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Street Food: the women who make Netflix’s new foodie show stand out from the crowd

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Sarah Shaffi
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Delicious food combined with stories of innovative women make this a winning show.

Cooking is something that, even if we might not be good at it, is open to us all, regardless of gender. Ingredients and kitchen utensils don’t come to life and discriminate against you because you’re a woman.

But according to the Office for National Statistics, only 17% of chef positions in the UK are held by women, and the world of professional food is still dominated by men.

The divide is illustrated most clearly in the TV programmes that are fronted by chefs.

Men are often given shows which allow them to travel the world – Rick Stein, Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri all made a living seeing how people across the world cook - or be loud – see anything with Gordon Ramsay.

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Women, by contrast, are often confined to home kitchens in their programmes – Nigella: At My Table celebrated the food that Nigella Lawson loves to cook for friends and family while Nadiya’s Family Favourites, hosted by Nadiya Hussain, was about, well, family cooking. When women do travel for food, it can often be about family connection, such as Hussain’s Nadiya’s Asian Odyssey.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – fewer meals are more satisfying than those cooked and eaten in the comfort of the home – but the glut of shows allowing men to travel does perpetrate the idea that women are cooks and their domain is domesticity and the home kitchen, while men are chefs who travel far and wide and use their experiences to become food innovators.

But things are changing, with a new wave of television programmes finally showing women as food innovators, and leading the way is Street Food on Netflix.

Mbah Satinem makes jajan pesar in Indonesia.

In each of its nine episodes, the show visits a different country in Asia and profiles some of the people behind its legendary street food.

The first episode is focused on Bangkok, Thailand, and at its centre is Jay Fai, a 73-year-old woman who still cooks every day at her food stall.

Jay Fai’s dishes include traditional Thai food, but it’s the emphasis on her as a food innovator that is refreshing. Her crab omelettes and dry tom yum soup led to her stall being given a Michelin star.

Other women profiled include Mbah Satinem, who makes a sweet dish called jajan pasar in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and is the main breadwinner in her family. She starts work in the early hours of every morning, helped by her husband and daughter, before going to her stall at 5.30am. Geumsoon Park, who makes mung bean pancakes in Seoul, South Korea, has been working at her stall for 40 years, first with her mother and now with her daughter.

And the show is striking a cord with viewers, who have called it “visually stunning” and dubbed Jay Fai their “new favourite auntie”.

It’s not the first time that Netflix has produced a food programme that shows women as innovators. Salt Fat Acid Heat, hosted by Samin Nosrat and taking its name from her book, saw Nosrat travelling the world in search of great ingredients. One of the best things about Salt Fat Acid Heat was that Nosrat listened to the people she met, and didn’t speak over them, before respectfully incorporating what they’d told her into her own food.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Nosrat said that the world of professional cooking “valued a very limited type of culinary expertise” and that “I had to immerse myself in French and Italian cooking to become a ‘real’ cook and a ‘good’ cook”. Meanwhile, the ways her Iranian mother did something were often discounted by professional chefs.

And it’s the rebuttal against this idea of good and real chefs only following a certain path that make Street Food and Salt Fat Acid Heat so appealing.

The best food comes with a story behind it – a meal you love because it evokes a memory, a snack you only eat when you’re with a certain person, that one dish that a loved one makes that you could eat forever.

Watching a show in which a man yells at other chefs or eating a dish that is innovative just for the sake of it may well provide a few moments of satisfaction. But programmes like Street Food and Salt Fat Acid Heat, and the food they centre, highlight that stories, connection and human experiences are what makes food good, and that’s what make them such wonderful viewing.

Images: Netflix

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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