When it comes to street food, Scotland has a lot of talent up its sleeve. From a Vegware tray of paw-sized hand-dived scallops gently basted with garlic butter that warrant a lengthy queue in Ullapool, to metres of vibrant yellow fresh pasta that’s been folded, filled and fussed over till it's worthy of a standing ovation in Glasgow; in this country when we talk about street food we’ve moved far beyond the greasy kind that fuels truckers in laybys along the M8.
It’s from our roadside huts, vintage van hatches and revived warehouses that you’ll find such exquisite ingredient-driven plates of food, produced quite remarkably by “one-man” teams.
Except, wait a minute. Here, street food isn’t a man’s world. It’s true that 81.5 per cent of the UK’s chefs are male; they dominate the industry and cause fast-paced professional kitchens to cultivate misogyny, thrusting male rising stars into the limelight.
But in the world of street food it’s all about comradery with talented female traders quietly and confidently turning the quality up a notch.
Rachna Deer of Babu Kitchen was the first pioneer. In 2007, she burst onto the scene with a massive iron pot and served up aromatic, authentic curry like how you’d typically get it on the streets of Bombay.
Then she invented the naanwich: a fluffy herbed-up naan jammed to the rafters with succulent masala roasted chicken.
"It’s made with twenty-five spices," she tells me. "If you’re ordering just one thing, it’s got to be the naanwich; it’s got a cult following."
It might be International Women’s Day but, dare I suggest, there’s no reason to restrict our appreciation for those blessed with ovaries to just 24 hours. Here’s my list of traders that deserve recognition every-day and ought to be propelled to the top of your must-visit list.
With fresh ingredients in one hand and heaps of infectious ambition in the other, they’re all culinary forces to be reckoned with. And needless to say, it all tastes great.
You might expect to find quirky ice-creams in a Michelin starred restaurant where umami flavours like wasabi are married with cream, expertly quenelled and delicately placed atop of salmon sashimi. Well, Emma Riddell has taken that ice-cream innovation to the streets.
At the 2018 Scottish Street Food Awards she wowed us judges with a formidable gherkin and cream cheese gelato and it’s there, at The Pitt, that she can also be found every weekend, scooping up other delights like an olive oil, ricotta, lemon and bay leaf number.
If you’re playing it safe, try one of Emma’s freakshakes: a cup of thick milky gelato smeared with a chocolate rim, piled high with a balancing doughnut, mound of whipped cream and a lightly toasted marshmallow.
Branching out from the family business – a humble chippy born in 1991 – Alanda Black is the entrepreneur that sought to take her love of fresh Scottish seafood on the road with a fleet of four street food trailers.
Determined to overturn the traditional relationship between quality seafood and prestigious, stuffy restaurants, she parks up on Longniddry bents and lures in the passing traffic with soft-shell crab burgers and skewers of garlic and chilli king prawns.
Look out for Alanda during The Fringe. Her Maine-style New-England lobster roll contains fleshy Eyemouth lobsters and a generous squeeze of fresh lemon, all held together in a squishy brioche roll; a suitably scrumptious handful-sized snack for devouring on the move between shows.
Mel Duncan believes that "not all desserts are created equal" and once you’ve slid a spoonful of her silky crème brûlée into your mouth – you’ll be inclined to agree.
This exemplary pud is burnt to order with a caramelised sugary seal that melts on your tongue and, unlike any other, it’s topped with the likes of juicy strawberries and chewy meringue or salted-caramel brownie pieces.
In fact, there are two impressive ladies at work here. Florence is the gorgeous mousy-grey retro Renault who’s become something of a globetrotter; she took Mel down to London (where The Crema Caravan snapped up the Best Dessert Award at the British Street Food Awards) and then got shipped over to the United Arab Emirates to strut her stuff at Eat The World DXB. Florence deserves a big round of applause too.
Anyone who believes that vegetarian food must mean virtuous salads comprised of kale and avocado, or bland tofu, mushroom burgers and couscous stuffed peppers, clearly hasn’t eaten from Freddy & Hicks.
Anna Robertson is a knowledgeable stalwart of the street food scene. She hustled at London’s formidable Borough Market for fifteen years before eventually ending up in Glasgow with her sunshine yellow branded Freddy & Hicks stall.
