Informalities of Modern Food Cathedrals

© Naeem Adam.

Gastronomy is a trendy topic across many threads of discourse in architecture and urbanism. Where western food courts within mega-malls exist as mere banal spaces of service, and traditional market halls exhibit a sense of majesty, informal market spaces pick up on neither of these elements – acting out of a necessity for energy, multi-used & often indistinct, and always layered with previous incarnations of stories and activities. What is particularly interesting is how its built form has begun to reflect our collective societal and cultural fascination.

© Neem Adam. Street Scene: Xi'an, China
© Naeem Adam. Street Scene: Xi’an, China

Within South Africa, these spaces continue to exist within mere containers for trade and commerce as a shared space. The “Marketmall” to food may be what the museum was to art, comfortably existing within shopping-mauled containers displaying their pimped up food courts; but in Asia: they are about more than just the consumption of food, and the services and branding that surrounds this. The cathedral of the foodie is blurred and exists on the pavement. They are about creating the idea and spectacle of food – the visual manifestation of food connoisseur & urban flâneur culture – and the design of the spaces themselves (or lack-thereof) indeed reflect this.

Food markets are important commercial and cultural spaces throughout Asia, in small villages and big cities, operating with different regulatory frameworks and cultural contexts. The market landscape in Asia is very diverse, but the thriving markets I was fortunate enough to visit and attempt to evaluate, shared a number of common quirks and characteristics.

© Neem Adam. Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand
© Naeem Adam. Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Integration of Public Space
Pedestrian streets or small plazas often exists near the market, and some include both. The inclusion of pedestrian streets and open public spaces around the market promotes walkability, and provides space for social encounters &“street appropriation”. The particular use of the street for activities such as outdoor eating and street-vending, other than mere circulation routes or for permanent commerce, establish the market as a community gathering space and encourage customers to linger—a goal worth pursuing in any city.

© Neem Adam. Street Vendor, Hanoi, Vietnam
© Naeem Adam. Street Vendor, Hanoi, Vietnam

Varying Degrees of Formality
There are often food vendors with established stalls, side by side with those filling in the gaps, sometimes setting up shop on the floor, or transient enough to sell their produce on foot. This variety creates a rich experience for the local and foreign customer, adding the overall atmosphere of the market, also providing more options in terms of variety and price. This multiplicity also lowers barriers of entry for informal and less established entrepreneurs as it allows vendors to participate by selling their goods, even if they cannot afford to rent a formal stall.

© Neem Adam. Mobile Vendor, Krabi, Thailand
© Naaeem Adam. Mobile Vendor, Krabi, Thailand

Various seating options
Seating would often be located right in front or to the side of the stall where the food was prepared and sold in full view of the customer. In some cases, the market architecture incorporated fixed counters and stools as part of each prepared food vendor’s stall. More interestingly, it was quite exciting to see prepared food vendors creating their own seating areas on concrete pavements and tarred streetscapes using chairs, wooden benches, milk crates, and even blankets.

© Neem Adam. Coffee Corner, Hanoi, Vietnam
© Naeem Adam. Coffee Corner, Hanoi, Vietnam
© Neem Adam.
© Naeem Adam.

Hours of Operation
Most markets were located within dense, walkable, and mixed-use neighborhoods, with plenty of foot traffic and energy from morning until night. Often being located near housing, transportation hubs, public spaces, convenient stores, and restaurants, they present themselves as well positioned enough for locals and tourists to make sales throughout the day and evening, all week long.

© Neem Adam. Street Vendor, Xi'an, China
© Naeem Adam. Street Vendor, Xi’an, China
© Neem Adam. Fast Food, Kowloon, Hong Kong
© Naeem Adam. Fast Food, Kowloon, Hong Kong
© Neem Adam. Night Market, Siem Reap, Cambodia
© Naeem Adam. Night Market, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Affordability
Food was often cheaper within informal markets than at restaurants, understandably so given the higher distinction of informality. An affordable market is accessible and inclusive to all, and renders itself as an important space for commercial and social activities. While exceptions do exist for Euro-bearing tourists who get scammed, the overall culture of the food market as public space remains prevalent.

© Neem Adam. Food Vendor, Xi'an, China
© Naeem Adam. Food Vendor, Xi’an, China

Safety
Most markets were constantly bustling with crowds of people from all walks of life and parts of the globe mixing together. With this abundance of activity, money is constantly changing hands. Although having eyes on the street gave the markets a generally safe atmosphere, pick pocketing is a common concern. There is also the concern that some degree of “cheating” or “tourist scamming” may occur around transactions, more often than not depending on whether you’re a clear–cut tourist in town wreaking of western privilege.

© Neem Adam. Muslim Quarter, Xi'an, China
© Naeem Adam. Muslim Quarter, Xi’an, China
© Neem Adam. Night Market, Hanoi, Vietnam
© Naeem Adam. Night Market, Hanoi, Vietnam

As food markets in Asia continue to gain popularity, commercial, social and cultural importance within their communities, there is great value in learning from them. Particularly in how they have remained at the centre of people’s lives, existing as spaces in the city where culture and commerce invariably intersect.