Dirty Dining (all about Philippine street food, safety & nutrition)

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Street food is convenient, fast, easy, uncomplicated, and cheap. So are street hookers. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware! Unless you want to gamble with your well-being you shouldn’t play in the street. You don’t stick your tongues or dicks just anywhere, so if you don’t know where it’s been, should you stuff it in your mouth?

Pinoy streetfood is a huge part of our culinary culture, a showcase of how we Filipinos can squeeze fun and flavor from the unlikeliest and least palatable ingredients. Street food is both pop art and comfort food in one portable package, pushed around on wheels or carried on backs. Street foods are consumed by an estimated two and a half billion people world-wide. The street food business is a billion peso industry and a major driver of the underground economy. Thousands rely on it for their livelihood. Properly regulated, it has enormous potential. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have all managed to promote their street food to tourists as tasty and healthy gastronomic adventures. Why can’t we seem to reach their standards?

The Hand that Roasts the Chicken

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many street food handlers may use ingredients that are of dubious quality. They may observe faulty food preparation and handling practices, and work in facilities that lack the minimum sanitation standards. They may use recycled cooking oil. They may not use hair nets nor do they wash their hands prior to food handling/preparation. The food, containers and utensils may be improperly stored or freely exposed to dirt, smoke, flies. These practices can promote bacterial overgrowth and contamination, increasing the hazards for the consumer.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moreover, some vendors have indiscriminately adapted “modern” techniques to counteract some of the shortcomings in their food hygiene. They use nitrites and nitrates, unauthorized dyes and cooking oils, and insecticides. Beware of food products free of flies in areas where flies are plentiful.  Such items may be sprayed with insecticides.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“In the context of the impoverished economic situation of our street food handlers and vendors, I observed that the negative attitudes of pagtitipid, bahala na, mediocrity and procrastination remain to be the culprits of the ever growing foodborne illness outbreaks (many of which remain unreported) in the city,” says Ma. Veritas F. Luna, PhD, Associate Professor and Chairperson, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, College of Home Economics, University of the Philippines.

Dra. Luna expounds that food vendors will not practice safe food handling procedures unless there are clear policies and strong demand. Implementing food safety procedures are perceived to result in unwanted expenditures that increase their cost of production. And even if they realize that they can be penalized for endangering the public, they will persist in economizing their resources.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Warnings for violators of standards on food sanitation are ignored and they say, bahala na! For as long as no one files a complaint, they claim na pwede na ‘yan, wala namang nagrereklamo!,” (that’ll do, nobody complains) she gripes.

But it appears that poor sanitation is not a problem limited to the Philippine setting alone. Street food has been the source of many recent disease outbreaks, notably cholera: in India, from sugarcane mixed with ice; in Malaysia, from noodles with rice; and in Hong Kong, from a green vegetable dish.  Cases of cholera from street food have been documented in Peru, and also in Singapore where sanitary standards are generally good. And who hasn’t heard of that urban legend about rats jumping in and out of the pails of water insideNew York’s famous hotdog carts. In Bangkok, Thailand, studies consistently found unacceptably high levels of bacteria and other toxins in street food. With support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a Code of Practice for Street Foods, including 10 steps to make street foods healthier, was taught to food inspectors and a public awareness campaign was developed to teach consumers about the importance of improved hygiene.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Street food by its very nature always presents a degree of risk to the consumer. But the hazards can be minimized. A balance must be struck between standards of quality and sanitation and keeping product costs low.

The Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the College of Home Economics at the University of the Philippines offers assistance to organized groups of street food vendors by conducting training and workshops, paving the way for safer food offered within the premises of the university. For inquiries you may call 981-8500 local 3407. The many patrons of Diliman’s famous barbecued isaw can only hope that the stall handlers attended a workshop or two!

