Street Food Hero: Buddha Belly

If anyone tells you that the street food scene is glamorous, think again.  When I finally caught up with Sai at Buddha Belly, they were holding the Gazebo down in the face of driving wind and rain.  With their collective other hands, they were stirring curry and trying to keep the rain off the electrics.

I had been meaning to pay Sai a visit for weeks, but I finally got around to it on the one day the weather decided to play hell.

Sai is a food natural, born in Thailand, to a family of dedicated chefs. Official training is relatively rare, as cooking is passed down from parents to children. She came over to the UK as a small child with her parents. In 2012 she appeared on the popular TV show, Masterchef.

I have always been a huge advocate of Thai food, ever since I tried it in Ireland.  It combines the best of Indian and Chinese cooking but excels both in flavour and presentation. It is also remarkably low and fat. I started with one of their Thai fishcakes.  I have had these before in restaurants, usually bought in and deep fried until hard.  But these were different, they were plump, juicy, tender and very spicy.  I was sold on one bite.

They then offered me a sample of their various curries and noodles.  The spicy port was slow cooked and perfectly tender.  The green chicken curry was a more subtle flavour, with more depth than spice.  The vegetables with noodles were crisp and retaining all their flavour. 

Even the rainwater down my neck could not ruin my afternoon.

So I put a few questions to her:

First question:  How did you get started on the street food scene?  Do you enjoy it?

Well, I’ve always been passionate about food. Not just Thai food; all food. I had been to University and began working as a Social Worker, which I did enjoy, but food was always on my mind.

I’ve always loved cooking. I don’t read books, I’m not up to date with the latest music trends and I’m not into fashion. Food is my greatest love. Applying for Masterchef, like most people, was done on a whim. I thought, “They’ll never pick me, but, I might as well apply”. You can imagine my shock when they contacted me about being on the show. I made it through, round after round of auditions until I finally made it to the last 24 contestants from 20,000. Being kicked off the show was devastating to me. All those months of preparing for it to end was awful at the time, but it really made me evaluate my career choice. Street food seemed to be the answer.

My family are all street food trader’s. This goes back a few generations and before street food was the ‘in’ thing, my Mum began selling Thai food at Farmer’s Markets. I’ve never been under any illusions, street food requires dedication, patience and a hell of a lot of hard work.

I began the business with so much support from my family and the past two years have been an absolute whirlwind with as many successful events as failed ones. Each event is a gamble and anything can affect your day from the rain, heat, sports matches, an EDL march (this actually happened at the Birmingham Chilli Festival 2013!)

What spurs any street food trader on is the repeat custom and such a loyal customer base in our weekly and month events. It’s an amazing feeling when people spend their hard earned money on you time after time and will even travel to an event just to have your food. The reward from this job is incredible and when you have such amazing feedback and customers, selling in the worst weather conditions is so much more bearable and we’ve traded in some awful, awful weather. I love my job.

Second Question:  Would you go on Masterchef again, if they asked you back?

Only to say, “hey look at what I did!” Once in a lifetime of those kind of nerves are enough for anyone!

Third question:  What do you plan to do next?

In the near future, we’re hoping to do more pop up events in the West Midlands. We’re doing our first pop up at Cherry Reds on John Bright Street, Birmingham on Monday May 26th. Alongside this we also really want to focus on our regular markets where we get such a loyal customer base. These customers are so important to us and we want to keep them happy.

In the not too distant future, we’d love to have our own permanent base, perhaps in Birmingham. We love this city and we think it’s the perfect place for a permanent fixture for Buddha Belly.

You can follow Sai and co. on Twitter @saibuddhabelly or take a look at their website.

By chef Nick Gilmartin who can be contacted on @Nick1975 or find out more here.