran was that she would travel and, indeed, she became a stewardess on Mediterranean superyachts. In the Italian port of Ancona, though, she had an epiphany. "I was 27, and I thought, 'I can't be 30 and still sleeping in a bunk bed. I've got to get off boats.' I needed a sign, so I switched on the telly. It was a Catholic church service. I thought, 'OK – it's got to be something I really have faith in. The next channel will be a sign.' It was The Food Channel." She returned to England and got a job working for the Black Farmer, selling his high-end sausages, but soon thought again. And, this time, she thought chocolate.
In Paris, she discovered Christian Constant's five varieties of hot chocolate. In Barcelona, she found Cacao Sampaka, the avant-garde shop owned by Ferran Adria's brother, Albert. "By comparison, chocolate in Britain seemed a bit non-contemporary, a bit twee. So I decided to try to change people's perceptions."
While Barran looked for a vehicle, she trained at Kensington chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. She loved Marcolini but found the staff in other high-end chocolate shops stand-offish. "Their glass cabinets were a barrier. It made me realise that my van idea was right. If you inhabit the space everyone inhabits – the street, the park – it will make your idea accessible."
So she bought the L-reg van for £3,000 on eBay. She called it Jimmy and had it sprayed by the international graffiti don Insa, then wallpapered and fairy-lit. "Inside, it never changes. But outside it's a conveyor belt of people from all walks of life, from American yummy mummies in Chelsea to kids in Middlesbrough. Nine out of 10 people smile when you say 'chocolate'. It's universally loved."
It was Barran's idea to form a mobilers' union: Eat Street is a collective that gives traders bargaining power with event organisers. But it's more about a spirit of togetherness. "Even those who seem a bit grumpy at first are soon lending you their leads/mallets/drills/milk. It's hard work, but it's a wonderful life."
Choc Star ( chocstar.co.uk) is at the Real Food Market on London's South Bank most weekends, and will also be at festivals including Port Eliot (21-24 July) and Alex James's Harvest (9-12 September)
Ultra Fudge Brownies
375g/12oz dark chocolate (70 per cent)
250g/8oz salted butter
2 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
1 tbsp cocoa powder
500g/1lb caster sugar
6 large free-range eggs
110g/3 oz self-raising flour
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Line a 24cm x 30cm baking tin or roasting dish with baking parchment. Melt the chocolate with the butter in a heatproof bowl positioned over a pan of simmering water. When it's a good way to being melted, add the espresso powder and cocoa powder and stir until smooth.
Meanwhile, mix the sugar with the eggs in a large bowl. Give it a nice beating, preferably by hand. Add the melted chocolate mixture and give another good stir, then sift in the flour.
Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for around 35-40 minutes, until done – not too firm, not too liquid. Set aside to cool. These are amazing eaten warm, but brownies can taste better, and more intense, a day or so after baking.
Porridge is as Scottish as it gets. But at the Stoats porridge trailer, they don't bang on about it. "We thought about naming our flavours after the clans," says the trailer's owner, Tony Stone. "But we decided against it. Our key message is, 'We're quirky and cool,' not 'We're from Scotland and we've got kilts on.'"
Oats grow well in these parts: they have a greater tolerance of rain than wheat, rye or barley. They are a superfood that lowers the cholesterol and reduces blood pressure. Their complex carbs help balance blood-sugar levels and leave you feeling full up for longer. But let's be honest, porridge has a PR problem. It's not quirky or fashionable. Never has been. But Stone is giving it a go.
He serves his porridge with thick, fruity jam from the Borders. Or honey and Balvenie whisky. The bestseller is his porridge topped with tablet – a sweet Scottish fudge. Even the Stoats "classic" comes in three varieties: one with brown sugar and cream, one with milk, and one with water and salt. The latter is not a big seller in Edinburgh. "But in Glasgow, it's 20 per cent of turnover and in Inverness, it's 30 per cent. The further north you get, the more extreme the porridge. It's like, 'We're proper Scots – we're hard.'''
Stone came up with the idea for Stoats while a hotel operations manager in Wales. "I was reading the papers one day and saw the headlines: '10 Reasons to Eat Porridge', 'Madonna Eats Porridge' and 'Porridge Sales Up 81 Per Cent'. It's not that I wanted to bring porridge to the people – I just saw a gap in the market."
He and Bob, a friend from school, first conceived Stoats as a chain of porridge bars, where cool people would go for a bowl of something warming. "But I only had a bit of money from a property sale in Wales, and a £4,000 loan from the Prince's Trust," says Stone. "So we had to scale the idea back a bit."
The pair decided to buy a trailer and went looking for something unusual – and found it on a mobile-catering website. It was the sort of hot-dog trailer you would expect to see parked at a baseball game in the US in the 1970s. Only Stone had no idea how to tow a trailer: for the first month of business, it took him half an hour to reverse it into the lock-up. But that hasn't harmed the business: "We've gone from £60,000 to £600,000 turnover in five years."
Stone won't stop trading at festivals and farmers' markets, but he's always wanted to create a year-round business. Festivals, after all, have only a three- or four-month season and it's not worth keeping on staff to work a few farmers' markets over the winter. So he decided to create a range of cereals, cookies and oatcakes. "All I know for sure is that I don't want to be driving for four hours to sell porridge at a music festival when I'm 50," he says. "If I'm being brutally honest, I want to get rich and retire."
Stoats (stoatsporridgebars.co.uk) is at Edinburgh Farmers' Market on Saturdays and at a range of festivals this summer, including T in the Park, V and Womad
Stoats cranachan porridge
Serves as many as you like
Stoats porridge oat blend (50g per person)
Demerara sugar (20g/¾oz per person)
Water (200ml/7fl oz per person)
Semi-skimmed milk (50ml/2fl oz per person)
Clear runny honey (2-3 tsp per person)
Fresh raspberries (50g/2oz per person)
Raspberry coulis (whole raspberries blitzed in a food processor)
A dollop of single cream
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Prepare the sweet, toasted oats: scatter a thin layer of oats on a baking tray and sprinkle with the sugar. Place in middle of the oven for 15 minutes, folding the oats and sugar together regularly until they have turned golden-brown. Allow to cool.
For the porridge, pour the water and milk into a non-stick saucepan and add a small pinch of sea salt. Sprinkle in most of the toasted oats (save some for decoration) and heat over a medium temperature. Bring to a boil, allowing the thickening porridge to bubble gently. Keep stirring, and simmer on a low heat for 5-10 minutes.
Once the liquid has been absorbed, remove from the heat and place a lid on top. Leave for a few minutes. Remove the lid from the porridge and lightly mix in a squeeze of honey, fresh raspberries, raspberry coulis and single cream to give a marbled effect. Scoop the porridge into bowls. To finish, sprinkle the reserved toasted oats over the porridge and top with a raspberry in the centre.
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