Singapore’s street food has a Unesco tag. Can India’s hawkers get one too?

Jan 16, 2021 10:13 AM IST

Indian street food isn’t confined to hawker centres. It’s spread across the country, with small vendors often selling a single item. But our diversity alone deserves being celebrated as our intangible heritage. Experts weigh in

Singapore has every reason to be proud of its street food. Hawkers have been around since the 1800s, they currently feed 8 of 10 locals at least once a week. In clusters spread across streets, markets and neighbourhoods are 110 licenced hawker centres, where more than 14,000 cooks operate about 6,000 food stalls.

Singapore’s hawker stalls are a beloved part of city life. But even the regulated model has flaws. New chefs find it hard to survive, get subsidies, and innovate. (SHUTTERSTOCK)
Singapore’s hawker stalls are a beloved part of city life. But even the regulated model has flaws. New chefs find it hard to survive, get subsidies, and innovate. (SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s on every tourist’s agenda and it’s where you can go for a traditional laksa or a new-fangled shrimp broth. Some hawkers have even earned Michelin stars.

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In 2020, Unesco recognised this hawker culture as part of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Those public dining and culinary practices had created “community dining rooms” for the nation, said Unesco’s statement. They represented its multicultural citizenry.

Singapore’s street food joined the Chinese martial art tai chi, Bedouin textile-weaving in Saudi Arabia, Swiss watchmaking craftsmanship and competitive grass-mowing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in receiving tags in 2020 that designated them essential elements of local culture.

The move has made Indians wonder if similar recognition might help local hawkers. Natasha Celmi, a Bengaluru-based chef, food stylist and author of the cookbook Fast Fresh Flavourful, spent years in Singapore and enjoyed its street-dining. “I have always applauded the entrepreneurial spirit, zeal and happy attitude of Indian food vendors,” she says. “They cook and serve from the heart. A tag like this would be great recognition for their hard work and give Indian entrepreneurs the support they need.”

Tagging will be tricky. Indian street food isn’t confined to hawker centres. It’s spread across the country, with small vendors often selling a single item. “We associate the term mostly with deep-fried, greasy food,” says Ajit Bhaskar, a Bengaluru-based chemical engineer who chronicles his kitchen experiences on Instagram @macroajit. “But we steam idli and dhokla; make seasonal, labour-intensive desserts like Delhi’s daulat ki chaat, and cater to all kinds of food preferences.”

Most street food isn’t even on our radar, let alone in a tourist guide. Chandra Bhan Prasad, an entrepreneur who mobilises Dalit-led businesses, says that in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a new street-food system is emerging. Small-town butchers who’d rear pigs are now selling local pork dishes from their roadside huts.

“It’s big business,” Prasad says. “Upper-caste folk, many from communities that wouldn’t traditionally touch the meat, leave money with them and return in 40 minutes to pick up the cooked meal. But no one thinks of these vendors when they discuss street food.”

In India, street food also resists categorisation, says food anthropologist Shirin Mehrotra. Chaat, for instance, covers Kolkata’s jhal muri and phuchka, Delhi’s papdi chaat and Mumbai’s sev puri, but also Lucknow’s mashed white-pea chaat and Mangaluru’s bhel-like churmuri, which uses coconut oil, beetroot and egg. “With such diversity, where does tagging even start,” Mehrotra asks.

In Singapore, government regulation came in the 1970s, decades before international recognition. Hawker zones are licensed, vendors are connected to electricity, water supply and sanitation. The country is planning 17 more centres by 2027.

In 2018, a committee to promote street food even proposed centralised dishwashing, mentorships for aspiring chefs and amenities like wifi and kids’ play areas as ways to further improve the food zones.

Vendors, for their part, pay rent and operating costs — expenses that few independent hawkers in India could afford. “Licences alone eat into a food vendor’s profits here,” says Bhaskar.

Meanwhile, even Singapore’s famed model is struggling. Vendors from the ’70s, paying subsidised rates, fare better than new entrants. There’s a nationwide shortage of staff and creative chefs. Bhaskar fears that regulation in India might cause worse problems. “A government, any government, tends to prioritise a fuzzy idea of authenticity, ignoring the inventiveness that independent entrepreneurs bring.”

Prasad agrees. “A heritage tag helps only if you look beyond what’s popular, reach the fringes and bring all of it under the ambit of street food,” he says. “Or small players, who need the most support, might be left out.”

What India needs, experts say, is to formally acknowledge the enterprise, hard work and talent of its street entrepreneurs.

Prasad has seen underprivileged communities in UP adapt puris, which require high amounts of frying oil, into a paratha-like bread that uses half a tablespoon of grease. “It goes into a regional puri sabzi,” he says. Bhaskar has watched folks crowd around for chocolate-idli in Bengaluru and savoury modaks in Puducherry. And Mehrotra has fond memories of a man in Varanasi who’d set up a stall outside his home from 4pm to 7pm, gingerly rustling up only three or four batches of small potato-hing kachoris.

“If you asked how long it would take, he’d respond ‘Aap jaiye. Aap se na ho payega (Move along. This won’t work for you)’. These are the quirks that make street food special.”

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    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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