This post originally featured on The Culture Vulture.
I’ll never forget my first experience of street food. It was August 2011, a time when street food in the UK meant a stomach ache from a dodgy van rather than an £8 ‘gourmet’ burger from a shopping centre. The arts sector had just taken its first series of sizeable whacks from the government, and I’d taken voluntary redundancy from my lovely arts job. But it was ok, because I was in possession of a round the world ticket with a return date of February 2012 – screw you, reality!
Our first stop was Bangkok, the start of a six-week food crawl around South East Asia. Like millions of travellers before me, I’d been enticed by beguiling accounts of Asia’s street food; of heaving streets packed with tiny tin cooking stations radiating the intoxicating aromas of dishes I couldn’t even pronounce. I was so excited and I remember that first night so clearly; walking slowly down each street in a giddy trance as I was guided by the seductive scents wafting from bubbling cauldrons and hissing woks.
But there was a problem. Me. Striking at the most inopportune of times, my awkward veggie syndrome meant I was all but excluded from street food fun times. I wandered from street to street, visiting cart after cart only to be met with endless varieties of meat and fish. It became my nemesis throughout Asia and I persisted, learning the phrase for “do you have anything vegetarian” in Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Malaysian, but my efforts were continually met with stares of confusion. I finally gave up, taking my exploration indoors where I tasted some of the most fantastic dishes of my entire life. But still, my Asian street food flame flickered. ONE day, veggie Asian street food joy would be mine.
Fast forward three years, and that day has finally come. In Leeds. Yes, it may be 6000 miles away from the crazy streets of Bangkok, but as a result of Leeds’ enduring love affair with all-things street food, my long-held desire for that most elusive of foodstuffs – vegetarian asian street food – has finally been sated, thanks to Street Fodder, Harajuku Kitchen and Dorshi.
A newcomer to Leeds’ street food scene, Street Fodder is the creation of husband and wife team, Tom and Louise. Tom’s been a professional chef for 18 years, best known for the acclaimed ‘We the Animals’ pop up that recently disbanded; Louise an art and textile teacher of 10 years. Together, they founded Street Fodder as an homage to East Asian cuisine, a family favourite that they serve up out of a repurposed cobalt van decorated with lillies.
But most importantly, Street Fodder shall forever be known as the purveyor of the BEST spring roll I have tasted since eating my way around Thailand.
Hear me out. Spring rolls are risky territory; all-too-often a flavourless greasy parcel of unidentifiable mush that merely functions as a vessel for a dipping sauce rather than a delicious snack in its own right. You have to kiss a fair few frogs to find ‘the one’, but when you do, it’s SO worth the wait. It’s been three weeks since I tasted Street Fodder’s shiitake spring rolls, yet I can still remember the flavours so clearly: the fresh crunch of the carrot and cabbage; the intense earthiness of the shiitake; the heat of the ginger. This was no mush, but a perfectly-pronounced medley of flavours and textures that transported me straight back to South East Asia. Just, wow.
You’ll find Street Fodder at World Feast each month, as well as other festivals and events – follow them on twitter to track them and their magical spring rolls down.
Ok, ok. So Harajuku Kitchen isn’t technically on the street, it’s in Trinity Kitchen. But for a shopping centre food court, Trinity Kitchen has done a damn good job of channelling that wonderful spirit of street food that led me to Asia in the first place, so we’ll let that one slide. Bringing the taste of Japan to Leeds via their base in Edinburgh, Harajuku Kitchen’s pop-up in Trinity Kitchen may only have one veggie option, but it’s a damn good one. The veggie gyoza. Petite, crimped crescents are filled with finely shredded cabbage, carrot and tofu, then pan fried and doused with soy sauce and coriander. The saltiness of the soy brings out the subtle flavours of the filling, and the pan frying results in a satisfying crisp to the gyoza’s exterior. Lovely.
I haven’t been to Japan so can’t comment on the authenticity of the gyoza by taste alone, but chatting to Harajuku Kitchen’s co-owner, Keith, was more than enough to convince me. Originally a town planner, Keith’s venture into Japanese street food was inspired by wife and co-owner, Kaori, a fourth generation Japanese food vendor. Wanting to share their love of authentic Japanese cuisine with as many people as possible, the pair began by selling sushi and noodles at Edinburgh’s Stockbridge Market, before establishing their own acclaimed bistro in Edinburgh city centre. Keith now spreads the Harajuku love at festivals, markets and street food spots across the country, whilst Kaori runs the restaurant in Edinburgh. Harajuku Kitchen has about two weeks left at Trinity Kitchen so make sure you get down there before they leave – it’s an order. Follow them on twitter @harajukukitchen
Next door to Harajuku, and continuing to spread the joy of Asian street food in Trinity Kitchen, is Dorset’s Dorshi. Founded to satisfy their cravings for Japanese, Korean and South East Asian hawker food, Dorshi’s Jolly and Malaysian-born Radhika are on a mission: to give local, seasonal UK produce a new lease of life in experimental East Asian recipes. Think handmade Asian dumplings with black pudding filling, and you get the idea.
Although their meaty options have been met with twitter acclaim since their arrival in Trinity Kitchen three weeks ago, I’m delighted to declare their steamed veggie dumpling as JOYOUS. That’s right, JOYOUS. There was the tingle of chilli, the richness of the mushroom and the crunch of the carrot, cabbage and courgette; bound together by a silky paste of coriander, spring onion and hemp seed pesto and wrapped in a soft, al dente blanket. Chuck in the cool creaminess of kewpie mayo, the contrasting heat of sriracha sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, and you’ve got yourself something that’s as close to perfection as you’re ever likely to find in a dumpling.
Like Harajuku Kitchen, Dorshi have less than two weeks left and I URGE you to make those three weeks count – there’s nothing quite like them in Leeds. Follow them at @eatdorshi
So there you have it, my long-awaited odyssey into Asian street food, veggie style. It may not be Asian street food as sticklers for true authenticity would demand, but hello; this is Leeds, not Asia! Tinpot carts may have been traded for slick vans, dishes adapted and shock-horror, some of it’s not even sold on the street, but so what? It was the concept of street food that led me to Asia and I LOVE that this has been embraced in Leeds, the chance for people to wander the streets (literal or not), to smell the aromas wafting from those bubbling cauldrons, to taste something new; something unexpected; something AMAZING. Throw in passion, inventive use of local produce and that magical ‘v’ sign, and that’s really all that matters to me.
Over to you, veggies of Leeds. What have I missed? I’m still hungry, so if you’ve got any other recommendations for great vegetarian Asian street food in Leeds, send them my way!