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Street food is now a billion pound business, but has going mainstream diluted its appeal? 

street food
Tacos, a street food classic Credit: Anne Rippy/Getty Images

Of all the food trends to have emerged over the past decade, arguably none can boast as far-reaching influence as street food. Whether burgers, tacos or lobster mac and cheese, street food has bitten a sizeable chunk into the overall food industry. In most British cities you can't move for street food markets – you can barely move in them, either.

According to a recent report by caterer.com, the value of UK street food markets stands at £1.2 billion; between 2017 and 2018, it grew 9.1 per cent. A quarter of us eat at a street food market at least once a month – not to mention the countless stalls and shacks across the country offering food to go.

Younger generations now prefer informal dining to high-street restaurants for a first date, attracted by the more relaxed, casual atmosphere. 

I've always been drawn to food eaten on the street. Fish and chips on a cold winter's day was a rare, comforting treat. On visits to family in Brazil, I was enthralled by the country's capacity to make delicious fried food out of almost anything, flogging it in vibrant markets in every neighbourhood.

Beaches meant grilled cheese and corn; at large public gatherings, I'd wait to pick up scent of some entrepreneurial soul with meat and a grill (chicken heart skewers are the best).

In 2016 Hawker Chan became one of the first street food vendors to be awarded a Michelin star, in Singapore Credit: Geoff Pugh

In Vietnam it was banh mi on the roadside; in Bangkok, pad thai. Across America, food trucks hawk the best tacos you'll find – certainly more memorable than most restaurants. Asia is renowned for its street food, whether makeshift roadside stall or heaving market. In Britain, it seems, we're catching up. 

Of course, the concept is nothing new in this country. Oysters, once known as "poor man's food", have been sold by street vendors since Roman times (most people wouldn't have had a kitchen). In the Victorian era, pie and mash, perhaps with jellied eels, were ubiquitous; cockles and whelks, too. Fish and chips and, more recently, burgers and kebabs, are commonly eaten on the go. 

Nevertheless, the scene has changed beyond recognition over the past 10 years, and there are several theories as to why. The 2008 recession ravaged the restaurant industry, people were more reluctant to eat out. Travel and immigration have led to increased interest in global cuisines. Soaring rents and business rates are hitting bricks and mortar establishments. Perhaps most significantly, social media has allowed dishes to spread like wildfire in public consciousness – we see it, and we want it. 

Jonathan Downey, CEO of Street Feast, a group of street food markets, helped propel it into a multi-million pound business. Downey cites "value, speed of service, variety, a proximity to cooking, an element of theatre and convenience" as reasons for the rise. 

"Previously, at stalls in street markets, on roadsides or on private land, traders just hoped it didn't rain, otherwise people wouldn't turn up," Downey explains. With the new street food model (large, covered markets with 10 or more stalls and several bars), vendors are practically guaranteed footfall. 

Among street food lovers, diversity and authenticity are often cited as big draws. "Street food transforms dingy covered market areas all across London and other cities and brings together people of different cultures with food – I think it's beautiful," says Farihah Choudhury, 22, from London. "I love how you can sample all sorts of things in a snack-type way without the formality of sitting down, ordering, waiting." 

LickyPlate, a street food blogger with almost 50,000 followers on Instagram, says accessibility and price are key. "I post a reasonable range of food on my Instagram, and whilst Michelin-starred food may be seen as the pinnacle to many, it's street food that gets the most visceral reaction." While this is partly down to accessibility, it's also because of its nature – more often than not, an alluring blend of greasy, fatty, colourful, enticing dishes. 

Today, street food is more likely to be served in food courts than street stalls. "I suppose technically it's no longer street food. It's not as itinerant or risky, it's not street food in its purest form," Downey concedes. "But we've evolved it." 

For Dominic Cools-Lartigue, who founded Street Feast and is presenting a new street food show on Channel 4, Cooking Up a Fortune, it's the origins that count. "Street food is food that comes from the street," he says. "A burger will always be classic street food, hot dogs too. Restaurants can do street food dishes." 

Many dishes do transfer well between street and table, but recently restaurants have taken things a step further. Last year One Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, for example, had a 'street food' menu – no prizes for guessing, it wasn't intended to be eaten on the street. Supermarkets, too, are cottoning on. Earlier this year, M&S launched a street food range, complete with chicken katsu sandos. 

To some, this dampens the appeal and authenticity – essentially, it makes it less cool. "It's jumping on the bandwagon, but I don't mind," concedes Downey. "It's not especially detrimental, it's just how things go. I don't think there's much point moaning about it, when something becomes popular and mainstream, even if diluted or sterile. We just have to push on and come up with new stuff." 

Street food should be cheap. After all, there are no business rates, sometimes no VAT. Near the Telegraph's offices, one of the best falafel wraps in the city – an enormous beast –  can be yours for £3.50, from a genuine street stall. In a nearby food court (where much 'street food' is now sold), a small pasta dish might set you back £9 – and you need cutlery. 

As one food lover put it, "one thing I don't understand is why street food is so expensive when it's supposed to be quick and cheap? I can get pad thai for £7.50 at most street food places in London, or I can go to a Thai café and get the same dish for £6 – and a seat. If you did a price comparison of street food prices around the world, I reckon London would be number one for cost." 

Downey admits that price is a recurring – if rare – criticism. "There's no service charge, so you should be saving," he offers. 

Others worry about sustainability. Choudhury suggests street food can be wasteful, in terms of disposable cutlery and packaging. "The problem is that street food is generally a spontaneous decision, so people won't necessarily come equipped with their own bowls and forks." 

But some markets are taking this into account. Mercato Metropolitano, for example, is plastic-free, uses hydroponics, and reuses coffee grounds, while gin is distilled from waste heat. The street food scene has also embraced veganism with gusto. 

Both Downey and Cools-Lartigue say the British street food scene rivals anywhere in the world. "I think it's the best," says the latter. And its success has plunged it firmly into the mainstream. But it begs the question: if it's being served in fancy restaurants, in supermarkets and at crowded – and often pricey – food courts (many of which recruit preexisting restaurants), is it still street food?