Street food vs. home cooking

Vietnamese Street Food

If you’ve picked up an ethnic cookbook lately, chances are you’ve seen one of two phrases either in the title, subtitle,or “teaser copy”:  home cooking or street food.  As in Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico or Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking.   What exactly does a publisher mean to convey by using one of those two phrases, and why are we seeing them so regularly?

Let’s start with street food, the trendier of the two.  It’s street food’s moment right now. It used to be that street food was something you’d expect to find in less-developed places – something you’d expect to encounter while touring the streets of Bangkok or Guadalajara.  In American, street food was a hot dog or salted pretzel in a big city, if that.  But starting with the food-truck boom a few years back, all of that began to change.  Now street food – which is characteristically deep-fried or easily portable or full of specialty ingredients home cooks historically have not been able to find – is coming in off the streets.  It’s coming home in cookbooks, or, even stranger, coming home to roost in restaurants like Susan Feniger’s.  Street food as we know it is mostly Mexican or Thai or Vietnamese, but that’s changing too. 

Home cooking, on the other hand, may not be trendy.  But it has a long and venerable history.  Like street food, it’s probably some kind of comfort food, but it’s not necessarily fried, portable, or specialized. Its ingredients might even be few and simple, but it’s more likely to take a good while to cook, or involve a pretty decent amount of chopping, because the idea is that you’re at home.  It’s likely to smell great.  If you see home cooking in a cookbook title, the publisher is trying to tell you that these are accessible-to-you recipes, even if they come from far away or were written by a famous chef (“Thomas Keller at Home,” or “Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Home”).

Last week after the cookbook conference, I took the subway out to Queens (where New York’s real Chinatown is these days) to hunt down the Golden Shopping Mall basement, where I had heard some seriously authentic cooking was going on.  It was a cramped, dirty warren of fantastic-smelling stalls and outrageous food – handmade noodles, regiments of dumplings, pork teased and smoked and simmered and tenderized.  I couldn’t have reproduced a single thing I saw there at home without help.  It wasn’t “home cooking” because no one was at home.  it wasn’t “street food” because it wasn’t on the street.  And yet it was both at the same time.  Maybe the next big thing will be mall food.  But somehow, I doubt it.

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  • ellabee  on  February 18, 2013

    :: it wasn't "street food" because it wasn't on the street. ::

    It was street food: a mall is an indoor street.

  • lesorelle  on  February 19, 2013

    It may not deserve a separate category but I think of malls as the place where one is most likely to find ethnic home cooking. A good example is Little Saigon in Orange County, California where it seems every strip mall houses some gem of a family-run restaurant.

  • sir_ken_g  on  February 20, 2013

    I own both books and have been to SE Asia recently so I think I can comment.
    If there is a difference it is that street cooking is finger food and home cooking may not be.
    Also street food tends to be simpler.
    Where it is sold is not such a good measure. In Singapore all of the street food has been moved to Hawker Markets that are easier to keep clean and not in the way of cars. New Zealand – with it's many Asians now has similar markets – or call them malls if you like. As they move to malls the posibility for more complex dishes and the ability for the eater to sit makes the distinction less clear.

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