The right context, I have always argued, is an important element to any eating experience. So it would stand to reason that the best place to eat Malaysian street food is on a Malaysian street, and the best food to eat during a cold British winter are the old British classics… right? As I discovered through the Malaysia Kitchen Street Food tour, something close to the inverse may be true.
I love British food and the UK food scene in general, but I must say street food is something I’ve sorely missed since I moved here three years ago. Ever since my college days in Los Angeles, I’ve lived off street food. Back then it was tacos, burritos, and quesadillas sold out of trucks, on perfectly breezy nights both sober and less so. The issue of which taco truck was the best on the boulevard was debated with passion and jingoistic loyalty. We loved our trucks, so much so that we thought nothing of waiting nearly an hour to get our food and didn’t mind that snarky Beverly Hills types ignorantly referred to them as “roach coaches.”
When I moved to Japan, I lived in Fukuoka, which is on the island of Kyushu, Japan’s dirty south. Aside from murderous late summer humidity and the occasional typhoon, the weather on Kyushu is warmer and more conducive to outdoor eating than other parts of the country, and so I took many of my evening meals at yatai, the red-lanterned street stalls that lit up the backstreets and banksides of Fukuoka city. Hearty pork ramen and gyoza dumplings, or simply grilled meat on a stick were the perfect pick-me-ups before or after a big night out.
And of course, all my travels around east Asia were fuelled by street food. In South Korea, it was spicy rice cakes, blood sausage, and waffles; in Hong Kong, stinky tofu and tea-stained eggs; in Taiwan, beef noodles and dumplings; and in Burma, there was grilled squid, fried chicken, and samosas. If memory serves me correctly, on my first trip to Thailand I don’t think I had a single meal within four walls; everything I ate came from a stall, a cart, a truck, a bicycle, or just a basket balanced on someone’s head. And I ate well – very, very well. The only reason I deviated from the street food path on my second trip to Thailand was because I was a travel agent, and I was forced to evaluate hotel restaurants. Dreadfully boring, that.
In 6 years of travelling and eating, I’d developed a love and appreciation for the food of the street, so I was dismayed to discover that such a culture doesn’t really exist here in Britain. The basic units for casual, inexpensive eating in Britain are the pub, the cafe, and the home – all of which I love, but they don’t replace the experience of a hot meal enjoyed in the air of a cool night. But then that’s just the problem – British nights (and days) aren’t really cool, they’re downright cold, even in the summertime. Couple the weather issue with a beloved pub culture that dates back for centuries, and it’s not surprising that street food never really took off here.
That is, until now.
The recession, while in many ways tragic and dispiriting, has had in my opinion a positive impact on the way people dine out in the UK. Increasingly, people want value for money, so we’ve seen a thrilling boom of eateries that are unique and delicious, but still affordable, with the creativity and skill of fine dining applied to casual scenarios. In 2011 counter service trumped table service as the country devoured exciting and exotic food at prices that make eating out a day-to-day activity. And at the center of this activity was an exaltation of street food.
But what of the weather? The British have always been admirably defiant in the face of terrible weather, almost going so far as to celebrate it. And while a cold and damp climate may not seem suitable for dining out doors, there may be no better context for enjoying something hot, spicy, and aromatic. Malaysian food fits the bill perfectly – when we took to the streets with the Malaysia Kitchen Street Food Tour truck in late November, it was a joy to see how our nasi goreng, chicken satay, and char kway teow brought visible warmth to the cheeks of all who tried them.
London, Nottingham, and Manchester are a world away from Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, and Sandakan, but that may be precisely why our Malaysian street food went down such a treat. Who couldn’t use a little exotic escapism during these bitter winter months? With its lively aromats, sweet sauces, and fiery chillies, Malaysian cooking can transport you, if only for an instant, to a more equatorial state of mind. Yes, we had the occasional confused shopper trying to order burgers. But after one bite of our food, their faces lit up – the thought of burgers vanished, and all they wanted was more Malaysian food.
Luckily, you don’t have to wait for the Malaysia Kitchen truck to roll into your town to get your spicy street food fix, because these days there are more Malaysian restaurants in the UK than you may realize. To find the Malaysian restaurant nearest to you, visit the Restaurant Finder at MalaysiaKitchen.co.uk. And if there isn’t a restaurant nearby, don’t forget that Malaysian food is easy to cook at home, and the right ingredients are readily available on the internet!