One of the best things about living, working or studying in India is its strong food culture. You’ll find different foods in different states and cities. But one thing in common across India is the incredible array of snacks and meals on offer by street vendors around almost every corner. In fact, enjoying the likes of aloo tikki, pav bhaji, mirchi bajji, panni puri or idli sambar from your favourite street stalls is something that unites all Indians.
But, the food rules that traveller’s live by – no ice, no water, no salad, and no ice cream – mean that many visitors stay away from the delights of India’s street foods. While there is some good research that supports this idea, (some vendors may not be using clean water, they may not be washing their hands or their utensils, or they might be holding on to yesterday’s left over food), in India’s larger cities, this risk can be minimised with a few basic precautions to help you safely enjoy the delights of India’s wide variety of street food.
Working with the National Association of Street Vendors of India
I’ve recently been lucky enough to spend some time with the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), and the association’s street vendors in Delhi and in Patna. In these cities NASVI, working with the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), has begun a hygiene training and an up-skilling program for its street vendors.
The training is designed for two reasons: to improve the vendors’ hygiene standards when preparing food and to make visitors more comfortable in eating street food – something that they may not do in their home cities. This is important to ensure tourists don’t leave sick and to maintain the street food culture of India, which is under threat as a growing middle class seek to be more western and in turn eat more American food.
I came to India to complete a research project on hygiene and livelihood with the street vendors. As part of this project I was able to attend a ceremony that awarded street vendors with a certificate that recognised their successful completion of a hygiene course. With this certificate, the vendors were given an apron, a hair net and a packet of gloves. While obviously rewarding people for achievement is a good thing, one of the amazing things about this was that for most (if not all) of the participants, this was the first time that they had received any certificate that rewarded any achievement.
All participants were proud to be wearing their ‘safe food’ apron that could show the world that they had acquired a skill, and that food prepared by them could be safely consumed.
I found that the course and certificate have two effects. The first is actually giving the vendors the skills to prepare safe and hygienic foods, and the second is that the vendors have the confidence to continue doing this. Vendors who make hygienic food are also more likely to make more money as more people are drawn to their clean food and cart, which in turn will have the effect of making the program attractive to other vendors to complete the training.
Tips for eating street food in India
While this program creeps slowly across the country and more and more vendors become formally trained in hygiene and safe food handling, there are some things that you can do to enjoy street food and not suffer any adverse consequences.
After arriving in India, give yourself a few days to adjust to the Indian routine and a few days to get over the shock of India. After that, looking for a vendor that is frequented by Indians is a good place to start – other people wouldn’t be eating there if the food was bad or had made them sick.
Once a busy vendor has been found, have a look around the site. Is there rubbish around? Do the utensils and other cooking equipment look clean? Are there flies sitting on the food? Is the food made on demand or is it sitting there (don’t be shocked if a vendor throws something back in oil – things like samosas are often half cooked and then finished off when someone orders them)? Is there any water that is being used for cleaning (this might be in a drum, collected from a bore)? If there are people eating food from this vendor, it looks clean and the food is cooked on demand, then go for it.
But, while India’s street food is amazing and you will be richly rewarded by a world of tastes and flavours, don’t take unnecessary risks. Stay away from cut fruit, it’s glistening because the vendor is tipping water on it and you’ll never know how long it has been there – if you really want fruit, have them cut some for you, stay away from food that has flies all over it, and try to make sensible decisions about how clean the site is.
By following these simple steps, you will be able to enjoy the amazing street food only India has to offer.