Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Street food

While driving home from work one night last week, I came across a somewhat unusual but welcome sight on Bautista Street in Makati.

On the sidewalk was a well-lit makeshift food stall selling Thai noodles that were steaming in a big vat. Beside the stall were a monobloc table and some chairs. The food stall had a Thai name and offered standard Thai fare—noodles, some meat, and vegetables. Yes, very reminiscent of Thailand at nighttime, if you have been there.

Is street food Thailand style invading the country? I hope so. I really hope so.

The Thai food stall on Bautista was clearly put up only at nighttime since I don’t remember seeing it during daytime when I would pass by the area on my way to work. Because the food stall was well lighted and food was prepared in front of the customers, one could witness the sanitary precautions used in preparing the simple meal. Obviously, whoever is behind that particular food stall must be Thai or at least someone who has spent considerable time in Thailand.

Those who have been to Thailand know that makeshift food stalls are a very common sight in that country. In fact, street food is common fare in Thailand. Very few Thais cook dinner in their households and prefer to eat or buy food from street food vendors.

I have a number of Thai friends and I have been to Thailand a number of times, but I still have to eat dinner cooked by my Thai friends in their own homes. It is possible that I simply have friends who are too lazy or just spoiled rotten, but I have been told it’s just not practical to cook food in Thailand, or at least not in the highly urbanized cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai where I’ve spent considerable time.

The two or three times I did get to visit friends in their homes in Thailand, I was also served food that was also obviously bought off the street. Even the fruits I was served were bought off the street, already peeled and sliced.

There’s rhyme and reason why Thais prefer to eat or buy food from street vendors. It is really more practical.

First of all, the food is nutritious. No, they don’t have any of the suspicious-looking and cardiac arrest-inducing stuff floating in vats of liquid that is being passed off as cooking oil which we have come to associate with street food in the Philippines.

Food stalls in Thailand usually offer variations of the same fare: noodles dipped in a steaming vat of broth (usually chicken stock), slices of some meat (usually duck or chicken), topped with fresh vegetables and herbs. Some stalls offer fresh seafood, and these are truly fresh and are laid on ice. Others offer all kinds of processed food such as squid or fish balls, but these are also generally boiled and mixed with the broth rather than fried, which is the common way they are served in our country.

Street food in Thailand is sanitary. These food stalls are usually put up only at night when there are less noxious gases and other toxic elements floating around. The preparation of the food is pretty much simple and reduces the possibility of dirt contamination. The vendor simply picks some noodles with tongs, dunks the noodles in the steaming chicken broth until done, puts these in a bowl, pours in some of the broth, tops the whole steaming serving with slices of meat, fresh vegetables, and herbs and presto, dinner is served.

If one so wishes, one eats using disposable chopsticks. Chopsticks and a soup spoon is really all that is necessary. And if one wishes to use a spoon and fork, one can ask the vendor to dip these into the steaming broth for sterilization purposes.

The flavors in Thai street food come from the fresh herbs and the broth, not from some sachet.
Because the stall is well lighted and the vendor prepares the food right there and then, one can also witness exactly how the food is prepared and can presumably raise a howl if the preparation does not meet one’s sanitary standards.

And of course, because the food is served “al fresco” which in this case, means literally in open air—to be specific, right on the street—the overhead cost is reduced significantly and the price of the food becomes affordable.

So I really hope that that particular Thai food stall on Bautista Street becomes a harbinger of sorts. I think nutritious, healthy, and reasonably priced street food is something that we should encourage instead of those carinderias that offer the same tired variations of cholesterol-laden foodstuff such as pares, crispy pata, and sisig. In fact, just a block away from that food stall in Bautista is a row of food stalls whose number keeps growing each day. These food stalls are patronized by taxi drivers and offer the usual greasy unhealthy stuff.

I hope this does not make me some kind of a snob, but really, it does strike me that eating street food in our country today is something that requires tremendous peer pressure, a major leap of faith, coupled probably with desperation and extreme hunger. I have problems eating street food in our country but I would sit down with nary a thought in front of a makeshift food stall in Bangkok and gobble down servings of street food.

We Filipinos like to eat. Our street food fare is interesting, exciting even. The whole buffet include adidas (chicken feet), rambo (curdled blood), IUD (chicken intestines), helmet (chicken head), tokneneng (quail egg), etc.

The question is, why can’t we make street food healthy or at the very least, clean?

I’m talking about those makeshift carinderias and jollijeeps (jeepneys transformed into mini-restaurants) where the buffet abounds with flies and where one is served food on plates inserted into flimsy plastic bags. One literally eats from plastic bags and saves the vendor from having to wash plates and utensils. When one is done, the vendor simply takes off the plastic bag from the plate, throws this into the trash bin, and reuses the plate by inserting it into another plastic bag.

I’m talking about corn or even peanuts that have been boiled using water sourced from questionable sources and hawked to the general populace. I once saw a street vendor scoop water out of a public fountain to use in boiling the corn he was peddling.

I’m talking about ice products such as ice scramble and ice shakes that are produced under the most unsanitary conditions possible.

Food is basic. We must make it clean and safe and healthy.

1 comment:

docchef said...

what do they serve? is it wstill there?