tv review

Netflix’s Street Food Serves Up Artful Cuisine With a Side of Despair

Photo: Netflix

If you’ve seen any other Netflix food documentaries, but especially ones like Ugly Delicious, Salt Fat Acid Heat, or Chef’s Table, you already know what the new Netflix series Street Food will look like. The language of hagiographic food TV has coalesced around a particular set of visual tropes and storytelling devices, and they’re all in evidence here: the slow-motion chef moving through a crowd, food being poured into a hot pan, the close-up shot of a hand painstakingly performing a task, the way a specific dish is stretched inward to become a metaphor for the chef’s personal history and then stretched outward to become representative of a whole cuisine.

In that sense, Street Food does not feel especially remarkable or innovative. There are moments where you could easily mistake it for a half-dozen other shows, and although the food looks great, it’s also presented in a way that’s become almost rote. Dishes are prepared in situ, and then presented in an impeccably styled glamour shot, divorced from their context. They look less like meals and more like works of art being photographed for a museum exhibition catalogue. The message is not subtle. These are masterpieces meant for consumption by the eyes, and they’ve been arranged in a particular way, so please do not touch them.

If the visual language is borrowed from any number of other series, I suspect that the central idea of Street Food is also less unusual than the series tries to suggest. Any avid viewer of food TV will be more than familiar with the idea that the food prepared by locals and served in humble surroundings can be just as delicious and worthy of celebration as the food at a white tablecloth restaurant. It’s the thesis of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, for Pete’s sake. (And also Ugly Delicious, and No Reservations … the list goes on.)

What makes Street Food different is how much time it spends explaining the connection between the food and the lives of the people who make it. More than any food series I’ve watched, poverty and survival loom over the chefs featured in Street Food. Many of them are women, many of the women are elderly, and the stories they tell about how they came to a mastery of their craft nearly always involve despair.

In the episode based in Seoul, a woman named Cho Yonsoon prepares and sells knife-cut noodles in a public marketplace, and she tells a wrenching story about how she came to run such a popular place. After years as a stay-at-home mother, her husband announced that he’d gotten the family into debt. Cho Yonsoon went to work because she needed to pay for her children’s education, and she kept working even though she was bullied and mocked by the other people running stalls in her market. In the footage of her as she works, Yonsoon smiles and laughs with her patrons. In the introductory interview where she’s privately interviewed by the Street Food producers, she talks about han, the untranslatable Korean concept that she describes as sublimated grief.

Her story is not unusual in this series. In Ho Chi Minh City, a woman named Truoc talks about learning to cook snails the way her father cooked them. After his death, her family was living in starvation-level poverty, and Truoc’s nascent street-food business was hounded by people asking for exorbitant lease fees. Her newborn baby died shortly after birth, an event that she doesn’t directly attribute to the stress of trying to survive, but the connection is strongly implied. She, like more than one Street Food chef, also had to save and borrow in order to purchase more expensive ingredients, a crucial step toward differentiating her from other street-food vendors. In Delhi, a man named Dalchand Kashyap talks about having to restart his family’s chaat stand from scratch after his brother became addicted to drugs and their father’s business fell apart. In Bangkok, a Michelin-starred street-food chef named Jay Fai talks about starting her business after a stairway collapsed next to her when she was a young woman working as a seamstress; the resulting fire destroyed everything she owned.

And yet Street Food episodes are not framed as stories of desperation and anguish. Being featured on a show like this becomes its own kind of happy ending, a way for Street Food to create an arc in these chefs’ lives that bends toward triumph and perseverance. They’ve been selected, after all. The implicit understanding underneath their appearance on the show is that they’ve made it, and their struggle is mostly in the past. They have been deemed “the best.” They’ve succeeded.

I don’t think this is a flaw in Street Food; whether or not you accept the idea that the show creates a falsely optimistic arc in the chefs’ lives, it’s possible to still see the show as doing something less potentially troubling. It celebrates these chefs’ work and their skill, and it doesn’t pretend that their lives have been easy or that their pain has somehow made their food better. Street Food makes often invisible lives more visible, and it doesn’t elide or smooth away how much poverty is a defining pressure for the people it wants to honor.

Street Food also shows that more than one kind of story about food can be valuable. For some, it’s about tradition and consistency, the same kind of jajan pasar sold in Indonesia for decades and decades. For others, like a young woman named Aisha Hashim in Singapore, it’s about working to modernize her parents’ business so that old, disappearing street foods don’t get lost. There is room for both the classic and the innovative.

Watch Street Food for all the usual reasons you watch travel food shows. Watch to learn about cuisines you don’t know, and to have some escapist food fantasies, and to appreciate the craft of unbelievably skilled chefs. But don’t be surprised if you come away from the show with a sense that, more than many food documentaries, this one is about things other than food — income inequality, desperation, demonstrations of will, and making food because you love it, but also because you need to work to survive.

Street Food Serves Up Artful Cuisine With a Side of Despair