American chef Anthony Bourdain (above) spoke about the importance of street food to culture. — PHOTOS: JASON QUAH

Singapore is not the only country that is worried about the continuity of its street food cuisine and culture. It is a worry that also plagues countries such as China, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The issue was raised several times by street food advocates who spoke at the World Street Food Congress’ two-day dialogue session, which ended yesterday.

Almost 30 speakers, which included hawkers, chefs, TV celebrities, food writers and street food advocates, spoke at a dialogue on topics such as the changing face of street food in various parts of the world.

Speakers included American TV host Anthony Bourdain; Mr James Oseland, editor-in-chief of food magazine Saveur; Mr Johnny Chan, a TV celebrity and street food advocate from China; Indonesian culinary ambassador William Wongso; and Mr Arbind Singh, founder of the National Association of Street Food Vendors of India.

Indonesian culinary ambassador William Wongso (above left, with local food guru K.F. Seetoh) showed how to make asinan, an Indonesian pickled salad. — PHOTOS: JASON QUAH

The dialogue aimed to address the preservation, professionalisation and possibilities for street vendors and their craft.

Like Singapore, countries including China and Vietnam are concerned about who will form the next generation of hawkers or street food vendors.

Vendors are chased off the streets to make way for urbanisation or are forced to shut down by police. And often, their recipes disappear with them.

Mr Chan, 66, said: “The rate at which China is growing and urbanising is very fast. And this is a serious threat to street food because vendors are forced off the streets to make way for the construction of new buildings.”

He is fortunate, however, that in his hometown of Shantou in southern China, the oyster omelette stall of his childhood is still around today and run by the same woman, now in her 80s.

But he told Life! that he fears it will soon disappear if the new generation has “different thoughts” on what street food ought to be, especially with the younger generation’s hunger for fast food.

In Vietnam, Mr Vo Quoc, 34, a chef and publisher of food magazines, said that every year, 10 to 15 traditional Vietnamese foods that have existed for generations disappear from streets when police clamp down on itinerant street vendors.

He has travelled from Hanoi to Da Nang, and has asked street vendors for their family’s heritage recipes. In some cases, he has to buy them. So far, he has collected more than 1,000 recipes, which he hopes to compile into a book.

The dialogue was just one component of the World Street Food Congress, a food event that celebrates street food and its culture. Organised by street food guide Makansutra and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board, the event also includes a food Jamboree with food stalls from around the world, live music and food demonstrations. On offer are more than 40 dishes from 10 countries including Vietnam, the United States and Mexico. It ends on Sunday.

Other issues raised over the last two days included the physicality of street food – whether street food, once moved off the street into regulated, more sanitary spaces such as food courts, still remains “street food” – how the mindset and the negativity in which people view street vendors should change, and how changing tastebuds will affect the future of street cuisine.

In Singapore, Mr Richard Tan, the National Environment Agency’s director of its hawker centres division, said the agency faces challenges such as how to meet the expectations of a new generation while trying to preserve traditional foods.

He said: “It becomes a question of finding a right balance between keeping tradition, making opportunities available for traditional food to actually continue, and allowing new taste buds to actually flourish and enjoy new types of food.”

The dialogue also included two food demonstrations – Mr Wongso’s asinan, an Indonesian pickled salad, and chef Bryant Ng of The Spice Table in Los Angeles’ Vietnamese dish of fried cauliflower with fish sauce.

Mr Bourdain, who spoke on Monday, addressed the culture of street food and why it matters. His talk, peppered with anecdotes from his travels, drew loud bouts of laughter from the audience.

Asinan (above), an Indonesian pickled salad.

He said: “Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race. It is the way forward, not just as far as health, or economics, as a means of empowering people, but also culturally.”

He also addressed the question of who will form the next generation of street food vendors. “The answer is quite simple – new generations of innovative young chefs, people for whom street food is a real opportunity to establish an identity, a business, a presence as a brand.”

On Sunday at a press conference, he spoke of two groups of hawkers that will be the hawkers of tomorrow: the “hipster hawker”, who will innovate and offer his interpretation of street food, and the old-school “retro hawker”, who will stick to traditional fare.

He added that for people with limited options or means, street food is a way in – a way to join an entrepreneurial class. Indeed, in Singapore, opening a hawker stall has been a relatively inexpensive way for young people to set up shop and test their food and concept in a competitive environment.

Those who attended the dialogue included journalists from around the world, culinary students, hawkers, food and beverage professionals and people keen to hear more about issues related to street food.

Some, such as Mr David Koh, 33, a bartender at Bar Stories, a cocktail bar in Haji Lane, were “half-expecting” possible solutions to issues such as the preservation of street cuisine.

He said: “You kind of expect answers, but no one has a clue, no one has really thought about the future of street food and what can be done. A lot of questions surfaced but there were no answers. There has to be some tangibility moving forward.”

Others, such as third-generation hawker Sumadi Sapari, 45, of Adam Road Stall No. 9 Mee Soto & Mee Rebus, were interested to hear what the Government had to say, and to understand the street vendor scene in other countries.

He said: “It is a good opportunity for me to hear about the issues that other hawkers are facing.”

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 5, 2013. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.