Goodbye to 'Delhi belly' with safe street food zones

A street food vendor selling kachoris, a deep-fried snack, at a wholesale flower market in New Delhi. There are an estimated five million street food vendors in India, of whomabout 60,000 are in Delhi.
A street food vendor selling kachoris, a deep-fried snack, at a wholesale flower market in New Delhi. There are an estimated five million street food vendors in India, of whomabout 60,000 are in Delhi. PHOTO: AFP

India is known for its many beautiful tourist attractions, from Mughal-era tombs to colonial buildings and national parks.

It is also known for a not-so- beautiful condition named "Delhi belly", the tummy upset that has often befallen the unsuspecting traveller.

Drinking only bottled water and avoiding street food are some tips that travellers are given to avoid getting sick.

But street food is one of the best ways to appreciate the culture of a city so, in an attempt to separate Delhi from the bellyache, and allow travellers to sample India's famous street food without worrying about falling ill, two groups have joined hands to train street vendors in hygiene and sanitation.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, a government agency, and the National Association of Street Vendors in India (Nasvi) are planning to create safe food zones in Delhi and 14 other Indian states where food standards will be regulated.

Starting with Delhi, eight markets in different parts of the capital will be turned into safe zones.

Vendors are already getting basic training - such as washing hands before preparing food, wearing hairnets before serving food, and keeping food containers covered.

When exactly the zones will be declared safe remains unclear.

Half of these markets are in Old Delhi, a popular tourist destination located at the Red Fort, a 17th-century fort complex constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

It has the highest concentration of street food in the city - from meat kebabs to fried snacks like aloo tikki or potato patties, and sweetmeats - served in its narrow and chaotic lanes, some of which are only navigable by foot or rickshaws.

"If we are able to improve the image of street food vendors, then business will improve," said Nasvi founder and coordinator Arbind Singh.

They are getting their inspiration from South-east Asia.

"We are studying Thailand, which was like us over 20 years ago, but now has street food that attracts everyone from the middle class to tourists," said Mr Singh.

This year, about eight Indian vendors even travelled to Singapore for the World Street Food Congress from May 31 to June 9 - the first time vendors set up stalls here and interacted with vendors from other countries.

There are an estimated five million street food vendors in India, of whom about 60,000 are in Delhi and dishing up some of the tastiest food in the country.

Overall, street vendors make up 90 per cent of the total food business in the country and can be found at street corners or in major markets in every city.

It's not only tourists who worry about how the food is handled.

This year, Delhi University's Institute of Home Economics, in a survey of 500 students and 250 food vendors, found that 74 per cent of students ate street food and more than half reported falling ill at least once. The study also found that falling ill did not deter students from eating street food again.

"We did find high amounts of adulteration in the oil and spices, and hygiene issues. But then there are also vendors who maintain hygiene," said Dr Praveen Pannu from the Institute of Home Economics.

Welcoming the initiative to train and teach street vendors as "a much-needed effort", Dr Pannu said street food not only offers variety at a low cost, but also it is a key source of income for many poor people making, selling and serving food.

This is not the first time that India is trying to clean up the street food sector. In 2011, India made it mandatory for street food vendors to register with the local health department. That process of registration is still going on in Delhi. In some cities, it hasn't even begun, with state governments seeing food safety as a lower priority.

Street vendor Kanchn Devi is hoping the new safe food zones will increase business at her small eatery in Delhi's Sarojini Nagar market, where she sells jalebis (fried sweets dipped in syrup) and savoury samosas.

The market is popular among college students who come to buy everything from bargain clothes to pillow cases and food.

Mrs Devi, 45, who received training under the new project last month, hopes to raise her daily earnings from the current 200 rupees (S$4). "I take off my rings and bangles when I prepare food now," she said, speaking above the cacophony of vendors calling out to customers.

Mr Singh hopes that the Delhi safe food zones will inspire other cities. He also reckons this is the right time to promote street food as food prices rise.

"There are families (who patronise them) because costs are so high that they don't go out to restaurants any more. For such families street food is good. We want to attract such families to eat out."

Until safe food zones are established in Delhi, the city's residents will continue to follow one rule of thumb: making sure the food is cooked in front of them.

"I have some favourites and I will always go there to eat," said 38-year-old Kakoli Saha, a working mother.

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