When it comes to television shows about food, there are three different kinds of genres that people tend to gravitate toward: competitions, how-to’s and travelogues. Competition food shows often involve cash prizes and can have unique twists, like how “Chopped” gives their competitors a mystery basket of ingredients or how “The Great British Baking Show” makes their participants recreate famous pastry recipes. How-to cooking shows follow a world-renowned chef or personality, like Gordon Ramsey or Ina Garten, who wants to share their cooking methodologies.
Then there are the exploratory shows where chefs travel around the world to find the best of the best in every cuisine or type of dish. Guy Fieri does it in “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and the late Anthony Bourdain did it in his show, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.”
Recently, Netflix has taken a different approach to capture the beauty of food — documentaries. The streaming platform has already released over five food docuseries, and just a few weeks ago they released a new one, titled “Street Food.”
The first volume of the tasty show covers a few countries from Asia, including Japan, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines. Each episode focuses on a city, telling the story of one street-food chef who has perfected their craft, while also highlighting other popular food vendors.
In terms of cinematography, the food docuseries is pretty ordinary. The angles and cuts are clean, and the wide, slow-motion shots capture the hustle and bustle of the local street life. “Street Food” is filmed like a typical documentary but the subjects, the people the documentary covers, are extraordinary.
The first episode in Bangkok follows Jay Fai, the first-ever street-food chef to win a Michelin star, the most coveted award that a restaurant could receive. When Fai was 25, she started watching her mother cook noodles on the street. Fai was eager to learn, but her mother always refused.
She was serious about cooking though, so at night she would take her mother’s wok and practice making stir fry noodles. By accident, she discovered a taste and aroma like no other and decided it was time to share it with the rest of the world.
Now, 40 years later, Fai still makes all the food she serves at her restaurant, Raan Jay Fai’s, every day for almost 12 hours. Because she’s handling burning hot, rather than donning a chef’s coat the street cook wears a black beanie and a ski goggles. Her signature dishes, the khai jeaw poo (crab omelet) and her dried tom yum (Thai shrimp soup) are favorites among locals, and now for tourists as well.
At times, Fai regrets receiving the Michelin star because now many customers see her eatery as a foodie box to check and overlook her passion for the cuisine. The demand and prices of a meal at Raan Jay Fai’s are increasing, but the quality of food and ingredients being used will never go down. It’s a promise that Fai, along with every street-food chef featured, will never break.
Dalchand Kashyap, a chef in India, made a similar promise to his father. As a child, Kashyap absorbed his father’s philosophy that “money doesn’t matter” and that “if the dish tastes good, people will be coming back for more.”
As a result, the now father of two makes sure to focus on the taste and quality of the chaat (a mixture of potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind sauce and yogurt) that he sells. Whenever he goes to the market, he’s always in search of fresh ingredients and switches merchants accordingly. At times, the dishes being served can get a little messy, but that’s another difference with street food: it’s about the flavor, not necessarily the presentation.
At the end of every episode, show creators David Gelb and Brian McGinn make sure to include a shot of the food created by each chef, but on nicer plates and silverware. The little clip they put in shares a big message; just because street food isn’t made in a nice kitchen by a chef who went to culinary school, doesn’t mean that it won’t taste just as good.
Almost all of the chefs featured didn’t go to culinary school; their recipes have just been in their families for generations. Each chef came from nothing and turned into a cultural icon within their local cities. They all went through hardships, and the show briefly touches on these heartbreaking moments, but the primary focus of “Street Food” is to tell the inspiring stories of the best street-food chefs, not to show where to get the best street food. Not to worry though, you’ll still be feeling hungry every time you watch an episode.
“Street Food” is a celebration of these chefs, and, surprisingly, unlike other culinary shows, this one features more women, many of who are the main providers for their household. Like Mbah Satinem from Indonesia, the 100-year-old chef who has been cooking jajan passar (a dish made from palm sugar, sticky rice, cassava and coconut) for 86 years, and Grace Chia Hui Lin, a third-generation fish-stew chef from Taiwan, who is determined to innovate her family’s recipes into new, tasty creations.
The main ingredients of “Street Food” are enthusiasm, passion and grit. If you’re looking to hear moving and motivating stories about people who started from the bottom, then look here, because “Street Food” has it all.