Remember when Netflix’s Street Food Asia episode on Cebu came out in April 2019 to much heated debate about its depiction of the city’s food scene? People complained the show didn’t choose the best, most emblematic food Cebu has to offer. One noted film director even called the show “poverty porn” that fetishized the grittier side of the city for a global audience. Nonetheless, it was an eye opener for viewers who tend to take street food for granted, as it explored the vendors’ stories behind the food they make.
The Street Food series is back again on Netflix with season two focusing, this time, on Latin America, namely Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. Unlike Street Food Asia, though, this season feels a bit more exotic, at least to me, and perhaps to most Filipinos who have never set foot in Latin America. The region has long been on my bucket list of must-visit destinations, but with this pandemic, I know I won’t be flying there any time soon, which is likely why I zipped through all six 30-minute episodes even faster than Street Food Asia.
Created by David Gelb and Brian McGinn who produced the Emmy Award-winning Chef’s Table series also on Netflix, Street Food isn’t set up like your usual food travel show. There are no useful tips on shopping and sightseeing, no “best food” lists, and no guide or host to lead the way. Instead, as viewers, we’re like hapless tourists on our first day in a strange new city. We amble our way to the marketplace or plaza in search of good local eats, and discover friendly street vendors who share their food and culture with us. And there’s much to discover.
Throughout six episodes, I learned about the influence of Africa on Brazilian culture and cuisine, and that it’s the thick, orange hued dendê oil (derived from the African palm tree) that lies at the heart of much of its cooking. In the Colombia episode, I discovered the deep diversity of the country’s cuisine through such dishes as mote de queso (yam and cheese soup) from the Caribbean coast, and rompe colchón (coconut fish soup) from the Pacific coast.
There’s not a lot I know about Bolivia, except for images of those indigenous women with the funny hats and voluminous skirts. In episode 6, we meet one of them, Emiliana Condori, who sells potato relleno balls on the streets of La Paz. She is one of the cholitas who have faced much social discrimination, but who nonetheless “keep our gastronomic culture alive” according to chef Marsia Taha.
While Street Food is still framed from a Westerner’s perspective, the show has no host à la Anthony Bourdain who acts as the foreign lens through which we experience a locale. Instead, it’s the street food vendors themselves who narrate their own stories in their native tongues, alongside commentary from local food writers and chefs. And for the most part, these stories tend to run counter to whatever preconceptions we may have about these countries’ cuisines. (This reminds me of why the controversial Cebu episode didn’t meet up to people’s expectations of how Cebuano, or for that matter Filipino, food should be portrayed.)
In the Argentina episode, I expected the usual images of beef, beef, and nothing but beef that most Argentinian food stories highlight. But instead, Street Food focuses on a cook, Pato Rodriguez, who isn’t known for her meat dishes, but for her glorious cheese-laden ham and potato tortilla. She narrates her struggle to maintain her business, Las Chicas de las Tres, and to come out as a lesbian to her family. And as a subtle jab to the machismo she grew up with, she recounts that she was never taught Argentina’s famous asado barbecue because it’s considered a “man thing”—but she learns how to grill meat anyways.
The other stories are just as captivating, as they highlight the vendors’ struggles against societal norms and age-old traditions. The Brazilian Suzana Sapucaia overcame a speech impediment and massive debt; the Mexican Valentina Hernández scraped by as a single mother; Luz Nary in Colombia had to start from scratch when her market closed down.
While the stories here are centered on women, there is one lone male protagonist from Lima, Peru who boasts one of the more intriguing narratives in the entire series. Tomás “Toshi” Matsufuji has not had to contend with issues of class, gender, or race in order to prevail. His struggle is more internal, as that of a son who follows in his late chef-father’s footsteps but then strikes a path that is radically different. Without giving away too much of the twists and turns of his life story, Matsufuji brings his Japanese-Peruvian heritage (aka Nikkei cuisine) to the street with Al Toke Pez, a modest eatery he likes to call “ugly.” In his self-deprecating tone, he calls himself and his crew “losers,” but with the way people line up to eat his delicious-looking combinado of ceviche, fried calamari, and seafood fried rice, his is a success story if there ever was one.
You may also like:
- Cebuano street fare gets its due in Netflix’s new documentary series
- Chef Tatung on Netflix's 'Street Food' : "Entoy shows us the way to feed our nation"
- What really happened behind the scenes of Netflix's 'Street Food' episode on Cebu
Similar to last year’s Cebu episode, not all the locals have been happy with the choice of food to represent their countries, how some of the commentators (usually of European descent) characterize indigenous cultures, not to mention the complete absence of even one Central American nation in the series. But whatever choices the producers had to make, the stories that do make it onscreen are compelling.
The show encourages us to see street food beyond the usual formulaic descriptors of “authentic” and “traditional” whose vendors just carry on, unchanging, selling the same dishes year in, year out. Instead, the series sees street food as ever evolving, with the more successful vendors portrayed as resourceful, creative, and innovative who don’t just cook the same food the same way, but adapt to the times in order to flourish. Hmm, don’t they sound like chefs? Maybe that’s the entire point.
Photos from Netlix