I am an enthusiastic eater of street food. I love everything about it-its immediacy, its directness, its in-your-face flavors, the fact that you can watch it be made to order and eat it the second it’s ready. I love street food for the same reason that I love homey ethnic restaurants: because the owner is putting his energy and money into the food, not the decor.
This is especially true for the satés, kebabs, anticuchos, tacos al pastor, and other grilled fare that constitutes some of the world’s greatest curbside eating. Many of my happiest moments on the barbecue trail were spent at outdoor markets and street stalls, where you sit so close to the grill, you feel like you’re at a barbecue in your own backyard.
The one drawback to street food is hygiene (or its lack). Running water (never mind hot water) is a luxury at many Third World street stalls, as is refrigeration. Food is usually prepared and served with the vendor’s bare hands. Eating street food can be like playing culinary roulette. You never know which bite will lead to gastrointestinal distress.
Some years ago, in an effort to make street food more sanitary, the government of Singapore organized the vendors into hawkers’ centers, where the cooks-and their customers-could enjoy the health benefits of electricity, refrigeration, running water, and a roof over their heads. The hawkers’ centers are rigorously regulated by the government, which makes Singapore one of the safest places in the world to enjoy street food. There are dozens of hawkers’ centers around Singapore-three of the best are located at Newton Circus, Bugis Square, and the newly restored Clarke Quay.
Hawkers’ centers represent democracy and ecumenism at their best. Visit a hawkers’ center in Singapore, for example, and you’ll find Indonesian saté stands, Muslim bakeries, Chinese noodle stalls, and Indian drink shops. Cell phonentoting Chinese businessmen dine elbow to elbow with turbaned Sikhs.
Following Singapore’s example, other nations have begun to organize their street vendors into regulated hawkers’ centers. The Sarinah Food Court in the basement of the Sarinah shopping center in Jakarta groups street vendors specializing in dishes from all over Indonesia into a clean, modern Western-style setting. Similar hawkers’ centers exist in the basement of department stores throughout Korea, Japan, and Malaysia. One of the world’s best hawkers’ centers-Gurney Drive in Penang, Malayasia-enjoys a spectacular seaside setting. Where else can you feast on saté and rujak with a view of the Andaman Sea?
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