Asian street food chefs fight lockdown slowdown

From Facebook groups to hyper-local delivery services, Southeast Asia’s street food chefs are cooking up creative ways to sell their wares as they struggle to survive during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The region is known for exotic treats often enjoyed at chairs and tables by the roadside, from mango sticky rice to rich coconut curries.

But restrictions imposed to fight the virus have forced vendors off the streets and confined customers to their homes — leaving businesses scrambling to find new ways to make ends meet.

And even with lockdowns being eased in some places, business will likely be slow to recover as many people continue to observe social-distancing.

One chef in Singapore, where open-air food courts housing many stalls are largely deserted as eating out has been banned, has created a Facebook group and is helping less tech-savvy vendors advertise takeaways.

Melvin Chew, 42, whose stall offers fresh mozzarella cheese, said the group now has over 250,000 members, including both food sellers — known locally as “hawkers” — and customers.

“There are a lot of supporters who have been helping out sharing (the Facebook page)… this actually brings out the passion and the love for Singapore hawkers’ food,” he said.

In the Thai capital Bangkok, one small hostel has transformed itself into a centre to help street food sellers in their historic neighbourhood.

Once Again Hostel has launched a delivery service linking vendors up with customers in the area via messaging app LINE, and takes a 15 percent commission — far lower than other such online services.

After a customer places an order, the food is dropped off at the hostel, and staff then arrange for motorbike couriers to deliver it. Thai street food classics like pad thai and roast pork noodles are among the most popular dishes.

In some places, the community is rallying around — a crowd-funding campaign has been launched in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon to raise money for street food sellers.

Despite curbs to fight the spread of the virus, some desperate vendors continue to sell food where and when they can, risking harassment from authorities and police.

“We want to make sure street vendors have the choice to stay home,” said Emilie Roell from Doh Eain, the group behind the campaign.