After a successful crowdfund she now serves her impressively crispy sweet potato fries out of a newly renovated horsebox. They come laden with black olives, jalepeños, red onion, tomato salsa, fresh coriander, wedges of halloumi, moreish lemon tahini sauce and sriracha mayo: a perfect side to her renowned vegan beetroot burger.
Jules McGuire is the queen of pasta. At her home in Platform at Argyle Street Arches customers line up for slippery pillows of ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta that bursts with a perfectly cooked oozing egg yolk, combining with sage butter to form indulgent ochre puddles on the plate.
During the week Jules gets up at the crack of dawn and prepares fresh pasta for over 12 hours every day.
It could be anything from hand-cut ribbons destined to be coated in her eight-hour slow-cooked pork and beef ragu to nduja and pumpkin triangoli… it might an adventurous dish, but it’ll never be one that goes against Italy’s pasta teachings.
"Sticking to regional traditions is the mainstay of Gallus," Jules tells me. "I could never have carbonara on my menu because it’s not a fresh pasta dish, it’s traditionally made with dried pasta. That’s something I want to drive home – the differences between dried pasta and fresh pasta."
If you like bold beef-burgers that don’t feel the need to hide under lots of extravagant toppings, then you’ll love Paula O’Rawe’s creations.
"It’s easy to do stunt burgers and load them with all the mad, bonkers stuff, but I wanted to be the polar opposite of that trend. I want to be simple and transparent – good bread, good meat, good cheese," she says.
Her burgers are made with Cumbernauld-based Bavarian Bakehouse buns and she uses patties from William Cranston’s in Pollokshields (a bespoke burger recipe, made predominantly from shoulder of grass-fed cattle from Finlay Farm in Wishaw) with, as all Glasgow-based cheese lovers will tell you, the best artisan cheese around: I. J. Mellis on Great Western Road. Paula is 48 years young this year and eager to encourage more people to get into street food. Sometimes good quality ingredients and a load of gumption are all it takes.
Louise Olivarius knows, quite literally, the recipe for street food success. "A business must be that wee bit different and it needs to serve something for all dietary requirements, like vegan and gluten-free," she explains. "I think the healthier the food, the more attractive it is, and crucially the whole thing must be exceptional value for money."
Shawarmarama caters for Glasgow’s diversity with halal chicken, and she’s not messing on that last point. It feels like their shawarmas weigh more than a human baby; you’ll want to hold it protectively in your arms and show it off to your friends.
It’s true that Louise knows a thing or two about good shawarmas, but she is also the mastermind behind Nom Nam and Nomad Pizza. With three scrumptious street food brands under her belt, following Louise to events around Scotland wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Rhona Qualm (A.K.A The Pizza Lady to locals) single-handedly flies the street food flag for Ayrshire. She’s the kind of woman that ditches canned sweetcorn in favour of foraged wild garlic and also pays above average for her vegetables, including curly kale, fresh basil and courgette, from the Auchincruive walled garden.
The community allotments there are supported by Gardening Leave, a charity that uses horticulture as therapy to support veterans experiencing PTSD…. and Rhona always pops a few extra coins in the honesty box to show her appreciation for their hard work.
Of course, all these organic goodies make for wonderful pizza toppings. They sit on thin-based wood-fired pizzas and are served out of a silver van emblazoned with the words “In loving memory of Maggie May”.
Rhona’s a family woman at heart and her customers are an extension of that. It might be a lengthy queue, but chatting to Rhona and getting a top-notch pizza at the end of the line makes that long
wait worth it.
Whenever I get asked “what was the highlight of writing street food Scotland”, the generous four-course spread by Mezzaluna Italian Street Kitchen springs to mind.
I was travelling through Fife one particular weekend and though Chiara di Ponio had no intentions of trading, she didn’t want to miss the opportunity to appear in my book and so kindly fired up her navy blue horsebox in her driveway. What ensued was a genuinely authentic Italian feast fit for queens.
Highlights include Chiara’s fresh tagliatelle ribbons coated in a creamy sauce, swirled around a giant wheel of hollowed-out Grana Padano – a rich and complex gooey bowl of pasta. She’s recently branched out into wedding catering and if that doesn’t give men a kick up the arse to put a ring on it, then I don’t know what will.
