Street Food review: Netflix series is an excellent primer for gastronomy at grassroots level in South Asia

Prathap Nair

May 20, 2019 09:43:17 IST

From silly cooking reality shows to heavy duty documentaries and pathbreaking food shows to profiles of pioneers in gastronomy, Netflix’s shows have smoked out the best from around the world and teased our appetites for years now. Its new offering, Street Food, a nine-part series from the makers of the gorgeously produced Chef’s Table, adds another feather to the already well-embellished food show hat of the streaming service.

Street Food review: Netflix series is an excellent primer for gastronomy at grassroots level in South Asia

A still from Street Food. YouTube

The stars of the show are the often-unsung gatekeepers of street food in South Asia. They range at display is from a 100-year old woman who sells Gudeg (braised jackfruit) on the streets of Yogjakarta to a young woman who took over the reign of putu piring (steamed rice flour with a stuffing of palm sugar) business from her parents in Singapore. They are not necessarily behind the scenes, but often at the forefront of it, ladling steaming fish head soups onto bowls and crushing aloo tikki chaat with their plastic-glove-wrapped fingers, as the case may be.

Only consumers never bothered with the identities of these masters who shape the way food is eaten on the streets, withstanding what seems to be enormous personal struggles. The grueling lives of such masters and their unfailing passion to their craft are on display here. A recurring sentiment relayed by almost everyone from Osaka to New Delhi is the fact that how little they sleep. “I sleep only a few hours every day,” is a common refrain in each episode.

The vendor who makes a three-day-three-night goat stew in Chiyayi, Taiwan has to wear a gas mask. “Making stew is an act of love,” he says even though he hates the process that involves burying the stew underground in a wood-fire heated room with mud flooring. He complains his children are inhaling the smoke and dust and that their lungs, even before they are fully developed, are already damaged. Yet, he wants the culinary tradition to continue when he says. “I hope I’m not the last one to make it.”

These are the stories of gatekeepers of street food from the parts of the world where street food originated and is entrenched so firmly in food culture of the societies that it is simply a way of life, and not a curiosity. The show chronicles the vanguards of street food and portrays its deeply rooted connection to cultures, rather than simply as a food trend, an idea perpetuated (or appropriated) by food trucks in the West. 

As globalisation brings modern fast food trends from the far reaches of the globe, street vendors are forced to innovate in order to stay relevant and not be swept away by the competition. Baffle, made with leftover rice on a waffle maker, created by a street food vendor in Seoul’s street food market, is one such product. The fish head stew, made by a family’s stall in Chiyayi, Taiwan is another.

The show captures the nuances of existential origins of street food by shining light on how sustenance food turns into a street food phenomenon. For instance, the broken rice dish from Saigon – Cơm tấm – evolved as a way of using up the damaged rice grit from milling but is now a street food star staple. “We take what people don’t want and make it into something everyone loves,” says a commentator on that episode. The dish Tuslob Buwa from Cebu in Philippines, the bamboo wrapped rice parcels dipped in a bubbling sauce, uses pork brains, a part of the animal that does not get sold otherwise. This highlights the democratisation of food that even bridges the class divides. 

By turning its gaze so deeply into the lives of street food vendors and the produce they peddle, the show democratises the nature of food shows in a way no other food show has done in Netflix before.

On the flip side, the show gets tad self-indulgent and sentimental, straying off course in some episodes when personal histories of people overshadow their work, like in the cases of episodes of India and Singapore. What is lost in this misstep is the opportunity to present the vibrancy of street food in these episodes, featuring certain regions. This is hence disappointing because the contribution of countries like India and Singapore to street food is enormous and not just limited to chaats and chicken rice (the main features in these episodes). But that is only a minor gripe of a greedy food show consumer.

As a celebration of street food and on the lives of people who are at its forefront, the show provides glimpses on how food helps people forge identities. One other theme that runs across the series is how, many of these street food chefs are old and worried about the future of their business. This fear prompts one chicken rice vendor in Singapore to say, generously, “I share our recipe with my colleagues, so future generations can still savour the authentic flavour.”

In its nine-episode first season, the show may not be a comprehensive look into street food in Asia but it is an excellent primer for the street food tradition all the same.

Rating: ****

Updated Date: May 20, 2019 10:28:44 IST