My mouth watered the entire time as I watched the new Netflix series, Street Food, produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn, the same two directors behind the widely acclaimed Chef’s Table.
Stepping away from formalized cooking shows and competitions, the show gives viewers a taste of what the world actually eats and the rich culture behind street food. So far, episodes include looking at Thai, Japanese, Indian, South Korean and Vietnamese street food. As a mecca of street food, Asia offers various street foods unique to their cultures.
One episode takes us to Bangkok, Thailand. Chawadee Nualkhair, the author of Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, explains that street food is an essential aspect of life in Bangkok. As some of her favorite places in the country, busy locations with rows of street food vendors selling all different types of Thai food are where people come together in today’s disconnected world.
The episode specifically focuses on Jay Fai, a famous street food chef who puts a spin on normal Thai food such as drunken noodles and tom yum soup to make them into something much more. What chefs do on television and are glorified for, underrated street food vendors like Fai do every day. Not only does Fai make the best tom yum, but she also invented dry tom yum, tom yum soup without the actual broth. It’s a wonder how she keeps the aroma and flavor without the soup.
Another episode features Gwangjang Market in South Korea, where people go for the best and authentic Korean food. In a country where cities have coffee shops located on every corner, the market is a symbol for preserving Korea’s traditions and culture through food. Ranging from knife-cut noodles to kimchi dumplings, the market showcases the best, real Korean food. One chef who owns a stall in the market is Cho Yoonsun, who sells knife-cut noodles.
As a Korean who’s been to these kinds of markets, I always knew what these ahjummas (middle-aged women) who run these places were usually like to their customers: straightforward, yet sincere and caring. But looking at the scene from my laptop screen made me realize even more how different these markets are in comparison to expensive and fancy restaurants. Yoonsun offers her customers more noodles and urges them to eat, on the house. Daniel Gray, a food journalist and restaurateur, even says that “when you go there, you feel like you’re part of her family,” and that “her food tastes like home.” I’m in no way bashing fancy restaurants, but the unique ambience (and taste, of course) these markets and street vendors provide is like no other.
Many of these street food locations have been there for decades. Fai also started cooking at the very place her mother ran a food cart. Now a renowned chef in all of Bangkok, Fai could have easily opened up a restaurant, but she decided not to. A banchan (side dishes) store owner at Gwangjang Market has also been learning the trade, almost since her grandmother ran the place in 1952. She sells the same marinated side dishes that preserved food without a refrigerator, an uncommon good in Korea 60 years ago. Her marinated crabs look amazing and made me want to fly to Korea right away.
A look into these chefs’ lives and their family history provides more insight into the passion they put into the food they make. Eleven years ago, Yoonsun’s family was in severe debt due to her husband’s failing business. They were frequently chased by debt collectors and living in sheer fright. Needing to make money for her family, Yoonsun got a job at Gwangjang Market through her in-laws. She first started selling food to support her two children but later found her calling when she started selling what she enjoyed making: knife-cut noodles, just like the ones her mom made her when she was a kid.
However, things aren’t all friendly and family-like at these shops. When Yoonsun first ran her stall reluctantly, things started to take a turn for the worse when other shopkeepers couldn’t handle a new business coming into the market. They cursed at her, threw garbage in front of her shop and took more action in spite. Gray explains that this shopkeeper jealousy and competition are components of what drives food innovation. Many tweak existing food to another level to outcompete other shopkeepers. For example, the baffle is a baked mixture of Korean ingredients that is baked in a pan and vaguely resembles an English muffin.
The show dispels many misconceptions many may have of street food. It’s not just convenient, casual and widely accessible; It deserves recognition as real food made by qualified top chefs. Street food is its own unique cuisine that gets rated for solely its taste. Fai says, “No one comes to Jay’s Food for the ambience. They’re here for the taste. They come because the food is delicious.”