Reflecting on Singapore's World Streetfood Congress

[Photographs: Adam Tun-Aung]

One of the greatest—if not the greatest—appeals of Singapore is the local cuisine and the food culture. The city-state is seeing a growing number of international food events, including World Gourmet Summit, Savour and as of last month, the World Streetfood Congress. KF Seetoh, Singapore's food ambassador and founder of Makansutra, launched the first World Streetfood Congress event in June, championing local heritage cuisines around the world.

Alongside partners like Anthony Bourdain, the World Streetfood Congress showcased select street food vendors and food trucks from 10 cities around the world for a weeklong food fair (SGD$28 per day inclusive of SGD$20 vouchers). WSFC also included a full two-day dialogue session, featuring presentations and discussions by food and beverage professionals (editors, chefs, food TV personalities, and government officials) for a whopping SGD$750 (USD$592).

Maybe it was the confusion between the price tags or limited pre-publicity, but the first few days of the World Street Food Congress saw minimal crowds. It was unfortunate for the vendors, but a big plus for me since I had no wait between trying fried bananas from Vietnam or pork shoulder sandwiches from Denmark.


But the real purpose of the World Streetfood Fair is to have serious discussions on the longevity of street food around the world. In his keynote address, Bourdain asked the audience, "It may sound fancy, but how do you think escargot came about? Do you think the first person who first ate snail was some gourmet? No! He was probably a very hungry sonuvabitch." The gourmet restaurant isn't where innovative food is born, he continues. Born out of necessity and often desperation, street food is made of humble ingredients and created into something palatable, comforting and delicious.

Seetoh aims to professionalize the street food culture so that a new generation of hawkers may arise as the world continues to modernize. This of course begs the question of how the beauty of the humble street stall can be preserved when it becomes commercialized and expanded beyond its native city of origin. Is teaching street food vendors how to turn their dish into a commercial enterprise the solution to saving street food? Heck, does street food even need saving? One thing's for sure, the history of a people is on their plates, and that's not insignificant.

Seetoh handpicked the 37 vendors himself, taking into account the more obvious factors such as taste, heritage, and popularity, but more surprisingly, also their ability to expand and replicate in other cities. At the 10 day event, each of the vendors were, for the most part, only permitted to use the regionally sourced ingredients provided for them by the WSFC organizers (to the dismay of some operations).

At least five Singapore stalls graced the Jamboree, with classics such as chicken rice (Wee Nam Kee), bak kuh the (Joo Siah), and curry puffs (Indian Muslim Bakery & Confectionary). Other countries who got to cooking included Vietnam, India, Indonesia, the United States (Oregon), Mexico, Thailand, Malaysia, China, and Denmark.

Here were some of the highlights.