Street food = street smart?

by Evans Yonson

(Note: This month, I will be writing about topics suggested by my former students from the Philippines. The topics are arranged in a manner that they popped up in my screen when I started asking for their thoughts and opinions. To solicit their ideas, I had to entice that a FCBarcelona football team jersey awaits the winning blog-entry suggestion with the highest hits. Fair enough, I got numerous suggestions that could last me another month. Today’s entry was suggested by Jourdan Magno.)

Barcelona – Over the weekend, Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines celebrated its annual festival days. During my time, as it is now, the festivities is one major event in the city as the university opens its gates to the public. The four day event becomes a mini-city within the Jesuit academic walls. Before they used to have ferris wheels and carnival rides. These days they have open air cinema, rock concerts in broad daylight, and the countless food booths, of course.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 million people eat street food everyday. I never really fancy buying from food carts especially in developing countries. But it does not mean that New York’s street hotdogs and sweetened pop corn are better than Thailand’s pickled mangoes in a stick or the Philippines’ deep fried chicken innards.

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In New York, my cousin discouraged me from eating street food especially hotdogs because, as she said, these do not contain any nutritional value at all. In Amsterdam, people queue up to get spring rolls from a rolling store, which didn’t excite me because I can prepare those rolls myself thereby assuring me of non-contamination. But, what is not contaminated these days?

In Manila, the food carts are as rickety and unsafe as driving the LA freeway without your seat belts on. Add to the fact that food preparation is as disgusting as it is presented. Chicken intestines (bought probably from non-BFAD registered sources) deep-fried on vegetable cooking oil (used a million times over giving a different color to the food) smell bad (thanks to the dirty air) but taste strangely good (thanks to monosodium glutamate aka vetsin in Filipino).

The Thai counterpart is almost the same as that of the Philippines. In Ayutthaya, just outside the national railway station, food carts welcome tourists with a lot of variety. Noodles (beef, chicken, duck, wonton, etc) are best when it’s hot and fresh from the stove.  But the colors are very deceiving when you begin to slurp that broth. They can be spicy. Very spicy at times. Or very salty. Well at least in Thailand, you don’t dip your meat barbecue in to some strange looking sauce.

When I was in Marrakech in December 2010, I stayed in a youth hostel with two Australian brothers. The younger brother had to stay the whole day in bed because he had viral gastroenteritis or stomach flu. They had their first Moroccan tajine from a street food cart the night before. The same thing happened to me when I had my first deep-fried fish balls in Manila many years ago. I got sick for several days. I was so alarmed that I thought I contracted  hepatitis, only to be told that I was food poisoned.

Back home in Cagayan de Oro, street food has always been a part of the local culture. We would sometimes dine out alfresco at some makeshift “restaurants”. On one occasion, my friends and I decided to treat ourselves for beer and some pork barbecue. After a bottle of beer and a round of grilled pork, my stomach started to grumble. I immediately went home and began ejecting out the food and beverage that I have eaten earlier. I had already vomited 11 times before my mother decided to bring to the hospital. The next day, I had cholecystectomy. Thanks to street food.

There are people whose bodies are immune to sickness. I guess I am not one of those people. I would rather have my food home cooked or prepared properly in a kitchen. Street food are always cheap but the price I had to pay after would always sum up costly in the end. And that’s not being street smart, after all.