As the 2015 cohort of street food extraodinaires from different parts of the globe fire up their stoves for the final time in Singapore this year, much can be said about the second installment of the World Street Food Congress (WSFC). The charcoal-smoke-filled air – easily capable of reaching one’s olfactory receptors from across the street – and constantly scurrying food vendors and hardworking crew seemed to suggest nothing less than the “greatest hits” in terms of gustatory pleasure.
Having visited – on two separate days – the open field next to Tan Quee Lan Street as a bystander with near-zero expectations; I arrived with a very mind, and equally open eyes and ears.
Food For (Almost) All
The decision to stage the WSFC at an alternative venue seemed to have a positive impact the moment you arrive within the Jamboree’s immediate vicinity: people by the hundreds, young and old, queued patiently and thronged the various stalls, and tucked into their street food delicacies of choice at the designated dining areas. Curious passers-by and tourists were also drawn into the gastronomic extravaganza. All of this despite the scorching heat and perspiration-inducing humidity.
In an ironic twist of fate however, head honcho of Makansutra (organiser for the WSFC) KF Seetoh and his team went through what he called “a nightmare for the organisers” when “almost all the food was sold out 4 hours into opening time at 9pm” on the very first evening of the WSFC Jamboree due to the fact that there were “too many people”.
The Dialogue-Hackathon was a session primarily aimed at having “delegates from all over the world come together to discuss the many aspects of street food, including its historical significance and how best to further its appeal“. Unless you had S$450 to spare for tickets, this seemingly closed-door segment of the WSFC was prioritised for and targeted towards members of the media and the food industry’s present/current practitioners (i.e. the who’s who of food) for answers to issues that are plaguing the street food branch of the culinary arena. Impressionable students from culinary and hospitality institutions (they are offered a discounted rate of S$120) were also targeted as they are touted to be those who will be holding the street food torch up high, while attempting to promote continuity and defend culinary traditions.
In an attempt to be more inclusive, Makansutra and WSFC could perhaps take the MADFeed route and make snippets (or critical moments of the various discussions; or, better still, as much as the whole Dialogue-Hackathon as possible) available for viewing online. MADFeed charged a roughly similar amount for tickets to their 2-day symposium in August 2014 and seemed to be more open and forthcoming in terms of getting people from all walks of life – regardless of how deep their pockets may be – involved in discussions about food.
Street Food “Greatest Hits”
Putting all your eggs into one basket is often regarded as a bad decision. In the case of the WSFC (and similar events): the enthusiastic and very well-intentioned nature of gathering a large selection of “street food maestros”, and subsequently throwing them into a neutral venue often spells a recipe (no pun intended) for chaos. Despite their respective and combined years of near-flawless experience, finesse, and routines which come as second nature; these cooks and chefs have little to no control of what happens and/or may happen (refer to the aforementioned unforeseen “first evening fiasco“) away from their operations’ “natural habitat”.
As much as some (or one, in the case of KF Seetoh) think that they’ve managed to come up with a “greatest hits” smorgasbord, the assembly still lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. To illustrate: imagine driving through hilly and uneven roads – passing by acres of tea leaf plantations and strawberry fields – to reach a near-remote part of Indonesia to get a plate of traditionally and meticulously prepared gudeg, without doubt, enhances the whole dining experience tenfold. In essence, it makes the whole trip worth one’s while – dare I say it; more than that of just the food.
Pros And Cons For Everybody Involved
It goes without saying that the abilities, as well as highly appreciative, and equally well-intentioned nature of the army of aforementioned cooks and chefs are extremely valid and intangible attributes. Additionally; their time, effort, and sheer dedication is something to be admired and be inspired by.
However, business back home is bound to be affected – regardless of how much they were paid and/or sponsored (if they ever were, in the first place) to grace and participate in an event of international stature such as the WSFC. Temporary closures of their establishments, for example, will definitely result in losses – do note that we are talking about five consecutive days of non-operation for people from as far as the other side of the world.
