Street Food Smarts

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Should food be cooked and sold out in the open, where the people are? Just today two articles crossed my screen. One is from Toronto, whose street food scene has been smothered inside a bun, so to speak, by a law that may now change. (See Food for Thought post for article and more links.) The other is a very thoughtful piece from the Times on how the chaat in Delhi is moving off the street and possibly losing its soul.

Chengdu has one of the most active and colourful street food scenes I’ve ever enjoyed. Its main initial attraction for me, besides the low cost, was that street food is some of the most accessible through a language barrier - you can see what is available without having to puzzle through a menu and you can order and pay with hand signals. I eat street food almost daily and feel like I’ve only begun learning about it.

Many foreigners living here, however, eschew street food entirely. Some do this out of caution and some due to painful past experiences. Many local people also avoid it, mentioning the lack of hygiene. For some years I worked in restaurant kitchens and am all too aware that street food can’t comply with most of our food prep safety standards; two major challenges are lack of refrigeration and lack of a ready source of water for washing. Still, I can’t bring myself to write off all street food entirely – it is too good and too cheap.

Keeping an eye on the popular stalls is one of the most basic ways of finding safe street food. You can find the good vendors, see what people are ordering, and observe how they are eating it. By watching the food being prepared you can also see if the cook cares about what they are doing or not. A good cook has been recognizable in any country I have been in so far - they should move with a kind of attentive confidence, even when working very quickly.

A cook’s attention to hygiene, or lack thereof, is also pretty easy to gauge. So I avoid the stalls where the vendor has his hands jammed into his pockets or is rubbing his hand across his face in thirty degree weather. The vendor who has stacked up several dozen cooked items in the heat of the afternoon also gets a pass. I look for the stall with clean, organized equipment and oil that looks and smells fresh. I look at the ingredients carefully and sniff them if I can, and hold my hand above the food items to feel if they are still hot. Compared to sitting down in a nice clean inspected restaurant this is unquestionably still a risk, but so far I have avoided being sick and some of my favourite foods here have been bought and eaten on the street.

Starting this weekend, Frugal Cuisine will have posts on Chengdu snacks and street food along with the recipes. It fits the frugal theme and will break up the routine a bit, since I no longer have books to review. Hope everyone enjoys the new feature.


Sara said...

Looking forward to reading about where you've moved to. Perhaps I missed it, but did you even mention why you moved?

the veggie paparazzo said...

Ooh, exciting! I'm going to love it!

Ryan said...

I love street food. I loved street food when I lived in Taiwan and never had a bad experience. Some of my best Asia food memories were street food. Other foreigners, especially travelers, we often taken aback when I suggested picking up some street food.

I'm sure people get sick eating street food sometime, but really, if you get sick at a restaurant, you don't say, "I'm not eating at restaurants anymore!", do you? No, you say that you're no longer going to visit that particular restaurant. Why should it be any different for street food? To be honest, I've known more people to get sick from home barbeques and improperly-cooked food in restaurants than from eating street food.

Looking forward to more delicious street food stories!

sra said...

Interesting post, Pepper. Here, if we want to eat street food, we don't take hygiene and nutrition in street food v seriously, and who knows, it may even have helped us build resistance - I'm yet to make/taste any food that tastes just like street food - dunno what gives it that quality that defies description.
Having said that, I must mention that nowadays I see even street fruit vendors cutting up fruit (mostly papaya and watermelon)and packing it in transparent white/plastic boxes on their carts, it looks pretty and wants to look hygienic but I haven't ever tried them.
Most of us approach street food with a mixture of caution and abandon - and have our own standards to decide if it's passable or avoidable, like you describe!

Pepper said...

The dauntless Phnomen*n has a street food guide for Cambodia up as well here.