Kolkata wins hearts with its street food, but how safe is it?

A recent survey among over 2000 foodies in India has named Kolkata the best city for mouth-watering street food. While there is definitely no question mark over the taste, what about safety? Are there good stalls and bad stalls? Amrita Mukherjee studies the scenario up close.

Clued in Indian travelers have often swooned over the variety of street food available in Kolkata. Even celebrity chefs, such as Gordon Ramsay, have talked and savoured street food in the City of Joy and it is not uncommon to find teams from international channels like BBC and CNN filming the food in the city. But a recent Taste of Travel survey conducted by Booking.com ** has brought Kolkata up in the ranks on India’s food map all over again. Kolkata was named the best city to explore mouth-watering street food followed by Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and New Delhi.

The research was conducted over 30 markets with 56,727 respondents but the results mentioned focus on Indian travelers only, consisting of 2023 respondents.

When it comes to taste and variety there is no doubt that Kolkata leads. But a big question mark hovers over the hygiene of the food served on the streets of the city.

Dirty, yet palatable

Talk to people who have been living in the city for years and have witnessed the explosion of street food eateries or their evolution over time, and different perspectives emerge. While no one really vouches for the hygiene or food safety standards, whether they still enjoy it seems to be a largely a personal choice.

Take for example retired engineer, BK Pal, whom I met standing in front of a biriyani shop at Picnic Garden. For those who came in late, biriyani, chowmein and chilli chicken and momos are as much a part of the street food scenario in Kolkata as are puchkas, ghugni and kathi rolls.

The shop is so tiny that it can accommodate one big handi of biriyani only. Just outside the shop the mangy street dogs fight over the pieces of left-over meat that have been thrown to them from the shop. The open drain in front overflows often and the black water creates puddles all over. A line of bricks have been laid out haphazardly over the puddles so that customers can step across keeping their shoes dry. Black soot sticks to the walls of the shop as it does to the bottom of the handi.

Chicken biriyani sells for Rs 65 and mutton biriyani for Rs 85 a plate, and apparently this is the best biriyani available in the area.

Pal vouches for the taste, and when asked about the conditions under which it has been prepared, he said, “I have been buying biriyani from this shop for five years and no one in my family has ever fallen ill. The children love this and there has never been any health issues.”

Biriyani shops such as this are mushrooming all over Kolkata and their locations — next to open drains, in the midst of plying vehicles emitting black smoke, or under the dripping rain water from the overhead make-shift tarpaulin roofs during monsoon — are rarely a deterrent to customer interest.

Not everyone is as stoic about it, though.

Laila Sen, a media person, who lives on Hindustan Road, a posh locality in South Kolkata said, “There is a momo shop that has cropped up in front of my house. One fine day they just put up bamboos, put a tarpaulin sheet on top, placed two wooden benches and opened shop. It has become pretty popular in the locality since then and my friends often order from the shop when they have parties. They vouch for the taste. But I never have momos from there and I am even particular about checking out at parties if it has been ordered from there. This is because everyday from my balcony, I see the way they wash the utensils by the drain. Pouring the same water from one utensil to another. It’s totally unhygienic. It’s nauseating to watch.”

Rehna Sharma, a college student, says, “I must say I find the puchka sellers a cleaner lot now. They use steel utensils, have cleaner hands. You can request them to wash their hands before they serve you and they do it. They wear clean clothes and try to maintain cleanliness around them.”

Many people don’t know, however, that the puchkas sold in Kolkata are manufactured in the Dhapa Landfill area, although supposedly in ‘hygienic’ manufacturing units. Most don’t care about the unfiltered tap water used to make the tamarind chutney even though they use water filters at home and most are not aware that wares not sold are often recycled for days – the congealed fillings in momos, re-cooked kebabs in rolls and the ever-simmering tasty ghugni and chicken chaap.

Stomach ailments rampant in the city

Kolkatans, who swear by their street food, also admit that they suffer from stomach issues quite frequently, especially during monsoons.

Kolkata has the highest number of gastro-intestinal patients, says a study by Medybiz a pharmaceutical company. It conducted a study on 30000 respondents in 2015. Most doctors in the city also confirm that amoebiasis and irritable bowel syndrome are the two other diseases that people mostly suffer from because of unhygienic food.

Dr P. Ghose, a general practitioner said, “Stomach ailments are most common in Kolkata. As more and more people have the financial means and the inclination to eat out there has been a spurt in stomach issues too.”

Yet another doctor, R. Banerjee, a gynaecologist said, “I am paranoid about street food. Since childhood I have stopped my daughter from having anything outside. I make everything for her, from puchkas to rolls, at home. I have become quite a culinary expert that way but my child hasn’t suffered from the frequent bouts of stomach trouble that is part of growing up in Kolkata.”

