Essentially, street food is defined as ready-to-eat food or drink sold in a street or other public place, such as a market or fair, by a hawker or vendor, often from a portable stall. While some street foods are regional, many are not, having spread beyond their region of origin. Most street foods are also classified as both finger food and fast food, and are cheaper on average than restaurant meals. According to a 2007 study from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 2.5 billion people eat street food every day.
Today, people may purchase street food for a number of reasons, such as to obtain reasonably priced and flavorful food in a sociable setting, to experience ethnic cuisines and also for nostalgia. Historically, in places such as ancient Rome, street food was purchased because the urban poor did not have kitchens in their homes.
In the Nigerian context street foods have been with us since time immemorial, increasing in number and variety with upsurge in urbanisation. Chief amongst these are bean cakes (akara), ofada rice and beans, yam porridge, okpa, pastries, such as buns, meat-pie and egg roll. Others include local beverages made from grains such asakamu, burukutu, zobo, kunu, fura de nono and local gins (ogogoro) with variants depending on the place of origin. These compete favorably with international brands.
In 2002, Coca Cola reported that China, India and Nigeria were some of its fastest growing markets; markets where the company’s expansion efforts included training and equipping mobile street vendors to sell its products.
In the late 1990s the United Nations and other organisations began to recognise that street vendors had been an underutilised method of delivering fortified foods to populations and in 2007, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recommended considering methods of adding nutrients and supplements to street foods that are commonly consumed by the particular culture.
Apart from their relatively affordable prices, many urban dwellers choose to eat street foods because of the nature of their jobs which takes them out of their homes in the wee hours of the morning. There are however, concerns about their safety because of several reasons. Amongst theseare: the source of water used for cooking, the prevalence of filthy slums where some of these foods are cooked and hawked. Furthermore, there are no strict regulatory frameworks for street foods as we have with processed and packaged foods and drugs as monitored by NAFDAC.
History of street foods
Small fried fish were a street food in ancient Greece, although Theophrastus held the custom of street food in low regard. Evidence of a large number of street food vendors were discovered during the excavation of Pompeii. Street food was widely utilized by poor urban residents of ancient Rome whose tenement homes did not have ovens or hearths with chickpea soup being one of the common meals, along with bread and grain paste. In ancient China, where street foods generally catered to the poor, wealthy residents would send servants to buy street foods and bring meals back for their masters to eat in their homes.
A traveling Florentine reported in the late 1300s that in Cairo, people carried picnic cloths made of raw hide to spread on the streets and eat their meals of lamb kebabs, rice and fritters that they had purchased from street vendors. In Renaissance Turkey, many crossroads saw vendors selling “fragrant bites of hot meat”, including chicken and lamb that had been spit roasted.
Health and safety
Despite concerns about contamination at street food vendors, the incidence of such is low with multiple studies showing rates comparable to restaurants. As early as the 14th century, government officials oversaw street food vendor activities. With the increasing pace of globalisation and tourism, the safety of street food has become one of the major concerns of public health, and a focus for governments and scientists to raise public aware nesses.In the United Kingdom, the FSA provides comprehensive guidance of food safety for the vendors, traders and retailers of the street food sector. Other effective ways of enhancing the safety of street foods are through mystery shopping programs, through training and rewarding programs to vendors, through regulatory governing and membership management programs, or through technical testing programs.
In 2002 a sampling of 511 street foods in Ghana by the World Health Organisation, WHO showed that most had microbial counts within the accepted limits and a different sampling of 15 street foods in Calcutta showed that they were “nutritionally well balanced”, providing roughly 200Kcal of energy per rupee of cost.
Stated below are the responses from some Nigerians on their views on street foods.
Adamolekun Kayode, 21, a 400-level undergraduate studying computer science at Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State has this to say: “I do eat street foods, especially rice and beans but not regularly. Though I have not suffered any illness from it, my view is that food inspectors should be introduced in Lagos State and other urban cities to check the activities of vendors while NAFDAC should ensure the safety of street foods, similar to what it does with processed foods and drugs. There should be an enabling act to back it up.”
Balogun Sarah Adeola, 20, is the company secretary of Femi Law Property and Company, Business Plaza, Ijaiye-Ojokoro, Lagos. She says: “I eat street food, especially rice virtually every day because of the busy nature of my job.I hardly have time to cook food at home.
“I have not been a victim of food poisoning from street food, but I suggest that there is need to introduce sanitary inspectors to check the vicinity of where street foods are prepared, as some are not cooked under hygienic conditions. I remember that when I was in school there were certain people who used to check on our cooks and even taste our food to make sure there was food safety. NAFDAC should be involved in quality and safety assurance of street foods.”
Victoria Lucky, 40, is a Lagos-based newspaper vendor. This is her opinion on street food. “I eat street food nearly every day because I wake up early to come here. I eat cooked foods such as rice and beans, eba, amala with ewedu soup. I had a nasty experience once when I ate amala with ewedu soup that gave me made me to purge such that I had to go for medical treatment.
“I will like the re-introduction of sanitary inspectors as we used to have it in the pre-and post-colonial period. Yes, I support that Lagos state government should do so and NAFDAC should find a means of regulating street food to ensure the safety of consumers.”
With the increasing incident of ailments related to the consumption of unregulated street foods, consumers should be more careful of what they buy along the streets.