In cooperation with an Expo Milano 2015 team, Stefano Marras began his research in 2011. For three and a half months he toured all the main Capitals of South America, stopping for roughly two weeks in each one, accompanied by experts from local Universities, or else on his own.
When you were researching in South America and Italy, you talked with many of the street food vendors we see in the documentary Esta es mi comida. Was it difficult to make contact with them?
I contacted them myself, or else through the universities. I stopped to chat with them, asked them if they’d be willing to be filmed during their day. Some of them even invited me to film them cooking their food in their homes in the morning, loading the food onto their trollies or barrows, and travelling to their stall or selling point. None of them objected, on the contrary. Maybe they were partly flattered to be filmed for Expo Milano 2015, and partly just polite.
Were some of their personal stories particularly striking?
Lots. In the documentary, everyone has a story to tell. All sincere, often moving. One woman earned enough from selling home-made bread to buy a new gas cooker. One man, specialized in Italian pasta with his own home-made sauces, whom I saw on the roadside, then he appeared on TV and became famous. Often the vendors have to deal with bans by local authorities, but if they become well-known they tend to be tacitly tolerated.
Another vendor was called Pelado, or Baldy, and sold a delicious sandwich with a meat filling: I got to know him because I took a photo of him in his rickety little stall, and he practically took three days to tell me the entire history of Argentina. Bear in mind that street food in South America is a major factor, important from a cultural, economic and even political viewpoint. Just think, about ten years ago the municipal government of Bogotà passed from the right wing to the left wing, the main factor being the votes of the street vendors, who are numerous enough to be politically important.
Many people steer clear of street food for hygienic reasons, because there are no controls. Are these legitimate worries?
I think you have to distinguish between the quality of the ingredients and the hygienic conditions of the food. As far as quality goes, it’s up to the vendor to sell fresh products, bought in local markets, maybe even organically grown. But on the sanitary and hygiene side, especially in developing countries, these worries may be legitimate. Most vendors prepare their food at home, but live in poor or extremely poor conditions, often in shantytowns with no drinking water, and this can be a risk factor.
Various studies have been conducted on samples of street food in South America, Asia and Africa, and found significant levels of microbiological contamination, but no studies have demonstrated that this contamination has caused illness. Remember, with street food, everything is visible, and many products are fried… and we all know that frying kills any bacteria. Plus, these people may be poor, but I’ve never seen such care taken over what they sell, and over cleaning their work surfaces: this is their only means of survival, so they have every incentive to keep their customers happy.
You say that these products are sustainable. Can you explain why?
You have to bear in mind three considerations: the small-scale of operations, that all vendors concentrate on just a few dishes, and the time-space flexibility inherent in the vans which can travel to wherever the markets are. This all means that the vendor has to calculate carefully and precisely the amount of food they need for the day, without waste or leftovers. It’s also advantageous from a hygienic viewpoint, because foods have necessarily to be fresh.
The new food truck development started in the United States and has certain precise features. Firstly, they offer gourmet dishes, fusion cooking, made with organic foods, locally bought, and they use social media to publicize themselves, they have special logos, personalized and well-equipped trucks. In the US this phenomena was set off by the 2008-2009 crisis, and immediately produced spectacular results for many vendors. In the animated infograph I showed during Sunday’s encounter at Slow Food,
there was the real story of Koghi bbq, who made 2 million dollars in his first year, has 137,000 Twitter followers, and has been voted among the ten best chefs in Los Angeles.
A success story which will certainly have inspired other vendors, but also a recent film, called “Chef. The perfect recipe”, which tells precisely that story: a well-known chef who loses his job because he insults a famous food critic, opens his own food truck and becomes a hit thanks to Twitter. In Italy, street food is less of a phenomenon.
Still, the various Festivals attracted between 500,000 and 750,000 customers in a year and a half, averaging 15 euros per customer. These Festivals generate significant turnover and profits. Currently there are 8,500 food and drink licenses, and an annual growth of 7% from 2009 to today. This is major growth, and there’s an exponential growth in press articles written about street food. I think that what has happened is this: at a certain point there was a street Gourmet Food trend which caught the eye of food journalists and bloggers, and this started the ball rolling. Remember, that of the 8,500 licenses today, only about 100 relate to Gourmet Food.
What will the street food of the future be like? How do you imagine it?
The fashion for high quality street food is bound to raise the level of ordinary street food. It will become increasingly organic, high quality and zero kilometers. Gradually the average palate will become more demanding and even the hot dog stalls outside discos will have to adapt to more refined tastes. Rather like what happened with pistachio flavored ice cream in Italy: in the 1980s it was insipid, unnatural and fluorescent green… if an ice cream vendor sold something like that today, they’d be out of business in a month.
In which country did you find the most extravagant versions of street food?
In South America they all seemed pretty extravagant, but especially in Bolivia, where I was fascinated by the story of the anticuchos, skewers of beef heart and potatoes, really small potatoes from the Andes, cooked on grills with really high flames and sold by typical Indian women with hats and colored scarves. The history of this recipe stretches back to the Incas, who used to eat this dish, but also during the period of Spanish colonialization, when the white men ate it with better cuts of meat, but the slaves continued to use the traditional ingredients. In Italy I was interested to eat Florentine lampredotto for the first time, the bread with spleen they sell in Palermo, and the intestine wrapped on skewers and then grilled.
And the most delicious?
The acarajè in Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, a kind of giant falafel made of crushed cowpeas fried in palm oil and filled with shrimp and jellied vegetable sauce.
The most ecological?
All the street food I tasted was made with local ingredients.
In Expo Milano 2015, have you been particularly impressed by any of the street food stalls?
I had some really excellent cheese panini in the Dutch Pavilion.