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Street feasting

Street food has become one of England's biggest gastronomic movements. We take a look at how it got so popular and why it's a trend that's here to stay.

©Jessie Leong

As a child growing up in the North of England, ‘street food’ entailed a Mr Whippy or a cone of chips from a van. If you were lucky, you might get your hands on a burger, which would ooze grease into the napkin engulfing it. Today, England’s street food is something altogether different. In less than a decade, it has been transformed into a gourmet affair offering cuisine from all over the world. Head to a street food market this weekend and you can get Asian steamed buns, vegan tacos or Louisiana chicken served to you out of everything from a VW Campervan to a giant boombox (I'm looking at you, Hip Hop Chip Shop). The movement has been gathering momentum since it arrived in England’s capital at the end of the noughties. It now encompasses a vast fleet of vendors wheeling and dealing at trendy markets, festivals and in carefully chosen specks up and down the country. In the UK, street food has an annual revenue of more than £600 million, with the market growing some 20% every year – little wonder other cities wanted a slice of the action. In fact, some of the best street food markets and events can be found in places outside London.

© Jessie Leong

Trinity Kitchen in Leeds, for example, is an eatery inside Trinity shopping centre that rotates five new food vans every six weeks. The Northern city also plays host to independent food and drink festival Leeds Indie Food (this year 11-28 May).

Birmingham, too, has just secured its first permanent street food venue, No21 Digbeth, which launched at the end of January, and joins events Hawker Yard and Digbeth Dining Club, the latter of which kickstarted the Midlands’ street food movement. With such growth, street food is clearly a national success, but what makes it so popular? Price is certainly a factor. Today’s kerbside offerings are cheaper than eating in a restaurant thanks to low overheads and less staff. The quality of the food is very good too, with vendors using local produce. “I get most of my ingredients from Birmingham Wholesale Market and my local butchers. Even though you’re selling on the side of the street, it’s important to use good stuff,” says Lee Desanges, owner of Birmingham-based Baked in Brick, the overall winner at the British Street Food Awards 2016. Desanges cooks up BBQ chicken tikka wraps and wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza on a modified Mini Cooper. It’s an unusual sight, but a striking set-up seems to be necessary – in this sector the vehicles are almost as important as the food. “Customers buy with their eyes first – they want to see theatre along with the food. And that’s the great thing about street food – it’s a way for you to express what you’re about; you can go as crazy as you want.”

Street food is certainly a novel and more affordable way of dining out, and with the recent appearance of supper clubs and pop-up restaurants, that seems to be what the public is craving. “We have created a new way of eating, drinking and hanging out, with craft beer, fire pits and bunting. Street food is making places taste better, reclaiming areas of Britain, with restaurant-quality food at takeaway prices,” says journalist Richard Johnson, who founded the British Street Food Awards in 2009. “For a country that used to be the laughing stock of Europe, that makes me very proud."

© British Street Food