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How Dabbawal is on top of the street food trend

THE word ‘trend’ is so often overused that it can be devalued, yet when it comes to the astonishing growth of street-inspired food, the word is actually an understatement.

Jo Nessa owner of the Dabbawal restaurant on High Bridge, Newcastle
Jo Nessa owner of the Dabbawal restaurant on High Bridge, Newcastle

THE word ‘trend’ is so often overused that it can be devalued, yet when it comes to the astonishing growth of street-inspired food, the word is actually an understatement.

The growth of street-inspired food in the UK over the last couple of years has been less a trend, more a tsunami, prompting the growth of street stalls, blogs and books devoured by foodies hungry for every nugget of street food news.

And in Newcastle, it has gone a step further, with street food now also served up in an Indian eaterie by young restaurateur Jo Nessa, owner of Dabbawal, Newcastle’s first, and as yet only, street food kitchen.

The craze for street food has taken a major hold of foodies in the region in the 18 months since Jo launched Dabbawal, situated on High Bridge, where the team takes premium quality street-inspired Indian dishes and serves them tapas-style in a relaxed urban environment.

It’s a hip open-kitchen venue with a buzzing street vibe during the day and a more intimate atmosphere in the evening.

Markets and pop-up events like the recent Urban Night Feast in Newcastle and the forthcoming StreetSpice@Life event in the city planned for late February, plus food blogger Anna Hedworth’s Graze gatherings, are a huge success, while Newcastle’s Sunday Quayside market now presents a culinary tour of the world courtesy of a growing band of street-food stalls.

But it is only Dabbawal which has taken the concept and served it up with four walls and a roof in Newcastle’s first urban street food kitchen.

“I wanted to take the concept of the fresh food of the street and create a uniquely new experience in Newcastle,” says Jo Nessa, 25. “The trend for street food is growing fast and increasing numbers of restaurateurs like us are taking street food-inspired carts and stalls out to markets and fares, but we are the only people here serving this food inside as well as outside. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy the fabulous, fresh food of the street.

“In the restaurant, we have taken the ethos of traditional street food dishes and refined them, taking the quality of ingredients and presentation to a much higher level. Our customers love the fresh simplicity of our food and the beauty of the presentation and they’ve completely grasped the concept of grazing and sharing plates in an Indian kitchen.”

Named for Mumbai’s dabbawallas, Dabbawal has quickly gained a reputation for fresh, healthy food and a relaxed, urban vibe, just like the famous street markets of the Indian sub-continent which inspired Jo Nessa.

“The ethos of street food is social and about sharing,” she says. “Our customers enjoy sharing and digging in together as dishes arrive at the table. Street food is quick, tasty, fresh and can be eaten at any time of day, for snacking, lunch or dinner.”

Shortlisted for Best Newcomer in the British Curry Awards, Dabbawal’s grazing and sharing dishes, roomali rolls and chaats are fresh and rooted in the streets of Mumbai.

London trends generally head north, and the best street food players in the capital are delivering some of the most exhilarating cooking at some of the keenest prices. Here in the North East, we have seen a significant increase in pop-up restaurants, street markets and events and this is fuelling a foodie hunger for street food.

“It’s great to just turn up somewhere with your cart and cook the amazing, fresh food of the street there and then,” says former North East chef of the Year David Kennedy who, with his business partner Paul Scott, runs successful restaurants at Vallum artisan hub near Corbridge, Northumberland, at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle and at North Shields Fish Quay.

“Our street food stall gets us out and about into markets and pop-up events. It’s all about social food for grazing and sharing, and there’s nothing quite like it; it gives the dining experience a new, relaxed vibe which is really welcome.”

Festivals and food bloggers like Newcastle-based Anna Hedworth (www.the-grazer.blogspot.com) – the brains behind the city’s Spring and Autumn Graze events and the newly launched Grazer supper club – are fuelling the street food trend and encouraging foodies to redefine their expectations.

“The street food explosion has coincided with the economic recession and on one level it could be seen as a backlash against fine dining extravagance in a time of austerity, but for me there’s just a basic appeal to good, simple food served without the frills and shared in a social setting,” says Anna.

“It is making the North East food scene much more inventive with a really diverse range of food served up in some very unusual venues and there’s a real appetite out there for it.

“As well as my large local food markets, I have recently launched a little supper club in a shipping container.

“You book a place then get told where to turn up and what you will be dining on that evening; think smorgasbords and sharing plates, convivial dining is at the heart of it. It is all about the experience as well as something tasty to eat.”

The next step for street food in the North East will no doubt follow the trend in London for groups of vendors collaborating to create food destinations like daily lunch markets.

And when you consider street food is consumed by 2½ billion people worldwide every day, it’s no great surprise we have embraced it here in the North East at last.


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