World Street Food Congress visitors prefer more exotic fare

Shorter and with fewer stalls, World Street Food Congress draws similar crowds as two years ago

The second World Street Food Congress organised by Makansutra ended on a high yesterday with long queues at 23 hawker stalls from 12 cities, featuring food from Bolivia, India, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States, among others.

Organisers could not confirm the total turnout at press time but said they expected to record 80,000 to 100,000 visitors at the five-day food frenzy which began last Wednesday and was held at the open area near Tan Quee Lan Street.

The first edition held in 2013 at the F1 Pit Building area also reported 80,000 visitors but it was a larger affair featuring 37 stalls over 10 days.

Feedback received led to this second congress, also supported by the Singapore Tourism Board, being made smaller and tighter.

The World Street Food Congress 2015 featured a Singapore pavilion of hawkers such as the popular Chey Sua Carrot Cake from Toa Payoh Lorong 1, which served up its signature white carrot cake.

Hong Kong Street Chun Kee from Makansutra Gluttons Bay created a new dish for the occasion, turning its well-known har cheong gai or prawn paste chicken into a burger to attract younger customers.

"It's popular, we sold so many I don't have time to count," said Mrs May Chan, 40, who runs the outfit with her husband Chan Chong You, 43. They are considering adding the new dish to their regular menu.

Returning hawkers such as Hoy Tord Chao Lay from Thailand, which sells hoy tord or oyster omelette, and BanhCan 38 from Vietnam, which sells banh xeo or crispy seafood pancake, saw long snaking queues, as did newcomers such as the East Side King food truck from Austin, Texas, which serves Asian-inspired food such as a raw seafood starter, kinilaw, made with snakehead fish, red onion, coconut vinegar, yuzu and Thai chilli.

Mr Dinesh Kumar, 34, of D K Litti Corner in Patna, India, said he sold about 600 plates of his litti choka (dough balls filled with gram flour and eaten with chicken) and had to turn away customers last Friday. He prepared for at least 800 on Saturday.

Pepita's Kitchen from the Philippines had visitors queuing up an hour before opening time at 1pm, patiently waiting in the hot sun under umbrellas for their turn to try the $13.80 truffle lechon diva or roast pork and crispy skin on paella rice.

"I've never tried this before and if it's good, it's worth it," said Singaporean engineer Jason Boh, 27, who had 25 people ahead of him at 12.30pm, half an hour before the kitchen opened.

Another hot favourite which drew hopeful buyers to queue by noon on Saturday was Restaurant Gustu from La Paz, Bolivia - for its $10 anticucho or skewered meat with boiled potatoes and a sauce featuring Bolivian aji, a yellow chilli pepper.

"We're running out of food before we run out of people," said chef Kamilla Seidler, 31, who dished out about 450 plates last Thursday and Friday, prepared 600 on Saturday and had to take a break for a few hours as the crowds grew too large.

Singaporean Nancy Russell, 66, who works in hospitality, said she had travelled from Pasir Ris to try this street food and would probably get her nephews and nieces down as well.

"This is something different and I've never tried Bolivian food. Ten dollars to try something that's authentic is fine. If you go to a food court, you'd spend about $10 as well."

However, some visitors said the variety and pricing could be improved.

"It's not worth it," said Ms Eivan Liew, 33, who works in the hotel industry. She paid $8 for the spiced chicken soup soto ayam from Indonesian stall Ambengan Pak Sadi. "It's good but not worth $8. I'm not going to try anything else as this is not up to expectations."

She says she would have eaten more at the event if there had been more food from different parts of the world rather than from nearby countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Mr K.F. Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, says in response: "These neighbouring countries in South-east Asia and Asia are the hub of street food culture in the world. You don't have this culture in the bloodline and DNA elsewhere. In Europe, you still have this disdain for hawking in the street."

As for the pricing, he says the event cost "in excess of $1 million" to organise, with hawkers paying the full cost of rental, electricity and water as well as their flights in. Even at these prices, few might break even.

But for many, that was not the point.

Ms Seidler said: "It's not about the money, it's about introducing Bolivian food to people here."

Similarly, Mr Shyam Sunder and his wife Munni Devi, both in their 50s, said money was not why they brought the best of their Pradeep Sweets stall in New Delhi to Singapore, with the help of the National Association of Street Vendors of India. They served up about 200 plates of gulab jamun dessert and twice that much of puri subji (deep-fried bread with vegetable gravy) to visitors of different ethnicities.

Mr Sunder said in Hindi: "We came to show our best and would gladly come again. We're going to go back and ask our government to give us what you have in Singapore - water, waste disposal - so we can offer our customers in India the same quality of food."

akshitan@sph.com.sg