To those familiar with Southeast Asia, the sizzle of oil in a hot wok and the alluring aroma of fragrant spices will surely conjure up a myriad memories; street food is ubiquitous in the region, and residents and visitors alike flock to food carts and market stalls for cheap and delicious fare. On Saturday 5th October this year, anyone passing by Bangkok Kitchen – an outdoor Thai food restaurant in Southwark, Central London – would have been victim to the siren call of just such a market, brought for the first time ever to the streets of the UK.
Hosted by 5 Foot Way, in conjunction with the UK’s inaugural Southeast Asian Arts Festival, the pop-up Southeast Asian food festival (brainchild of Michelle Lee) brought the sounds, the smells and (most importantly) the flavours of Southeast Asia to a London side street. Visitors had the opportunity to dine on food from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma, washing everything down with a cup of homemade chrysanthemum tea, or (for those not driving) a glass of wine chosen by independent wine suppliers A Grape Night In to perfectly complement each dish.
At some point around midday, the pregnant clouds which had been threatening to drench us all morning finally burst. As diners huddled under plastic awnings, the pitter-patter of fat raindrops competing for prominence with the cacophony of cooking and the excited chatter of children, it was possible – if only for an instant – to be transported 6000 miles away to a monsoon-soaked Southeast Asian market.
Luckily for us, though, the sky soon brightened, and as the weather improved, so did the turnout. The power of food to draw a crowd is quite remarkable, and the festival was soon teeming with hungry visitors, all clamouring to sample the dishes on offer from eight different stalls. As for me, I had been eyeing up a bowl of Malaysian nasi lemak, and when I finally got my hands on one, it certainly did not disappoint. Like so much of Southeast Asian food, it offered that mouthwatering melange of flavours which makes the region’s food so irresistible, overlaying it with a distinctly Malaysian character provided by a sprinkling of dried anchovies, and more than a sprinkling of fiery chilli.
As the festival began to wind down, it was clear that one question was on everybody’s mind: would it be happening again? Although it’s hard to give a definite answer, Michelle is keen to see the event repeated, and judging by the empty pots and pans at the end of the day, so is the rest of London!
Personally, I hope this festival will herald a diversification of the Southeast Asian food on offer in the city, and hopefully if there is a next time, we will see some Cambodian food competing with the more well-known cuisines from the region – it’s certainly more than capable of doing so!