Camden Market in Central London has always been famous for its street food. It was the kind of food that was as likely to give you the culinary experience of a lifetime as it was to leave you with diarrhoea – often, it would do both. But in 2016, the food court of Camden Market was taken over by Kerb Food: a chain of self-described ‘new kind of street food markets’ taking over the London street food scene. And just like that, out went the questionable meats and in came the allergen warnings and gluten free burgers. This all sounds good, right?
But the sanitisation of Camden Market wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the past few years, street food markets of a similar ‘new kind’ have popped up all over London: from the Gherkin, to King’s Cross, to Victoria — anywhere that London hipster-types will pay £8 for a falafel wrap. Between 2017 and 2018, Kerb’s revenues doubled. Our very own Gloucester Green may retain its charm for now, but it’s a small step from smoothies, gourmet chips and cauliflower pittas to full-blown dystopia.
Look, I don’t know if you’ve ever come across a bubble waffle, but their popularity sums up the modern street food scene pretty well: covered in cream, Nutella, ice cream and occasionally made with avocado (!?), they’re a food made for instagram not the taste buds. And, along with charcoal soft-serve (did someone say glorified Mr Whippy?) and Yorkshire pudding wraps (!), they populate the London street food scene today.
I should confess at this point that when I say London hipster-types, I am more or less describing myself. I am the target market for these vendors: I choose my food based on aesthetic value far more readily than I’d prefer to admit to, and I religiously check the Instagram geotag of a restaurant before I eat there. Regardless, even to me, the archetype of this target market, the street food craze has somewhat lost touch with reality.
There are, of course, places which have got the balance right. Dumpling Shack, in Spitalfields, somehow balances deliciousness with a solid Instagram presence, and it manages to achieve the one thing for which all street food vendors are desperate: authenticity. The same can’t be said for the countless ‘boutique’ burger joints at every market in London — though that’s not to say I wouldn’t try them.
The sanitisation of street food isn’t just about Instagram; it’s about class and culture. Street food has existed throughout British history, but boomed with immigrant populations: Indian curries, Chinese takeaways, filled bagels from Jewish delis. It’s this authenticity which every vendor tries to capture today — with varying levels of success. Such an obsession with authenticity which tells us so much about why street food is popular today, and among whom it’s popular: sanitised street food is also about sanitising culture, capturing the bits we want to enjoy while hoping we can get away without the rough bits around the edges. It’s about trying to capture the tastes of the street food Camden used to have, without the risk of diarrhoea. And inevitably failing.
Modern street food isn’t evil: it’s not cultural appropriation at one end of the spectrum, nor is it usually bad cuisine at the other. But it does say something important about the sanitisation of class and culture: the more we seek our food for its aesthetic value alone, the more the ‘authentic’ and collective experience of eating disappears, and the further we drift from the cultural experience that street food once was.