There’s a romance to eating on the street – a charm that the finest dining experiences can only hope to rival. But, I often get asked, is street food inherently more risky than eating in a restaurant? My answer to that would be a resounding no. Some of the best food in a city is to be had off its streets. However, I guess there is a little science and art to eating on the street – a little observation, basic precautions and you’re good to go. Follow some basic rules and you will ensure that the food you’re eating is safe and fresh, and free of any unwanted contamination.
1. Follow the crowdEat where you see lots of people – clearly, good food attracts crowds. High volume also means that the food is likely to be freshly prepared instead of sitting around attracting dust and flies.
2. Is the stand or cart clean and well-maintained?Check to ensure that the location of the stand is good, i.e. it is not near a drain or an open water body which could be a potential breeding ground for mosquitoes. Even if the food is fine, there is a danger of getting bitten by mosquitoes if you eat in such a place. Check for basic cleanliness like ingredients being covered with a shrink wrap or a plate, basic neatness in the way the raw ingredients and cooked food are kept.
3. Check for hygiene practicesWatch the stall to see if the vendors follow basic hygiene practices in preparing and serving the food. Many street vendors now use plastic sheets on plates and ladle the food onto these sheets. With every order, a new sheet is used, then discarded at the end of the meal. It’s an eco-nightmare, but it’s a lot more sanitary than dunking a plate in a bucket of dingy water doubling as a petri dish. You’ll often find co-workers whose sole responsibility is to handle used plates and money, to avoid cross-contaminating food. Once, when I accidentally handed my money to the wrong guy, he turned his hand upside-down to avoid contact with my filthy coins. It’s simple: Watch out for basic hygiene practices before ordering.
4. Are the ingredients fresh?Use your eyes, nose, and tastebuds to figure this out for yourself. Look at the raw ingredients, vegetables, condiments and garnishes to determine if you want to eat at a given stand or cart. Choose the stall to fulfill your street food cravings only if they look freshly cut/preapred and are kept covered.
5. Eat regional specialties or dishesthe locals are likely to be best at their everyday food. Don’t order a new cuisine unless you’re sure it’s good at a particular joint. For example, don’t go expecting North-Indian chaats in South-Indian chaat counters. Or great Pao Bhaji in a van run by a Kannadiga. It helps, sometimes, to ask the owner where he / she is from and then judge how good their food is likely to be. There are lots of Pao Bhaji vendors from Mumbai who, for obvious reasons, do a much better job of this Maharashtrian dish than their brethren from another part of the country. Similarly, the momos are best with vendors from the North-East part of the country and the akki roti best in a Kannadiga run outlet.
6. Carry your own water.Or drink bottled water. Irrespective of how immune and brave you might be feeling don’t get carried away to believe that a little water won’t do any harm. It’s always better to err on the side of caution as far as water is concerned.
7. Use a hand sanitizer before eating
Follow some of these simple rules before you eat at a street side stall and you’ll usually have a memorable (for the right reasons!) street food experience.