Retail in Asia

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London’s diverse food-truck scene a lesson to Hong Kong

Londoners have not always bought their food from the stocked aisles of a supermarket, of course. Once upon a time, they all would have visited street markets where “the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers … quite confounded the senses”, as Charles Dickens put it, in Oliver Twist.

Borough Market, Billingsgate Fish Market, Smithfield and Covent Garden are still part of the city’s day-to-day existence, albeit without the squalor of Dickensian times. By injecting creativity and entertainment, markets have been reinventing themselves, with street food playing a big role.

Old Spitalfields Market, one of the finest surviving Victorian market halls in London, is buzzing when I visit – hawkers peddling their wares, delivery boys pushing carts, men and women gathered around tables enjoying their lunch, be it Indian samosas, Philadelphia cheese steak, Thai curry or a British pie, fresh lemonade or a doughnut. Parked under a glass and iron roof, beside beautifully restored red-brick buildings, are a dozen or so food trucks and trailers – with names such as Sud Italia (pizzas), Al Chile (Mexican), Tre Rote (Pasta) – and while not all the fare served here comes from these vehicles, meals on wheels have become especially popular in the British capital since the 2008 financial crisis.

The Belpassi Bros’ food truck, at Old Spitalfields Market.

“Trucks serving food were a cheaper option to opening a restaurant in London, where rents are exorbitant,” says Philip Bell, the manager of Belpassi Bros, an Italian food truck at Old Spitalfields. “As a result, they became all the rage because people were doing good-quality, home-made-style food at affordable prices.”

And with London authorities having set no limit on the number of food trucks, they are popping up in markets across the city.

To the east of Spitalfields, and on the other side of the River Thames, the Southbank Centre Food Market is all about the food; it’s like a permanent food festival, and there’s not a McDonald’s or Starbucks in sight.

The market is a vibrant feast for the senses and an eclectic gastronomic display – beautifully decorated cupcakes, stinky cheese, a whole roast hog (like siu yuk), delicate French crepes, glazed Korean chicken, Vietnamese bao, paella that smells of the sea, two large steaming cauldrons of Southern chicken gravy and much more. Since opening in April last year, the market has seen a steady increase in the number of food vendors – there are now about 35, 10 of whom operate from trucks, the rest serving from tented stalls, a rough equivalent of Hong Kong’s hawkers (which our government is trying to phase out). Having so much variety and quality in one place makes the market much more appealing than the sterile, cookie-cutter indoor food courts we have to put up with in Hong Kong.