Turning the tables

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am


Do we foodies have a secret dirt fetish? I've met many foodies given to the idea that the smarter the front room of the restaurant, the dirtier the kitchen must be.

Perhaps it's a testament to the persuasive powers of George Orwell. If his description of the hell behind the scenes in French restaurants described in Down and Out in Paris and London wasn't the first look at the sometimes dirty reality of the restaurant trade, it's certainly been one of the most persuasive. The roast chicken has fallen on the floor? Pick it up and wipe it down. The customer will never know.

Eighty years of regulation later, many of the poor hygiene practices Orwell describes have disappeared, but other aspects of high-end chicanery are still with us. In his day, one trick was to make sure the steak knives were very sharp so customers thought the meat was tender. These days, the trick might be to convince unwitting diners that the corked wine is actually OK.

Tricks aside, the real dirt is often to be found in the professed paradise of the modern foodie: the street. I am as much a fan of street food as the next person, but I wonder why so many foodies seem oblivious to the surrounding dirt.

People rave about the street food in Thailand, and I've certainly had some great dishes in seaside resorts. But I've also seen mystery meat on sticks sweating under the sun as Bangkok's infamous traffic roared by, belching lead and who knows what else over the food.

How appealing.

In my late teens, I went on a six-week backpacking trip around India. I fell in love with the street food. Breakfasts of spicy omelettes and masala chai and toast followed by a lunch invariably involving some form of chicken eaten with the hands. My favourite street snack was puri channa - deep-fried bread and chickpea curry - but it was my undoing. I lost 15kg on that trip, and it wasn't because of exercise.

Closer to home, the disappearance of stinky tofu might be a loss to Hong Kong's culinary heritage. It's certainly a loss for some observers. If you remember stinky tofu, you will also remember visitors to the city looking puzzled as they passed by a stall, wondering why they couldn't see the open sewer that they could smell, or perhaps examining the soles of their shoes to see what they had trodden in.

Street food needn't be dirty. No trip to Denmark would be complete without a stop at a hot-dog stand for a dog, dripping with mustard and ketchup. But no doubt the Nordic climate helps keep the bugs away. It's street food without the risk.

We could follow Singapore and regulate and sanitise every aspect of our existence. But I would rather we had back the stinky tofu assault on the senses than take that dull path.