After suffering from jaundice twice and typhoid once, Sushmita Ray, a sales manager, has stopped having street food altogether. “I remember I had puchka from the streetside seller in front of my office. The very next day I saw him pouring water into the tamarind chutney from the dirtiest bucket possible. I came down with fever and a few days later I was diagnosed with typhoid. It’s been 15 years now and no one can force me to have Kolkata street food. I carry puffed rice with me wherever I go. I have realised that my health is more important than going for those tasty-yet-unhealthy street food.”

Bacteria magnets like cut onions and tomatoes are left out in the open for long, and it’s common to see flies feeding on it before it’s mixed with masala muri or bhelpuri to be served to the customer. No one knows where all the leftover meat of the tiny roll shops go in the absence of refrigeration. The bottles of oil used usually have no brand written on it, and even the sauces used in rolls, chowmeins and momos have a different colour and consistency from the branded ones that we use in our kitchens.

Where hygiene is never compromised

Pravesh, a very popular puchka seller in the Alipore area however says that he takes utmost care to maintain hygiene. He serves puchka with mineral water, keeps his utensils squeaky clean and only sells till his day’s raw material gets over. He never reuses it. “That’s why I have been flown to even Australia and Bangkok as part of wedding catering,” he says.

There is, in fact, a hierarchy within street food shops in Kolkata. There are places, which despite the challenges, stick to a stringent standard of hygiene and attract tourists, a large number of whom are foreigners who need to be doubly assured of hygiene before they sample the street food in the city.

Dacres Lane, a lane lined with food stalls of every kind, located in the Esplanade area is one such place. It’s common to see foreigners sitting on the small wooden stools and having dosas and fish fry and fish roll in stainless steel plates.

Blogger Ishita of food blog ishitaunblogged.com, who covered Dacres Lane for the BBC Travel Show writes, “Keith Wallace, director at the BBC Travel Show shared his brief with me: ‘We’ve had loads of suggestions for the street food in Decker’s/Dacre’s Lane, and we’re looking for someone who can tell us what all the food are, but also give us tips on food safety/hygiene, as I guess many westerners would be anxious about trying street good in India. It would be great to allay fears and show off the street food.’ And I did the honours!”

Ishita writes at length about Chittobabur Dokan (which would translate to Mr Chitto’s shop) which has loyal customers for 40 years, who come to have his chicken stew and ‘pauruti’ (bread) for lunch. Ishita says, “Chai-making in Chittobabur Dokan is a constant storytelling. More than 400 cups of chai are made in a day and once washed, each cup and saucer goes under boiling water.”

Like Chittobabur Dokan, there is RadhuBabu’s Tea Shop in Lake Market, Campari in Gariahat, Kusum Rolls on Park Street, puchka shops at Vivekananda Park, sweet shops located in every corner of the city and a few dhabas serving Punjabi food that have maintained food standards, and that have given them a name for decades.

Subir Chakraborty, who runs a very successful street food stall, used to serve vegetarian South Indian food before but now he has changed his menu to Chinese and Tibetan and named his eatery Monk’s Den.

“As soon you are dealing with meat and fish you have to be doubly careful about maintaining hygiene,” he said, adding, “If I buy 20kg of chicken together, it will be much cheaper but as soon as I store it for long I compromise on hygiene. Even if I know I will need 8kg of chicken in a day I buy 5 kg in the morning and 3 kg again in the evening, according to requirement. The same goes for fish. Food safety officers come and run checks, and since I am a food safety licence holder, checks are more stringent on me. I am very particular about maintaining hygiene and regular disposal of garbage. I serve only mineral water and my utensils are washed under a tap in flowing water.”

Food safety and regulation

Since the carcass meat racket was unearthed in Kolkata in April this year, municipality authorities have been keeping a stringent watch on street food stalls in the city.

According to a recent report, there are around 50,000 food stalls in Kolkata that have come under the scanner now.

Dr Bibhakar Bhattacharjee, Designated Officer, Health Department, Kolkata Municipality Corporation (KMC), who is leading a team of Food Safety Officers says, “The task is Herculean since most of these stalls are not registered and some are not even stationery. Some take the form of cottage industry where food is prepared at home and sold outside, while others run their kitchens on the street. We are running campaigns and checks to build food safety awareness among stall owners and also consumers.”

For maintaining food safety KMC has adopted a multi-disciplinary approach. “There are different areas that we are addressing. The focus areas include maintaining a check on the quality of ice used in non-alcoholic drinks made at street food stalls. Then again, some colours used in food have a harmful effect and we are ensuring that they are not used. We are also imparting knowledge on proper preservation of food and hygienic washing of utensils,” said Bibhakar.

A Steering Committee on Street Food Safety, helmed by Member Mayor-In-Council Atin Ghosh, has been formed. The committee has roped in food quality experts from universities and institutions, NGOS, ice manufacturers and researchers and people belonging to the food industry.

With sustained action and awareness, one hopes that Kolkata street food will be as gentle on the tummy as it is attractive to the tastebuds.

** Errata: The survey was erroneously described as having been conducted by Taste of Travel. It is actually the Taste of Travel survey by booking.com . 

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