Street food: A delight, a peril, and a way forward

by Rivindu Samadhith Perera

Published on The Morning on 18th April 2024.

‘Takata takata’ is the loud clunk that is quite normal to hear when taking an evening stroll, or even during a late night drive, in Colombo’s streets, making us tune in to the six-eight beat. Street food in Colombo, sometimes symbolised by ‘kottu’ and ‘isso wade’ at the Galle Face Green, is no exception to the never-ending demand of Sri Lanka’s culinary experience. Street food has not been a new concept, as we see early studies in Sri Lanka done, dating back to the late 1990s and even before. However, the recent boom in street food is evident as we see many roadside pop-ups of vendors selling fast food, innovating variations to keep up with the increase in demand due to the considerable growth in urban life while giving a once-in-a-lifetime experience for international tourists.

Street food, just like in everything, has its upside and downside. Having evolved worldwide, and in Sri Lanka, specifically over time, ideally influenced by the change of local urban dietary habits, street food has become a vibrant culture gaining a large interest. The self-employment of vendors, helping them to tackle economic insecurities and ensure a supply of food, and food that is cheaper than those in a proper restaurant as a choice to low-income families, can be considered to be an upside for the public in light of affordability. Developing economies therefore have a considerable benefit that could not be left alone. But, is it worth it? Most vendors too might have pure intentions when dealing with the business, but, do they act accordingly? The delight that street food brings to the local context could sometimes be a threat that we might not see at a glance.

Underlying concerns

The attraction of street food is obvious. It is delicious and has a wide variety. The unique way of preparation gives a sense of entertainment, which helps forget more so the reality. Most of the time, people do enjoy street food while thinking about possible outcomes. “I must get ready to fight in the toilet,” many say, jokingly, and this in itself is shocking.

The safety of food that is sold, and the hygiene associated with it sparks an initial inquiry when considering food in the streets. Most street food vendors are unregulated, or unregistered, with no systematic coordination. Price-conscious street food might disregard healthy food, which could spark immediate as well as long-term health issues. Concerns unaddressed would lead to serious lapses in food security and the health-related security of Sri Lankans as well as tourists who visit Sri Lanka.

A relatively old case study by C.J. Liyanage, C.K. Dalukdeniya, M.U.M. Imran and J. Pirasanna in 2015 (‘Food safety related risk factors of street food vending: A case study from Sri Lanka’) in 2015 shows that more than 90% out of 65 street food vendors just in the City of Ratnapura have no idea about food safety regulations in the country, with more than 60% of them not adhering to safe practices of preparation and sales.

Preparation of street food has no set place, which implies that street food is pre-prepared at homes, or even in a mobile venue. This deals with one of the four pillars of food security set by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), where the pillar of utilisation can be taken into discussion. The safety and quality of the goods used, as well as ideal nutritional knowledge with proper preparation techniques are required in the preparation of food. It could also be identified as ‘non-food inputs’ related to the security of food. This questions street food as a whole, with the lack of access to the effective storage of food and the cleanliness of the equipment used for cooking. The sale of street food also raises concerns, with food being exposed to dust on the road which also has the potential to draw in pests that may carry diseases. Personal sanitation lapses pose an additional risk of contamination. Poisoning of food and diseases such as diarrhoea are inevitable in this scenario as a short-term health risk, which might lead to a serious issue unless one has a strong stomach.

An investigation on an electronic media channel showed how street food vendors prepare food in unhealthy conditions, sometimes re-frying days old ‘isso wade’ while also adding food colouring. In most cases, roaming dogs and cats, pests and insects like cockroaches could be seen. Goods and ingredients used to cook food also in instances are on its way to rot, with them being discoloured. The said media investigation also shows remarks by the management of the area and the Public Health Inspectors’ (PHIs) Union, in which they too stress the importance of creating effective regulations to tackle illness-causing mechanisms that are carried out.

The potential health issues not just affect locals but also international tourists. A question by a tourist planning to visit Sri Lanka on TripAdvisor in late last year (2023) had generated more than 40 replies about measures that could be taken to avoid unpleasant experiences relating to food hygiene risks. Interestingly, many tourists suggest taking the oral vaccine ‘Dukoral’ which is usually administered to protect people against cholera. Even though the majority of tourists have a good time with street food, one ugly incident could completely tarnish the entire reputation.

It is possible to notice healthy street food, such as ‘kola kenda’ vendors in the morning beside main roads, but, some of the most common characteristics of street food during the day and night would be that many of it is either too salty, too oily, or too sweet. The frequent consumption of street food therefore can be a threat to long-term health security in a country. The intake of fats and sugars in such volumes could lead to an increase in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart related diseases, which as per the World Health Organisation are the world's leading cause of deaths. This too when compared to deaths in lower-middle-income countries like Sri Lanka, shows that heart related diseases and diarrhoeal diseases has had a rapid increase.

Street food vendors set up themselves occupying a considerable portion of the road, which causes an additional hassle on road traffic, pedestrians and its sustainability. Peak time traffic could be furthered due to this, with more people and more vehicles creating bottlenecks. Food waste too can end up on the sides of the road if the right disposal methods are absent, which is the case in most instances. This has the potential to incur more costs along the way. The overall environment could be affected in the long run, making it less appealing.

Solutions to consider

Considering its positives, a simple yet tough suggestion would be to create designated stalls for vendors to carry out business, which will drastically improve the conditions of both the vendors and consumers, leading the street food industry to grow and prosper with good quality. However, these infrastructure development plans must be accepted and adhered to by the vendors. A positive change in mindset is essential. The designated places that were set up on the Galle Face Green specifically now seem to be disorganised.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) initiated a programme in 2015 to provide certifications on eating places in tourist zones. This programme is in operation even today, but it is not known whether it applies to street food. This inherently makes it a suggestion to regulate, certify and standardise the already established street food business in the country which will help alleviate more problems and will also act as a support system to help monitor the activities of street food vendors.

The awareness of both parties, the vendors and consumers, is highly-deemed necessary. Educating consumers on the unhealthy effects of street food will give them a choice on whether to consume street food or to look for other alternatives, which will in return make the vendors adapt to good quality mechanisms to attract consumers. Training and educational programmes for street food vendors with regard to food safety regulations and food preparation methods could give them a robust boost in self-sufficient ways and could also lead to more effective changes in the long run. Incentives could be brought forward to curate and innovate new types of healthier food that could be made fast and be readily available, which might include more vegetables and fruits. A relatable innovation is the ‘kos kottu’ that has a high nutritional value and is very famous in recent times for championing taste and innovation.

Looking from a completely different angle on a positive thought, one could say that places of street food enhance social cohesion that promotes cultural unity in diversity, which could help minimise threats to national security. But sometimes, this will see the complete opposite if a brawl occurs. People from all walks of life visit these places. Places of street food therefore can be considered to strengthen the cultural fabric of the society, enhancing socio-economic stability and showcasing the ground reality of the Sri Lankan society.

Street food is a big part of Sri Lanka’s lifestyle, but the public perception of it is uniquely diverse. Its ever-growing popularity serves as an ambassador to the world, enforcing a national identity. The negative concerns on the one hand are food and health security related issues, while the positive points are certain aspects of cultural and socio-economic security that cover the whole of street food with regard to Sri Lanka’s national security. The importance of effectively, and more importantly, practically, regulating street food with certifications is clear. The achievement of that would help reduce food and health security risks related to street food, while enhancing positives, sequentially enhancing related aspects of the country’s national security.

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* Mr. Rivindu Samadhith Perera is an Intern (Research)at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established and functioning under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed are his own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.