Mechelle’s style strolls out of the ’50s; she dons a headscarf with pristine eyebrows, winged eyeliner and ‘MELT LIFE’ tattooed on her knuckles… so she’s already the coolest person you know. Then there’s her grilled cheese.
I’m talking sourdough sandwiching macaroni cheese, haggis and smoked bacon or Mechelle’s take on the ‘Carozza’ - buttery brioche filled with mozzarella & strong cheddar, panko coated and served with spicy marinara sauce. It’s just what the doctor ordered after a big night out.
Nikki Leys is a traditionalist insofar as her porridge is made with rolled oats, water and salt. "It doesn’t need milk to make it deliciously creamy," she assures me. But she elevates the humble oat with produce from her dad’s allotment at Greyhope Bay.
In May, Nikki delights morning strollers with her rhubarb and rose compote on top, while in chillier months she experiments with warm and fragrant overnight cardamom and chia oats.
It’s all washed down with the hot trickle of Sacred Grounds organic Peruvian coffee, which bursts with notes of cherry bakewell and chocolate, and will double up as a handwarmer in winter. With thanks to Nikki, morning strolls along Aberdeen’s Esplanade will never be the same. In the words of Goldilocks, everything here is “just right”.
Siobhan Cameron isn’t messing when she says "from creel to the pan as fast as we can". This is exactly how seafood ought to be enjoyed, beside pristine waters a stone’s throw from where it was landed. In her little hut, that looked like a garden shed until it was painted sky blue in summer 2019, Siobhan fries her homemade skin-on chips until they are deep brown, crunchy and dangerously moreish.
These are a mighty fine enhancement to the main event: smoked Loch Fyne kippers in a warm crusty roll, Inverlussa mussels given the marinière treatment, half lobsters baked in lime and garlic, and traditional fish suppers.
There aren’t many places in the world where you can find such range or quality, nor pick up a roll teeming with black pudding and meaty scallops to eat on the hoof as you board a ferry to a remote island. But this tiny shack has it all.
Behind Tobermory’s famous fish and chip van (it has served His Royal Highness The Prince of
Wales, don’t you know!?) is best friends Jeanette Gallagher and Jane Maclean. The two ladies launched their fish and chip van back in 1988 to cater to the island’s demand. The people wanted fresh seafood, and boy were they going to get it.
Find the metallic box on Fisherman’s Pier in the heart of the town, feeding a long string of loyal locals, hungry visitors and passing cyclists. Perch on the base of the clock tower, or on a nearby lobster and prawn creel, and tuck into the fresh and crunchy battered angel-cut haddock that’s come straight off the boats that morning. You’re in safe hands there.
Jeni Hardie is the bad girl that you want to befriend. Her bakery is about treating yourself every now and again, and not feeling guilty about it.
Can I get an amen to that?!
"Everyone’s got someone in the family who frowns upon you having a treat, if you’re having a slice of cake they’d say, 'Ooh, you’re a bad girl!' So, it’s just light-heartedly poking fun at that idea. Here, we’re all about the treats."
There’s nothing more disappointing than disappointing cake and so, Jeni’s portions are big and generous.
It’s not just masses of sweet things piled, high in a box and slathered with buttercream; there are whacks of flavour and unexpected textures in each bite; a layer of salted caramel here, some crumbled biscuit there – Jeni’s resolute in her fight to end the circulation of tasteless baked goods.
You can find her 1950s silver metallic airstream caravan in the centre of Inverness in summer (or alternatively make a beeline for Jeni’s permanent location in Muir of Ord).
The Seafood Shack was born out of frustration. Kirsty Scobie and Fenella Renwick noticed that Ullapool had around twelve local boats: five prawn trawlers and seven inshore creel boats, with a further two crabbing boats coming in each week and around ten white fish boats that land regularly, depending on the time of year. There’s a huge variety of seafood coming in daily, but where was it all going? Straight onto the back of a lorry.
Eager to keep a little fresh seafood for themselves, the two ladies crowdfunded for a trailer and opened up shop in an unassuming lot, one road back from the shore. It’s sandwiched between two windbreaking buildings, with unobscured views of picturesque Loch Broom. When the sun beats down, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the Mediterranean as you tuck into a pot of luxuriously creamy lobster mac ‘n’ cheese.