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Street food has less bacteria than a lot of restaurant food

August 6, 2007

Sure, most street vendors cook food in unhygienic surroundings and flies hover around the food, and some of this food causes diseases (besides dirtying the surroundings) – but if these vendors obey the supreme court ban on cooking food on the streets and bring it packed from home what do you think will happen? You guessed it…the customers will get even more diseases! And I doubt whether the streets will be any cleaner. More plastic and non-biodegradable packing material will be used. There will be a lot more litter on the road than before. As for the food, no one will be sure of what they are getting – stale, fresh or contaminated food. A fly being ground into the pakoda mixture won’t be unusual…because cooking in broad daylight on the streets is clearly more advantageous than cooking in dark dingy dirty ill-ventilated rooms a few feet away from stinking open drains. That is where the vendors will cook the food if they are thrown out from the streets.

Well, even though the majority (hawkers unions, normal citizens and editors and columnists) are against the ban on road-side cooking, what is worrying is that the ban might just be enforced, at least in Delhi, a city which the government is bent on ‘beautifying.’ And so what if there is no piping hot, fresh and cheap food for the masses…

And to show just how far removed from reality officials are is this statement of Dr. S Kudalkar, the deputy municipal commissioner of Mumbai (quoted in a DNA report which unfortunately was not available online). He called for a “mass movement by citizens to abstain buying from hawkers’ (talking in context of cooking food on the streets). He feels this is the only way to enforce a ban which simply isn’t working.

Mass movement? He must be joking. If there is going to be any sort of mass movement, it will be in support of the street vendors! Our citizens may want to get rid of hawkers who crowd the pavements but when it comes to those who provide the food, no one wants them to disappear. The demand for cheap fresh food is so great that any sort of effective ban will result in an outbreak of disease. Not everyone can eat branded packaged food everyday and branded packaged food is the only alternative for those who too busy too cook or live away from home. There are a huge number of migrants in both Delhi and Mumbai, which is where street cooking has become very common.

Restaurant and hotel food is often more contaminated food than street food
As for those lucky few who can afford a restaurant or a hotel on a regular basis – well, they could fall sick too. Everyone knows that food in most smaller restaurants and hotels can be pretty much full of bacteria…in fact it is not unusual to to get stomach infections even from eating at so-called good restaurants. Read this:

Studies have shown that freshly cooked street food in India have far lower bacterial contamination than food prepared in most restaurants because street vendors cook in full view of the public. As restaurant kitchens are hidden from public view, hygiene levels in most Indian restaurants tend to be suspect.

Why even luxury trains like the Rajdhani and the Shatabdi are known to serve stale and dirty food. Surprise checks revealed some shocking facts. Food was found to be “cooked 7-8 hours before, packed in unhygienic drums and dumped into steel vessels on the trains…” And the food was cooked in dirty surroundings, but heated properly before serving to customers so they did not realise that it was stale. Knowing our weather conditions, food spoils easily. I think one of the reasons we don’t fall sick is that we have strong stomachs.

What about the drinks and juices?
Strangely, the new ban will not include tea and coffee. These will continue to be made and sold on the streets. Guess thats better than nothing, but what about the fresh juices (which are usually mixed with water or dirty ice) and dubious drinks like the ones in the cart below?

and these strange looking coloured mixtures?

These drinks often use banned colors and flavors and the water they use is often unclean. Far more likely to get typhoid or cholera from these sources…not from street food.

Is there no solution then?
If the government is so desperate to clean up the streets why can’t they train the hawkers in basic hygiene…penalise them if they dirty the roads, train them to handle food, wear gloves, and ofcourse supply them with clean water? Well, this is apparently going to happen, but frankly if these newly trained guys who are supposed to follow these hygienic practices (which they have probably never heard of before) in the security of their own ‘home’ then I would not trust them. Everyone knows that no serious monitoring will ever be done. And if restaurant owners routinely flout rules of hygiene how are these guys, most of whom are illiterate, expected to follow them?

We have moved away from what our ancestors taught us
All this dirt and lack of hygiene in preparing food is alien to our culture. That is what I believe. Any Indian who has grown up with his grandparents will know what sticklers our ancestors were about hygiene. We had some rather strict regimens that were followed in kitchens, some of which were extreme. Taking a ‘bite’ from another was sinful and even eating from each other’s plates was taboo. I remember fact my own grandfather – he was so particular that he never went anywhere without taking his plate and glass. He told me that however well a plate was cleaned, you could still be exposed to some remnant bacteria. And another rule was that no one could cook or enter the kitchen (or pooja room) without having a bath…now I don’t know how widespread these practices were but most people I knew followed these regimens in kitchens. The older generation was very particular. Personal hygiene has always been a sacred ritual in our society, from ancient times.

