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From Streets to Hotels

By Virender S Datta, Chairman, International Institute of Culinary Arts (IICA), Delhi

Friday, November 3, 2017, 12:14 Hrs  [IST]

Hotels are comparatively a newer phenomenon when compared to ‘street food’. Street food brings with it the uniqueness of its location, an entrepreneurial initiative of the poor that serve at low cost freshly cooked food that is inexpensive to cook, nutritious, and meets the taste and quantity expectation of the poor or price-conscious customers.

It is the perceived image of street food being unhealthy, unhygienic and not fit for consumption by the ‘rich and sophisticated’. That has restricted its entry into classy hotels.

However, those who have moved on from street food to classic hotel cuisine, they still carry a lingering memory of the romance of street foods of their childhood, right from Gol Guppas (Paani Puri in the west and Puchka in the east), to Shakarkandi (sweet potatoes) or Jalebi, or even a simple bottle of Banta.

History is witness to the fact that oysters, once a poor man’s food, eventually became a delicacy for the rich; and the Dum Pukht Biryani created for poor labourers during a drought in the 18th Century has now found a place of honour in all our upmarket hotels.

This transition has not been easy, but for the initiative of visionaries like the late AN Haksar, former Chairman of ITC Ltd., under whose direction in the year 1980, I first introduced traditional Indian street food—in the form of a Chaat Trolley, serving Paani Puri, Aloo Tikki and other such delicacies customarily served in the streets of old, and not so affluent, Delhi.

With the grand success of this initiative, accompanied by the introduction of a Paan (betel leaf) Shop in the hotel lobby, I introduced the first ever ‘Street Food Festival’ in the Maurya Sheraton lawns on the occasion of Dussehra. Here the rich and famous in thousands enjoyed their childhood memories of Indian street cuisine, brought in from Karol Bagh and Chandni Chowk, coupled with the hotel’s own non-vegetarian delicacies associated only with street cuisine.

The underlying principal of this initiative was that there is a child in every successful grown-up who cannot express himself by eating street delicacies, which are not only labelled as for the middle class, but also are unhygienic and unhealthy.

Provide them the assurance of hygiene, food safety, healthy wholesome food accompanied by appropriate branding, and you have more than a willing clientele waiting to pay the premium for your efforts.

Today, all wedding halls and hotel banquets are serving the choicest street cuisine, generally outsourced from their place of origin. These food stalls are most popular and sometimes they give tough competition to a hotel’s sophisticated world cuisine.

These initiatives require thorough understanding of what needs to be addressed to ensure food safety and food quality that is at par with what their own kitchen dishes out.

Few of such challenges can be listed as follows:

1) Personal hygiene of outsourced cooks and chefs:
They do not have the benefit of formal culinary school training and hence, have very little or no comprehension of food safety and hygiene.
It shall serve its purpose, if we can introduce compulsory short-term training programs in food safety and hygiene for all street food vendors, irrespective of whether they work in hotels or at their own food stalls.

2) Vendor’s premises:
This could be a potential food safety hazard. Generally, street cuisine vendors are located in rural or under-developed localities, which do not have sufficient civil amenities and may not be under the general areas of supervision of food inspectors. Hence, as and when we choose a food vendor, we must inspect the entire journey of the food supplied by him before it reaches our hotel premises.

3) Water:
Water is the most prominent source of food contamination when used for washing of raw foods, cooking and kitchen-cleaning. We must ensure that the vendor has access to sufficient potable water and follows appropriate water storage procedures.

4) Food ingredients and raw materials used in cooking:
A street food vendor’s commitment to the quality of raw food items used in cooking must be ensured through pre-prescribed standards and specifications and frequent quality checks at their premises.

5) Licenses:
It is quite likely that your street food vendor has not acquired all the relevant food licenses, which are a pre-requisite for having a food processing unit. We must ensure that all approved street cuisine vendors have obtained the requisite licenses and meet the guidelines provided by the civic authorities.

The views expressed within this column are the opinion of the author, and may not necessarily be endorsed by the publication.

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