A couple of weeks ago, I came back from a wonderful holiday in Mexico, a beautiful country, with inspirational landscapes, kind people, and very delicious food. It was impossible not to associate my master’s teachings about food issues with the interesting things I was witnessing. As usual, I got involved in some cultural practices as part of the experience – ‘when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do’. This time, I tried all their delicious street food, which served two purposes: to get to know the mixture of flavours and also to make an analysis about the pros and cons of street food, such as pollution, hygiene, and cultural traditions.
Women preparing typical and exotical mexican dishes. Tortillas, fried chilli and pork (all parts are eatable: eyes, brain, skin and tongue)
It is common knowledge that eating street food cooked in informal trucks in the middle of the streets surrounded by pollution might be a health risk. It is plain to see that the materials used are not the best, water conditions are doubtful, the preparation process is fast and careless, and cleaning is limited. Therefore, we tend to think that if we eat that food, we will get food poisoning, get an infection or disease, because of the perceived lack of hygiene which in general is just that – what we see. Judge for yourself!
Thus, we (the consumers) are not the only ones who are concerned about it. Street food is a public health risk and street food safety is not guaranteed by the government or any other institution. However, what’s really interesting is seeing local and ‘us tourists’ enjoying food without thinking about it.
Different combinantions: eggs, pork skin, chicken, legumes and rice; to prepare quesadillas (tortilla with cheesse).
I noticed that there is weak regulation by the state or health authorities on both consumers and vendors. Basically, hygiene and quality food is dependent on the vendors and the risk is on the consumer. Vendors are usually families which have their main source of income in the profit of their informal work. However, they have not being trained to provide a safety food product with hygiene standards; probably with some previous experience they have improved the conditions.
Moreover, street food is not a problem, the lack of regulations and state support for the vendors is the problem. As the FAO has stated regulations can make street food safer. It is clear that street food in Mexico is part of the heritage and cultural traditions and that most of the people enjoy eating street food, no matter their social class or age. A good set of regulations that takes into account the viewpoints of both the vendors and consumers would reduce possible health risks such as food borne illnesses, improve labour conditions for vendors, and increase trust for consumers.
Malaysia, Philippines and India have regulations for protecting the vendors and some of their good practices could be taken into account for new regulations in Mexico, such as increased awareness of hygienic practices, educating food handlers, and improving environmental conditions.
For tourists visiting Mexico, street food is a new world of flavours, shapes, and combinations. I was fascinated with the variety of food and the kindness with which they offer you their products. However, for locals it is a traditional pleasure which has been passed down for generations. During the evenings, entire families and groups of friends go out to have something to eat from the food trucks. It is really interesting to see how social networks are built around the street food.
Marquesitas: mexican dessert creppe style, with caramel, cheese and chocolate.
Also, by purchasing food from street vendors, Mexicans are supporting the local economy and small businesses. Street vendors usually buy their raw materials from local places, creating a net of support among local businesses, so it can be said that street food has a local chain from the beginning to end. Additionally, it promotes the continuation of traditional preparation of authentic dishes between generations of Mexicans and pride in their gastronomy.
In contrast, street food vendors are informal (or illegal) workers usually occupying public spaces, not paying any rent or taxes, and not following any hygiene protocols and as such, they have sometimes been seen as an economic and sanity problem for the country. However, it is important to note the enormous contributions street food stalls vendors make to the society. Street food continuously strengthens the culture and national identity of Mexico and is one of the best ways to find something typical from the region. Every dish has a story; the vendors transmit their passion and make access to food easier for the public; they are found in almost every place in Mexico.
Since Mexican street food is accessible for most of the population due to its convenient prices and the strategic location of the trucks (in order to be easily reached, for example, they are located on some main roads, social public spaces, and parks which are part of the traditional culture dynamics).
Joyful Mexican lady selling fried tacos
Street food can be use as a public policy strategy for tackling malnutrition, instead of being a problem. Some studies have proposed the introduction of micronutrient fortificationthe introduction of micronutrient fortification of some of the main ingredients in street food (such as maize, in the case of Mexico) in order to improve dietary quality. Also, some specific groups can be targeted, such as children who need a balanced nutrition. This is an interesting idea to solving the issue of malnutrition in a subtle way. However, it would need regulations and additional policies in order to succeed.
All in all, street food culture has many positive aspects, which make it worth its continuation but it needs further regulation. The social dynamics around food trucks and the maintenance of gastronomical roots and cultural heritage is something valuable and authentic to a country and its wellbeing. Street food is source of income for many households, it builds solidarity and support among Mexicans, and finally it can be used as a means to a good end as an opportunity to improve diets. Street vendors can be trained to have a considerable impact in the conservation of culture heritage and street food can become a cleaner, more delicious and more enjoyable option for all.
Colorful food in a colorful country.