Word on the Street: Scotland's Street Food Scene

We take a look at the trials and tribulations behind your favourite street food

Feature by Peter Simpson | 29 Sep 2016

Food and drink is, let's face it, an industry that likes to drive a trend until the wheels come off. One day, mutterings come down the foodie pipeline of a brilliant new dish or style, and the next everyone has jumped in with their own take on it. By the third, everyone's fed up with it, and by the end of the week there's open mockery of anyone left on the wrong side of (recent) history. “Forget your cronuts, old man,” they say, “we've got mufgels.”

One trend which has stood the test of time is street food; partly because of its slightly nebulous nature, and partly because street food is a broad church. Cheap dishes, myriad cuisines and styles, and an inclusive vibe are all key tenets of street food as transposed from the hawker markets of South Asia to the glum skies of Northern Europe. It's among the greatest of the developments we've seen in the UK food scene in the last decade – high-quality food stripped of unnecessary faff, proving that you don't need fancy tablecloths (or even a table) to have a great meal.

The only problem is street food is still a bit of a pain in the arse to... y'know... do. While as punters it's easy to get wrapped up in the post-industrial ambience and tasty, tasty shrimp sandwiches, it's time to take a step back and see whether our growing mass of street food customers and kitchens are parked on solid ground.

So let's imagine a scenario – you want to set up a street food van. One nice quirk is that you need to own your vehicle before you can apply for a pitch, which feels a little bit like a bank asking you to move all your possessions into your new house before they give you a mortgage. At best, it's a bit incovenient; at worst, all your stuff is now trapped somewhere that's literally no use to you. 

Anyway, you find a vehicle, kit it out, go through all the usual fit-out checks, environmental health and insurance checks, and then you're on your way. On your way to a world of paperwork, that is. You'll need to apply for a licence – for you, not the business, meaning that you'll need licences for each and every person who might conceivably be in the van in the course of service.

Get your licence, and you can make the moves to get a permanent pitch – your application will cost around £300, which gets you a survey by your local council to check up on footfall, traffic, impact to the surrounding area and so on. This takes around three months, during which you can twiddle your thumbs to your heart's content, and if the council don't grant you a pitch you can kiss that cash from earlier goodbye. Oh, and much of Edinburgh and Glasgow city centres are off limits entirely to any new street vendor applications, so save your pennies and don't bother asking in the first place.

It's an expensive and time-consuming business, and one that isn't massively helped by the nature of local government, which might be charitably described as 'modular'. As one street food trader told us: “There's no infrastructure in place for street food. The things we need are handled by a host of disparate departments, and they don't like to talk to each other. They'll literally tell you, ‘We don't talk to that other department.’” That's before you even get into issues like dealing with residents' groups and trying to get the locals on side using just that little rectangle on a council application form.

With all those lovely problems to look forward to, it's no surprise that street food traders are turning to alternative set-ups, such as the blindingly successful Pitt market in Leith. Since its inception at the end of last year, The Pitt has housed regular all-day markets bringing together groups of Scotland's best street food traders in one place. There are plenty of advantages to this kind of set-up – working on private land (in this case, a garage forecourt) removes many of the licensing and permission worries from individual traders; having a large number of traders in close proximity makes it much easier and cost-effective to upgrade the facilities if needed; and working in close contact with fellow traders creates opportunities to work together and build up networks. It is, as one trader put it, "a step in the right direction".

Crucially, spaces like The Pitt still require street food to be street-ready, something which is not required when stenciling the words 'STREET FOOD' above the door of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant and hiding all the plates in a cupboard under the stairs. Trends are always rife for co-opting by established players (cf. the Greggsnut), but when taking the street food off the street, there is a danger of losing the essence of what made it good in the first place. The best indoor street food takes the recipe of small dishes at low cost in simple surroundings and sticks a roof on top; the worst takes a regular meal and puts it in a box or on a plank because #streetfood.

Or, as Emily Stix-Moynihan of Edinburgh street food truck Fresh Revolution puts it: “When I see the term ‘street food’ in referring to a permanent restaurant, I kind of just glaze over it, to be honest. It seems like just another buzzword... I really feel that an important aspect street food are the food trucks themselves.” Emily points to some examples of street-style food working well indoors, praising El Cartel's tacos and the bao at Ninja Kitchen (which itself started out as the Ninja Buns street food pop-up) for their authenticity, while also acknowledging that semi-permanent spaces are necessary for meteorological reasons as much as anything else. As she says: “We do live in Scotland, after all.” 

Glasgow street food outfit Chompsky launch the city's first permanent food truck at a pitch on Kelvin Way this month, with menus featuring flavours from all over the world, from vegan Pho to salt beef sandwiches. After having fought tooth-and-nail to get their van up and running, they have a somewhat philosophical take on the current street food situation: “Bureaucracy doesn't allow for explosive change to accomodate new things like street food,” they told us. “But then again, New York went through all of the same growing pains and their street food scene is huge with trucks everywhere; it's just that the difficult stuff was all five or 10 years ago.”

Because as much as it may seem that this type of dining has been around for ever, we're still in the early days of its adoption in the UK. Street food's moved beyond the initial heady buzz of the new, and has now moved steadily into some teenage growing pains. It's looking for its own space, and struggling with authority figures who don't always seem massively understanding; let's do what we can to help it along, before it naffs off on a gap year abroad and never comes back.

Chompsky, Kelvin Way, Glasgow (nr. Kelvingrove Park & University Avenue)
The Pitt, 125 Pitt St, Edinburgh, every Saturday 12-10pm