Series Review

'Street Food': a sublime new series from the creator of 'Chef's Table'

What sets this Netflix series apart from other culinary travel shows is its focus on the human stories behind Asia's street food stalls

05 May 2019 - 00:03
Cooks prepare street food in China.
Cooks prepare street food in China.
Image: Ryan Pyle/Getty Images

In 2011 director David Gelb made a documentary about 85-year-old Tokyo sushi master Jiro Ono. Jiro Dreams of Sushi became a runaway critical and commercial success and set Gelb on a course to revolutionise the way that films and TV series about food are made.

Many of the techniques that we now expect from shows about chefs and restaurants were introduced by Gelb in his film about Ono and the sushi master's relationship with his son. Gelb went on to create the enormously successful Netflix series Chef's Table and is now behind a new show about Asian street food.

Street food has, over the past few years, become a recognised culinary form in its own right, celebrated in shows such as Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and David Chang's Ugly Delicious - and sending foodies from around the world frantically flying to far-off destinations for the purpose of standing in long lines to sample local delicacies from bemused vendors who have been making their particular food in their particular way for years.

WATCH | The trailer for 'Street Food'

Street Food's hook is not in its visual presentation - thanks to Gelb we've become accustomed to shots of chefs walking through markets or fields selecting the finest ingredients, close-ups of hands expertly chopping, slicing and dicing, and carefully presented money-shots of the final product looking like a display in a museum.

What the show brings to the food show table over its nine episodes is a focus on the human stories behind its subjects and a reflection on the way in which their food is evidence of deep, sometimes centuries-old tradition, history and interaction between different people from different backgrounds, allowing for a sociopolitical consideration of food as more than just something we eat.

An air of melancholy hangs over many of the stories here - whether it's in the tale of the Indian chaat vendor made to take over the family stall after his brother's drug addiction and then using it to reconcile; the Korean noodle seller who has to go to work after her husband drives her family into bankruptcy; or the Taiwanese maker of a special goat's soup that involves so much smoking that he doesn't want his children to take over his business for fear of the risks to their health.

There are plenty of traditionally satisfying reasons to watch the show - the food is spectacular, the characters charming and inspiring and the settings exotic and intriguing.

But the best reason to take this tour of Asia and its dedicated street chefs is the recognition of a shared humanity, a shared struggle and the pleasure that comes from the good, old-fashioned bonding experience of eating something delicious that brings up memories and creates new ones.

It's also, as all good versions of these kinds of shows should be, a beautifully presented and executed chance to learn new things, discover new environments and experiences and celebrate one of the small, good and constantly rewarding parts of being human.

• 'Street Food' is available on Netflix

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