Perhaps I have diverted from my main topic…which is about street food. But perhaps I haven’t. The bitter truth today is that today I would rather trust a street vendor rather than a hotelier. I can always pick and choose a street vendor who I can see is cleaner than the others….but where restaurants are concerned, they may serve gourmet food, but who knows what goes on behind those closed doors?

(Photos copyrighted to me)

Related Reading: Review of Nirmal Lifestyle
Review of R Mall at Mulund Mumbai
Food Advertising can be deceptive

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2007 8:54 am

    Wow Nita, too many posts. Most of ’em are based on social issues.

    I dunno abt the ban of “cooking on Streets” and I do agree with the fact that watching people cook and eating it is better than gulping down the food cooked in hidden kitchens. I have observed it at 100s of places in Mumbai n pune where hygiene is totally ignored. Kitchens are at their best of the worst conditions and its all blackened everywhere. Food remains and unwashed utensils are used to cook. Most of the time we purposely ignore thinking about it just to make feel that we aren’t eating something unclean. But, it remains a truth at the end of the day.

    Careless attitude is what government should try to eradicate. People just dont care a damn about such matter and they just try to finish off their job just for the heck of it. Proper law enforcement is what we all need. I mean, its not just this case of banning cooking on streets but rather in general I would say, tht gov shld make it a strict law and if it is enforced properly then every matter can be solved within no time.

    Currently I am based in US and I find a drastic change in law enforcement strategies and people here are sensible enuf to re-think before they act. Here gov doesnt give any choice and people have to follow rules very strictly. I spent most of the days in Mumbai , Pune..and can find a change staying her at US.

    Felt good reading your posts. 🙂

  2. August 6, 2007 10:13 am

    i agree with u as i find street food even tastier than the hotel food , and cheaper one too 😛

  3. August 6, 2007 10:47 am

    Arvind, can’t help but agree with you. I love street food myself!

    Anoop, you have ofcourse hit the nail on the head when you talked of a general disregard for hygiene in restaurants here. And as you said the reason is weak law enforcement. These hotel owners for example will ensure hygiene in their own homes but are careless about their restaurant. I know one such example personally. The weak law enforcement problem is certainly a malaise in our society and affects every single thing.

  4. August 6, 2007 7:31 pm

    Strong Stomachs…. I wonder….. We dont have any Strong Stomachs as such… Though we might not have been affected as such at that point of time by the food we eat, we on a Long run have been suffering…… A lot of people these days are suffering from Ulcers, Acidity and other related diseases…. These also contribute to the lessened life time of a Human Being and on the other Hand our Ancestors used to live healthy for longer times… Hygeine also is a factor….
    My ancestors used to consume lots of Oils and Ghee with their food… But that didnt effect them…. I consider whatever items we get these days Lack Purity……. We dont get Pure Milk, Pure Ghee nor Pure Oil……….. I feel that there certainly is a need for regular inspections atleast in the small hotels… (Might be impossible in case of Road side hawkers)…..
    The decision of banning the road side food is Unfair….. Not every man can afford a McDonald’s for an evening Snack… Or Order a Pizza….. How about the masses….. And the case of Railways, thats how they make profits…… I never enjoyed the food in any of the TRains….
    And coming to beautification of roads, We can never expect a Road Side Pani Puri wala to be in a Posh locality…. They usually sell in localities where the masses live and so that aint a concern…. I personally would suggest that the Government should rather issue guidelines for maintenance of Hygeine and work for their Enforcement……….

  5. August 7, 2007 1:15 am

    Peace, I just found your blog through Umar Lee’s. It looks interesting, I will most definitely be stopping by.

  6. August 7, 2007 12:28 pm

    I agree with you Nita. Cooking on the road is much more hygenic than cooking in dark dingy rooms. Fresh and hot food is definitely healthier than stale and packaged food.

  7. August 14, 2007 4:56 pm

    I agree with that but there is a problem my parents are very strict and they are not letting me eat street foods so sad to say huhuhh

  8. August 21, 2007 12:14 am

    singapore model is best
    they even rate stalls according to parameters

    yes i prefer street food but do face ecoli problems too

  9. Abhijit Konwar permalink
    January 5, 2010 3:15 pm

    Can any 1 give me some kind of helpfull article about the popularity of street food in kolkata?

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