Netflix's Street Food, Proving That Asian Food is Not Gross

Netflix's Street Food, Proving That Asian Food is Not Gross

Jajan Pasar, Indonesia's traditional street snack

There are so many things about Asian culture, tradition and conservatism that I disagree but cuisine is not one of them. When I remember about the diversity and variation of our spices, I feel a great sense of pride and happiness. So when the makers of Netflix’s Chef Table bonded together to create Street Food, I just knew I had to marathon it as quickly as I can. 

It’s no brainer that Asian cuisine gets two types of comments. Either you like them because you were born surrounded by them and would rather take rice noodle over mac and cheese on a rainy day or you find them odd and to some extend, gross. Don’t believe me? Here’s a story about what it’s like to have the food you grew up with mocked by foreigners. The adjectives used to humiliate our cuisine vary between ‘gross’ and ‘stinky’ and it has reached the point where lunchbox shaming becomes a thing, often occurring in schools and among kids. To add salt to injury, a tweet by a self-proclaimed “straight-edged vegan”, whatever this obnoxious jargon is, just stirred up a pretty significant controversy when he mocked a Chinese hotpot for looking like a ‘leftover dishwater.’ Elsewhere on the internet, there are public forums discussing about the kind of lunches you should and shouldn’t bring to the office. Sure, aromas are kind of a big deal and some food carry very intense fragrance that might ‘stain’ the air but to claim someone else’s lunch as ‘stinky’ and ‘gross’ ends up being more than a masquerading bunch of etiquette tips – it’s ethnic shaming to some extend. You know things have gotten so bad when people start calling October 24th as the “National Take Your Ethnic Food For Work Day” because unless you follow the rules of what immigrants should and should not eat, chances are people might shame your stinky tofu for being, well…stinky.

Let’s clarify something: I have nothing against western cuisine. I really don’t. I’d take a slice of pizza anytime of the day if I wasn’t so cautious with my weight. Still, no matter how much I love pizza and pasta and all those melted cheese, I’m still Asian at heart. If you cut me open, I’ll probably bleed Asian spices, no joke. It’s how proud I am with how much we know how to cook. It’s the spices, the flavours, the colours and the mastery of stir-frying vegetables with a wok in a frying pan above the blazing fire – these are the things that make me love Asian food. I will never ever get tired of them. 

Jay Fai, from episode one 'Bangkok, Thailand.' She is famous for her crab omelette, earning her a Michelin star

When it comes to Asian cuisine, the trick is to venture forth towards street food. Not to say that fancy restaurants in a well air conditioned shopping mall don’t know how to do fried rice right (to be honest, some don’t) but street food is where it’s at. To me, street food is the heart and soul of a country or a region. It’s where the adventures are located. Whether it’s the euphoria of watching families flock together eating rice noodle soup or chicken rice or seeing even the oldest women or men selling traditional snacks by the street, street food is more than getting cheap food to satisfy your grumbling stomach. It’s an interactive experience of the world through our tastebud.

Toyo is known for using a blowtorch to broil his tuna. Beneath this happy face lies a sad past.

I’m not a great cook but I’d like to think I’m a good appreciator of food and good image directing. Netflix, being the typical artsy service it is, knows how to do this very, very well. Following the success of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table, Street Food explores chefs that might even break your expectation of what a Michelin star restaurant or chef looks like. No, they don’t wear white aprons and white chef uniform. Instead, they wear casual civilian shirts, basic aprons or none at all. Instead of a fancy indoor restaurant filled with meticulous decor, they work by the street or at hawker centres. For the sake of survival or simply to bring a smile upon their customer’s face, these chefs deserve a round of applause for their journey.

One thing to note about Asian street food is the consistency of their recipe, especially if it’s a family business. To these chefs, change is a phobia and is more of than not unnecessary. After all, if your customers constantly return to you again and again and again and again, why feel the need to fix something that isn’t broken? People talk about how change can be a great thing but when it comes to street food, trust me, you just don’t do it. The only change ‘allowed’ is technological upgrade but even that is also limited as robots and machines will never be able to replicate human touch.

Episode 3: "Delhi, India" featuring nihari, a buffalo stew that people can't seem to get enough of

Mbah Lindu who, at 100 years old, is still selling Gudeg in Yogyakarta

Before Nokia made it their tagline, food has always been the first thing that connects people. These flavours don’t just give you a personal satisfaction of savoury and sweetness, they also tell you stories of how these complexity are made. And I’m not talking like a pretentious food connoisseur – I’m talking about the chefs, or cooks if you prefer, and the hard work they have endured to reach a certain level. Unlike the chefs in Chef’s Table who cook for prosperous customers, these chefs in Street Food are feeding people like you and me whose lives are pretty much on an average scale of normality all while preserving the memories of their culture and country. Episode one introduces us to Jay Fai, a Michelin-star chef known for her crab omelette, tom yum soup and drunken noodles. Episode two takes us to meet Toyo, an eccentric man who, once he opened up a standing izakaya in Osaka, has successfully attracted customers with his energetic, magnetic personality. In one episode for Yogyakarta, Indonesia, viewers are transported back in time when they see Mbah Satinem and Mbah Lindu selling traditional dessert and nasi gudeg (traditional Javanese cuisine made from young unripe jack fruit stewed for several hours with palm sugar, and coconut milk) by the street. What’s amazing is that the two elderly women are over 100 years of age yet their energy continues to prevail. In fact, I don’t think we can outmatch their determination despite our age being much younger.

It’s impossible to watch Street Food without feeling like you desperately wish to be there. I know I can’t. Every colour, every angle and every direction of this food documentary makes me wish for a season two right there and then. The filmmakers have done such a good job in highlighting the fact that good food can be found practically everywhere around you... because let's be real, not all of us know how to afford expensive, rich-people level food; but we do know how to be well-fed and inexpensively at that. 

I know I’ve wasted a ton of space talking about how magnificent it is to explore street food in Asia. The sad truth, however, is when reality starts kicking in and we forget that despite the beauty storytelling and cinematography, certain street food are endangered. Yes, you heard that right. For example, hawker centres in Singapore are thought to be dying because the younger generation slowly backs away from the uncertainty of family business. It’s necessary to understand that in the end, beneath all the food porn Netflix has to offer, street food and hawker centres are not easy business. It’s an intense, deeply exhausting and rollercoaster ride of labour. You will fail, you will rise and then maybe you’d fail again. I, for one, understand this on a personal level because my family, too, runs a local food business. It is indeed really, really tough.

Like all films in general, Street Food is not a perfect food documentary. Some even see it as a mere eulogy lacking in explanation other than constantly throwing jargons of ‘pride’, ‘tradition’ and ‘identity’ to ‘unify people.’ I personally don’t really care. I’m not going to be extremely nitpicky about it. Sure, it’s not perfect and there are certain aspects I thought should have been explored further and deeper but hey, it’s decent enough that we have a tv show solely dedicated for Asian street food. Of course, the more Asian food documentary the better but as of right now, I will appreciate the ones I can have. With this in mind, I really do hope people and especially foreigners who tend to find Asian food as gross and ‘not sophisticated enough’ realise that just like your fancy foie gras, Asian food is a beautiful blend of spices and delicacy, sometimes strange and oddly bizarre that may be difficult to understand. Still, there's that unspoken beauty I think more people should be curious about. As such, it will never be gross.
Street Food is available for stream now on Netflix with season one featuring street food from Bangkok, Thailand; Osaka, Japan; Delhi, India; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Chiayi, Taiwan; Seoul, South Korea; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; and Cebu, Philippines.