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‘Street Food: Asia,’ a masterful balance of all the right ingredients

<h5>Jay Fai, the star of Street Food: Asia’s Bangkok episode, cooks one of her famous crab omelets.</h5>
<h6>“Jay Fai, bangkok 20180406 cooking crab omelette on coal” by Sais.isa / <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Fai#/media/File:Jay_Fai,_bangkok_20180406.jpg" target="_self">CC BY-SA</a></h6>
Jay Fai, the star of Street Food: Asia’s Bangkok episode, cooks one of her famous crab omelets.
“Jay Fai, bangkok 20180406 cooking crab omelette on coal” by Sais.isa / CC BY-SA

It’s somewhat poetic that “Street Food,” a show dedicated to the unsung heroes behind an already looked-down-upon culinary tradition, is buried deep in Netflix’s labyrinthine collection of food programs. Just like street food in the real world, the show seems lost in the shadow of its glitzier, more high-brow big brother, “Chef’s Table” — Netflix’s first original documentary series which, over its six volumes and two spin-offs, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the cult of chef-celebrity in some of the world’s most buzzy eateries.

It’s also nothing short of a tragedy. The first season of "Street Food" presents some of the most tantalizing dishes Asia has to offer, from the traditional culinary capitals of Singapore and New Delhi to the less well-known cities of Cebu in the Philippines, and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. 

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Instead of zeroing in on restaurants with months-long reservation lists and tasting menus made up of obscene dishes at even more obscene prices — and reviewing them in stiff formats, as has long been the work of food critics and television alike — "Street Food" celebrates what one commentator on the show describes as “the portal of culinary heritage” that is the street-side meal. 

It makes sense that a show celebrating one of the most democratic, people-centric culinary movements places its creators at the heart of the show’s narrative. But for all the bright plates and dazzling lights of their stalls, the stories told are difficult to swallow. 

One of the most challenging to watch is the story of Cho Yonsoon, a chef in Seoul’s Gwangjang Market who specializes in knife-cut noodles and pork dumplings. When her husband spent the family’s life savings to prop up his failing business, debt collectors began to harass the former stay-at-home mother at all hours of the night, and she ended up on the verge of losing her home. After managing to find a job selling blood sausage, she was subjected to “the jealousy of shopkeepers” (one of three Korean forms of jealousy, she explains), with trash dumped by her stall and profanities thrown at her by other vendors worried about the new competition. 

Inches away from quitting selling sausage — something that brought in customers, but of which she couldn’t stand the smell — she decided that the best way to help her family was to cook something she loved: knife-cut noodles, just how her mother cooked them when she was young. After experimenting with different herbs and garnishes, to the consternation and ridicule of her competitors in the market, she found a winning combination that kept her stall busy and customers happy — and paid off the debts her husband owed. 

The culinary heroes of “Street Food” all have their own trauma to bear — there are stories of addiction, bereavement, dices with death in freak accidents, and more. And the show makes no bones about showing the challenges of early starts to head to the market for fresh ingredients and late nights selling to the after-work crowd. 

Despite the struggles that they each face, each episode feels optimistic and uplifting, simply because of the passion for their craft that each of these vendors embodies. Cho, for example, effuses over her “love of flour” that brought her to making her world-famous knife-cut noodles, while Bangkok’s Michelin-starred Crab Omelette Queen, 75-year-old Jay Fai, tells of her wish to keep making food for as long as she can muster the strength. 

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It’s a fine line that the producers of the show walk between sentimental story arcs and being upfront about the very real socio-economic difficulties its stars face. But like the recipes it showcases, it achieves a masterful balance of all the right ingredients.

The show also does an excellent job of situating each of the vendors’ individual stories in their wider cultural contexts through archival footage and interviews with experts and critics. In the New Delhi episode, for example, cultural historian Rana Safvi charts the bloody impact of colonial India’s 1947 partition into the two nations of India and Pakistan, and of how Hindu refugees from Punjab resettled in New Delhi. In doing so, they brought with them Punjab dishes like “chole bhature,” a chickpea curry served with fried bread that Safvi says has since “become very, very Delhi food.” 

She, alongside many of the other commentators who serve as extra layers of depth for the show, speaks of governmental efforts to over-regulate the street food market by closing stalls or of the threatened nature of these vendors’ dishes, battling with chain foods from all over the world for the attention of a younger, globalized clientele. 

Their worries of street food as a disappearing art are not altogether unfounded, considering that a good number of the featured vendors stress that they don’t want their own children to follow in their path of taking over the family’s food stall. One of Cho’s children, who works as a chef at the Four Seasons in Seoul, admits that he thought about working at his mother’s knife-cut noodle stand in the market, but he realized he wouldn’t be able to handle how harsh working in the market would have been for him. 

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And what an art form we would lose if street food did disappear; every single one of the dishes is stunningly presented on the show, leaving you famished by the end of each half-hour episode. Yogyakarta’s “jajan pasar,” a motley crew of Indonesian market snacks like mini rice cakes and pastries, pop out of the screen like a rainbow smörgåsbord of fried, baked, and steamed treats while descriptions of “tom yum” soup left me salivating over my laptop, desperate to escape Mercer County and book the next flight I could out of here.

Netflix’s selection of wonderful cooking shows is a crowded marketplace, but of those served up in recent years, “Street Food: Asia” stands out. Much like its source material, it is a show that does not attempt to hide under layers of pretense, and it offers real stories of food as both a thing of beauty and a thing of survival. All the same, however, its tales of triumph through adversity are as soul-nourishing as a steaming bowl of Taiwanese goat stew. After all, as “Street Food” reminds us, the look and taste of a dish are only half the story.

Street Food: Asia is available to stream on Netflix.

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