Gut Feel

Waiting for diarrhea to strike is not the best way to find out whether what we’re eating is unsafe. Most food safety hazards are not visible to the naked eye. The hazards (in the form of toxins, microorganisms, chemicals, physical contaminants) are also odorless and tasteless. Most victims do not suspect or care whether the food they’re eating is fit for consumption in the first place. You’re doomed by the first steaming, deliciously dirty mouthful.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. Antonio Comia, Gastroenterologist and Associate Professor at the U.P.Collegeof Medicine, and consultant at the Philippine General Hospital and Asian Hospital lists acute food poisoning, amoebiasis, typhoid fever, and Hepatitis A as the more common illnesses linked to ingestion of contaminated street food. More unlucky patrons may also find themselves harboring parasites such as tapeworms or ascaris. Gastrointestinal infections usually present with symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, vomiting. Hepatitis may initially present as jaundice or yellowing of the skin. “The specific treatment varies depending on the diagnosis, but we have to make sure that patients are well hydrated when there is diarrhea,” states Dr. Comia.

Go and Glow

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When prepared fresh and with natural ingredients, some street food can be quite nutritious. Like all guilty pleasures though, you’re not supposed to live on this stuff. It’s better to regard street food as an irregular treat, or as an emergency energy source in the absence of healthier alternatives.

Animal-based products like fried or barbecued chicken or pork, and organ meats like isaw, rambo, helmet, kwekwek, adidas, and eggs such as quail, balut, or penoy, and others are high in protein. In a pinch, you can nibble on these to keep your nitrogen levels up, but keep in mind that they’re likely to raise your sodium and cholesterol as well. Barbecued and smoked meats are also laced with nitrates and free radicals, the consumption of which has been linked to an increased risk for some gastrointestinal cancers.

Fried food will be drenched in oil, which depending on the type, yields about 9 calories per gram. A serving of fried food easily provides about five grams of fat. Animal fat such as chicken skin, chicharon, and pork rinds, is sure to be swimming in cholesterol. Breading or other flour-based coatings are packed with calorific carbohydrates, the same goes with rice cakes or other native kakanins, and other flour-based products such as fish and squid balls. These starchy snacks stuff about 4 calories into each gram.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since this is a tropical country, the popularity of roadside refreshment stands needs no further explanation. Aside from helping stave off dehydration, these sweet concoctions give a quick energy boost from all the sugar mixed in. Sago and tapioca pearls contain some carbohydrates, while gulaman which is made from agar-agar (seaweed) can provide some fiber. These drinks may also be spiked with artificial food colors and flavors. Try going for beverages made from fresh fruits, they present an array of vitamins including A and C, and other beneficial phytochemicals. Taho is another wholesome street food option – a good source of plant-based protein and energy.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The much-beloved “dirty ice cream” our moms would scold us over (but secretly indulge in themselves) consists mostly coconut cream, skim milk, and cassava starch. Basically, ice cream consists of 15 percent sweetener and flavoring, 11 percent skim milk for body and texture, 10 percent fat source for creaminess, and .4 percent emulsifier-stabilizer to distribute the fat evenly and minimize the formation of ice crystals. These comprise 36.4 percent of the volume, the rest taken up by water. A cup easily provides the following nutrients: 200 calories, 3.9 grams of protein, .31 grams of calcium, .204 grams of phosphorus, .14 mg of iron, 548 IU of vitamin A, .038 mg of thiamine, and .236 mg of riboflavin.

For healthier snacking from the street, stick to fruits, vegetables, fish and other low cholesterol food. Try to steer clear of all the deep-fried fare, and seek out snacks that are steamed, grilled, or boiled. Boiled or grilled corn, boiled peanuts, steamed dumplings, and especially fresh fuits and veggies such as turnips, pineapples, watermelons, melons, and green mangoes (But watch the bagoong! It’s really high in sodium) make for smart street eating.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our experts, Dra. Luna, Dr. Comia, and Mr. Ted Fajardo of the Bureau of Food and Drugs, enumerated certain procedures that must be followed by food handlers to ensure safety.

  • Make sure ingredients are fresh and are of good quality. Food should be processed with clean raw materials and in clean conditions.
  • Wash hands frequently before, during and after handling food.
  • Cook food thoroughly and adequately to kill all possible pathogens.
  • Store food properly and monitor for spoilage. Place food in the right container and at the right temperature within the minimum length of storage time, which will depend on these conditions and the type of food
  • Avoid contact between raw and cooked foods.
  • Serve food properly using clean utensils and condiments
  • Eat food immediately after cooking
  • Re-heat leftover food thoroughly

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines magazine, 2006

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