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A group of street food advocates plan to put the humble cuisine on the world platform to raise its profile and slow its demise
For the last few decades, one of China's most dedicated foodies has been getting his oyster pancake fix from a tiny roadside stall in Shantou, Guangdong province, where he was born.
The woman running the stall has been frying the egg, potato starch and fresh oyster delicacy for 60 years, and - according to Johnny Chan - the taste has never changed.
"That is the best oyster pancake in the world. That is heaven," Chan says. "The kind of food we grew up with will always be the kind of food we like most."
But the host of The Vision television program on China's Travel Channel has one fear - that the art of making the famous dish, which has also migrated to places like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, could one day be lost.
And with street chefs running out of places and permits to hawk their food, that day could come soon.
To save street food from going to the bin, a group of street food lovers - all of them big names in the culinary world - has come together to honor the humble cuisine in an international event.
Come May, street food chefs and industry players around the world will gather in Singapore at the first World Street Food Congress to showcase the various types of street food and to discuss ways to preserve them for posterity.
"Street food hawkers are being phased out by development, especially in the cities," says Chan, who was invited by event organizer Makansutra to speak at the press conference in Singapore late last week.
Echoing Chan's fear, Christophe Megel, chief executive of culinary school At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in Singapore, says cuisine is all about culture and tradition.
With a growing obsession with technology - like molecular cuisine - and the promotion of the globalization of food, Megel feels it is important to revisit the roots of cuisine.
After all, this is where it all started.
"It is an unbelievable movement that doesn't get enough attention, because the attention goes to the science in the kitchens," he says. "By supporting an event like this, we have a great opportunity to go back to what cuisine is all about."
The 10-day event, which starts on May 31, will be in three parts.
There will be a feast to showcase the works of at least 35 street food masters from around the world. China's representatives will come from Guangdong province's Chaozhou and Guangzhou and Hainan province - from where immigrants have made popular street snacks all over the world, especially Southeast Asia.
There will also be a dialogue for industry players and watchers to exchange ideas, skills and business opportunities.
And, to honor the best in street food culinary art in up to 16 categories, there is an awards segment.
According to Makansutra founder KF Seetoh, one aim of the congress is to "preserve the artisanal heritage and history" of street foods.
"It has to be preserved and protected; let it not all go to the factory," says Seetoh, a Singaporean.
Another aim of the event is to help professionalize the industry.
"A lot of the hawkers in our streets and malls today aren't formally trained," Seetoh says. "They don't really have access to the latest techniques, equipment (and) technology which some of the schools are teaching and sharing.
"We want to look at what that plate of satay (meat kebabs) can do for jobs, society, culture and business," he adds.
A World Street Food Council comprising culinary bigwigs will also be unveiled at the congress. Some names have been tossed around, including Anthony Bourdain, Ian Kittichai, Jose Andres, James Oseland and Claus Meyer.
The council will be a "think tank ... to function as thought leaders and vanguards of the industry" at the event, the organizer says.
Food critic Johnny Chan has been patronizing this oyster pancake hawker in Shantou for decades. Provided to China Daily
(China Daily 01/21/2013 page20)