Sri Oktinurul Qadriani, a 39-year-old office worker, has had a bad case of food poisoning from a street vendor. But it hasn’t stopped her from going back for more.
“I’m more careful these days,” the Australian Embassy employee told the Jakarta Globe. “Hygiene is important, I’d always look out for vendors that look clean, be it from their showcase, surroundings, or how they cover and handle the food.”
She knows that a lack of potable water means that many utensils are not watched properly, with the same water being used again and again across the day. Water is often bought from a neighboring shop or is ferried from homes in containers of 5 to 25 liter capacities; often the water is not enough for dish washing and food preparation.
“I choose to ignore and not know, it’s better to not see it, and continue eating the food,” Sri Oktinurul said.
Her reaction is a common sentiment shared among Indonesians who turn a blind eye to cleanliness in street vendors. For many locals, the dirtier the food stall is, the more delicious the food, because it symbolizes authenticity.
Cheap and tasty
Street food’s convenience, affordability, array of options and local touches make it a popular choice among students and white- and blue-collar workers.
Street food costs less than meals in restaurants, and is often the option for people on low incomes. It’s also a much quicker way to eat. A plate of nasi goreng (fried rice) , prepared on the spot, sells for between Rp 5,000 and Rp 10,000 (50 cents and $1) from a vendor, compared to about Rp 30,000 at a restaurant in an office building.
Street food vendors in Indonesia have become part of the urban landscape. Most unlicensed vendors have sought respite under makeshift tents; others have taken refuge on the pedestrian walkway, making the most of the available compact space.
Some people are apprehensive about the safety of street food, because the vendors are unregulated by the health department. The cleanliness and freshness of the food is often been debated, since street food is often exposed to both germs and airborne bacteria.
While Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo said that his administration was yet to register all street food vendors in the capital, the Indonesian Street Vendor Association claims to have 150,000 members.
But with government data showing more than 22 million street vendors in Indonesia, the number in the capital could be more than 1 million.
Venders serve anything from sliced fruits like pineapples and watermelon to dishes of nasi goreng, fried chicken and soto (meat or chicken soup).
Objects or insects found in food served by those vendors are no longer an anomaly.
Arief Pambudi, a business developer, has had three incidents with tempeh , the traditional fermented Indonesian soy product similar to tofu, that scarred him.
He has twice found staples inside the tempeh while eating it, with a rusty nail prompting him to be more picky about the tempeh he consumes. He blamed tempeh manufacturers for their negligence.
Accepting the dangers
The safety of street food has become a public health concern.
“The problem is the lack of quality control. I am a fan of street food, but it’s challenging finding places you can trust to be clean. Also I am resigned because eating street food does come with a price and we all know that well,” Arief said.
Dirty carts, unregulated cleanliness check, uncleaned food and poor hygiene bring illness to many residents in the nation’s capital.
“There are too many people who suffered from foodborne illness in Jakarta because of unsanitary street food,” said Marius Widjajarta, the chairman of the Indonesian Consumer Protection Foundation for Health (YPKKI), an independent watchdog.
“But since they get better in a few days’ time, they didn’t think about finding out the cause of the sickness, let alone about filing a legal suit against the government or whoever is responsible,” he said.
This article is part of a series titled ‘Healthy Streats’ by the Jakarta Globe, to raise public awareness about food safety among street food vendors in Jakarta.