For the attendees to the event, the dilemma between choosing “costlier but convenient” (i.e. gathering food stalls and vendors for the WSFC Jamboree) versus “cheaper but having to fork out more for other factors” (e.g. cost of transportation and accommodation in a foreign land, and taking an extended leave of absence from work); there is neither right nor wrong.
Despite that, the idea and reality of global travel/tourism is becoming increasingly affordable; therefore it would make more sustainable and pragmatic sense for people to flock abroad to enjoy gastronomic offerings of foreign nations (i.e. culinary tourism, in addition tourism per se). In this case, one’s whole self (stomach, mind, eyes, ears, etc.) would be subject to experiences of immeasurable proportions.
If It Doesn’t Make (At Least S$2 Million) Dollars, Then It Doesn’t Make Sense
KF Seetoh stuck by his never-give-up attitude and enthusiasm towards street food culture despite suffering a loss at the premier edition of the WSFC two years ago. While it may come as a surprise to some; it goes without saying that the prices of the food (in both the previous as well as this year’s WSFC) are based on numerous inevitable factors which have to be taken into consideration (e.g. vendor accommodation, transportation costs, cost of ingredients, staff payroll, rental costs, etc).
The Jamboree primarily succeeded in exhibiting itself as a food event for people with near-inexhaustible funds in their bank accounts. As I made my way in and around the sea of hungry souls with plates of sample-sized or portion-controlled amounts of food set in front of them, aghast cries of, “This had better be worth the money I paid”, and “Wow, that’s expensive!” were common. A moment of awkward and deafening silence fell upon a table of four young ladies – no older than 16 – when one of them carefully brought two sundae cups of Churros Sundae from the Churros Locos stall (USA) and revealed its price: S$16.
Basic arithmetic reveals that for someone to try food from all the participating WSFC stalls at the Jamboree (about 32 dishes in all); he or she has to fork out a total of S$263.10. Regardless of how dreadful one’s grasp of mathematics may be, the aforementioned number is one that most can neither afford nor are willing to part with. Under the guise of online monikers, various anonymous internet users aired their frustrations online. One “JBK” labelled the whole event as a “try-hard marketing gimmick“; while “GlobalCrosser” summed it up as “the biggest con job in the history of Singapore food scene“. Then again, it is worth noting that the initial S$2 million spent will not magically re-appear in Makansutra’s bank account immediately following the event.
Short Of A True Global Representation
Despite being billed as the World Street Food Congress, not all parts of the world were adequately represented (as was the case during the inaugural edition). Nations such as Japan, China, neighbouring Taiwan, and Hong Kong are very well known for their street food and traditional dishes; but were unfortunately missing in action. The aforementioned East Asian nations’ noodle culture is, in itself, are separately – as well as collectively – filled with rich history and fantastic flavours. Similarly, regions such as Africa and the Middle East – with the latter having an extremely wide array of street foods such as various flatbreads and grilled meats – had no street food ambassadors present. South America and Europe – each of which have very interesting food cultures and habits – were only represented by a lone stall each.
While one may argue that concerns pertaining to immigration – and other bureaucratic red tape – could have been one of the many genuine reasons for the absence of representatives from the said nations and continents; KF Seetoh and Makansutra could try and take a page out of Anthony Bourdain’s book and channel their inner Parts Unknown to explore further and delve deeper to quench their undying appreciation and thirst for street food. Networking, networking, networking.
And That’s A Wrap
At the end of the day, nothing is perfect; for we can only chase perfection but not attain it. Putting everything else aside; tons of credit has to be given to KF Seetoh and his team (which comprise of – but are not limited to – casual part-timers; volunteer and hand-picked students from culinary and hospitality institutions; full-time staff; and specially contracted security, stewarding, and cleaning personnel) for staging and ensuring the smooth flow of this highly ambitious event.
Once again; the cooks, chefs, and vendors who took time off to grace the event cannot be praised nor thanked enough. Despite whatever mishaps and/or hurdles they faced, these folks took them head-on like the fearless warriors and highly devoted artisans they are. Thank you for doing what you do, as always, and flying the street food flag high with pride.