14 January 2010

Street Food Smarts

I have a good friend named Benjamín Arredondo who lives in Salamanca, Guanajuato which is just a little way down the the Panamerica Highway from Irapuato...about ten miles in fact. "Benja", as I call him for short, has two blogs at present. One of them is called "El Señor del Hospital" after a famous shrine in Salamanca and it is dedicated to the history of that city. The other blog is called "El Bable". At first glance you might think that the term "El Bable" refers to some language or to the "Tower of Babel" but it actually refers to the rancho where his father was born not far from Salamanca. The name of the rancho is "Rancho el Baule" but over the years the local people have corrupted the word "baule" into the word "bable". A "baul" or a "baule" is an old fashioned steamer type trunk with a rounded lid. There was a big stone building on the Rancho (now in ruins) that resembled a "baule". Benjamín (Ben-hah-MEEN) uses this blog to document his explorations to every part of the State of Guanajuato as well as other places in Mexico. He is a dedicated historian and he is capturing things that are quickly fading away. I am eagerly anticipating a third blog of his that will be dedicated to history relating to Mexico's Bicentennial. For all of you who can read Spanish or for all of you who would like to practice reading Spanish you could do no wrong by following the blogs of Benjamín. He speaks and writes English very fluently as well so if you have any questions you can write to him in either English or Spanish.

When Benja travels he travels lightly and most of the time by bus. He carries his things in a knapsack or "mochila" (moh-CHEE-luh) and mostly he eats local food from street vendors to learn about the local foods and also to "chat up" the locals. With all of this eating of street foods you might think that he either has to have a cast iron stomach or else that he has been very lucky to avoid getting sick. Neither one are the case. He is simply very careful. Recently he wrote some tips for eating safely on the street and with his permission I will repeat them here, first in Spanish, just as he wrote them, and then in English.

Y… ¿a qué vamos al mercado además de ver y oler lo que allí hay? Claro es: a comer. Luego de años y años de andar con mochila al hombro se forma una especie de habilidad para saber cual es el bueno. Cuál es el lugar en donde de seguro la comida estará de primera. Normalmente no falla, por si no sabes la técnica, es fácil. ¿Esta limpio y ordenado el lugar? ¿La cocinera es amable y te invita a pasar? ¿Tiene las uñas recortadas y otra persona es la que cobra? ¿Está vestida normalmente y nada de folclorismos? Algo importantísimo (para mí) ¿venden cerveza? (ahora con lo del virus debemos incluir una pregunta en la evaluación ¿hay lavamanos o tienen alcohol en gel?) si las respuestas fueron todas sí: has llegado al lugar correcto.

And...why do we go to the market other than to see and to smell what they have there? It is to eat, of course. Over years and years of traveling with a knapsack over the shoulder one gets a certain knack for knowing what is good. Which place serves the safest food will be the first priority. Normally it never fails and in case you don't know the technique it is easy. Is the place clean and orderly? Is the cook friendly and does she invite you to stop by? Does she have trimmed fingernails and is there another person who handles the money? Is she dressed in normal clothing and not in folklore type clothing? Something of extreme importance (for me)...do they sell beer? (Now with the virus we must include a question in the evaluation...Is there a wash basin or do they have alcohol gel sanitizer? If all of the answers were yes then you have arrived at the right place.

Looking back over my own experience I have had the runs on several occasions but each time it was because I did something stupid. By the way, to say "I have the runs" you can say, "Tengo chorrillo" (TANG-oh choh-REE-yoh). The word "chorrillo" actually means "a steady trickle". Be careful that you don't say "chorrillos" with an "s" on the end because "Chorrillos" is a famous city in Peru. Gringos tend to take the "s" from "runs" because it is plural and transfer it over to "chorrillo" but that is not correct. Actually, I don't think I have ever gotten sick from from street food from a local, well established vendor. Nobody wants their customers to be sick especially if their customers are also their friends and neighbors. The time that you will get sick is usually the time when you are thinking that something doesn't look right but your "friend" says something like "Come over here, you gotta try some of this stuff" and goads you into it. Most generally this will happen at a fair of some kind. Be careful. After all it is your body. If your friend wants to sit on the stool with stomach cramps all night then let him. You just follow Benjamín's advice and you will be okay.

One more thing. If you would like to wash your hands before you eat (and you should) most good street food vendors will have a pail of clean water for that purpose. Don't do the typical gringo thing, however, and plunge your hands into the pail of water and contaminate it for everyone else. Believe me that you will look inconsiderate and stupid. Just take a plastic cup or spoon and splash a little out of the pail onto your other hand and then rub your hands together. You are really just trying to get the dust and grime off of them and not take a bath. A follow up with some sanitation gel will do you just fine. If there is no plastic utensil available it is permissible to use just the tips of your fingers to splash some water out of the pail. Oh, and whether or not you follow Benja's advice, you better tuck some toilet paper into your pocket or purse before you leave home. You never know when you might need it!

6 comments:

Gloria said...

That's good advice for people who travel over there and also for the locals. Personally, I don't ever eat from street vendors. Here we have those taco trucks all over the place and I've yet to eat any of their food. Around here they call them the roach trucks. I'm too leery about things like that. I'd rather just cook my own food and be happy with that. There are also people now who try to sell homemade tamales on the street but they need a food vendors license to do that so they are usually stopped by the cops from selling on the streets. Your post is good advice. Thanks for sharing.

Leah Flinn said...

An important one for me: Does it looks/smell fresh? (referring mainly to street snacks). This takes some practice, but usually if it is made in front of you (tacos, churros, equites, etc) it is safe.

Also, careful with anything that has mayonnaise! Mayo isn't always refrigerated here and sometimes has been sitting out for a long time. When I have gotten 'chorro', a few times here, the mayonnaise has been to blame.

Chrissy y Keith said...

My doctor suggested being vaccinated against Typhoid. Saying that many food born illnesses (other than amebas) are typhus like and having this vaccination helps ward that off should you unknowingly come in contact with it. Seems to have worked for us. We have not had any chorro in over 15 years. Giardia yes, but thats a whole nother deal.

johnnyMex said...

I'm a sucker for street food in Mexico. I was down in Acambaro, Gto a few years back and found "La calle de hambre" right next to the church. Delicious. Tacos and quezadillas are my preference... I did however manage to say away from the hot dog wrapped in bacon... I just couldn't do it.

Benja-Xocoyotl said...

Bob:

Thank you for such a nice publicity on my blogs, everyone is welcome!

Saludos

1st Mate said...

Bob - Would you believe I live in a town with NO street food? A couple of outdoor restaurants, yes. And probably during Semana Santa the carts will show up. I've been muy timido about street food, and if I plan to travel I'm just going to have to get over it. Can't live on Oxxo snacks, can I?

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.