The hidden dangers of local delights. Everywhere

October 4, 2023 | 05:02 pm PT
Nguyen Manh Hung Chef
In March 2009 British newswire Reuters reported a case of food poisoning at a restaurant owned by the three-star Michelin chef and culinary legend Heston Blumenthal.

The incident significantly impacted his restaurant. The number of victims who had symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea and high fever gradually increased from 40 people to over 400.

Despite being a high-quality restaurant with a professionally trained kitchen staff, it still fell victim to such an unfortunate situation.

I do not mean to compare this high-end establishment to Phuong, a local bakery in Hoi An, as the difference in standard is clear.

The point is that food poisoning can happen anywhere, not just at street food stalls. Like many other travelers, I often visit renowned eateries to enjoy the local culinary experience rather than merely sate my hunger.

For instance, Taiwan has a chain of restaurants offering famous traditional dishes.

I have traveled extensively from the north to the south of Taiwan to savor the food at these restaurants while researching dim sum.

Anyone visiting for the first time will be enchanted by the traditional ambiance, professional staff and culinary expertise.

The successful owner, once a food technologist, has brilliantly integrated scientific standards into traditional cuisine, earning a Michelin star for his establishment in downtown Taipei.

I firmly believe that long-standing eateries, like the dim sum restaurants in Taiwan and the bakery in Hoi An, have their unique culinary techniques and preservation methods.

It is no happenstance that for 34 years the bakery in Hoi An has served millions of meals to locals and tourists alike.

However, trust is fragile and can be shattered at any moment, as seen in recent food poisoning incidents.

Having worked in kitchens for long, I have observed that during every tourist season restaurant owners find themselves reactively coping with staff shortages, resulting in hiring less skilled people.

As you wander through eateries, it becomes evident that risky practices are common and, sadly, largely ignored.

Fast-food outlets serve a massive number of customers, and the risk of infection from a single source is high.

Factors contributing to food-related illnesses could range from subpar ingredient quality, insects and pets around food to inadequate cooking techniques.

These issues often stem from human neglect due to preoccupation or failure to comply with safety norms.

The case of Phuong bakery in Hoi An exemplifies a large-scale food poisoning incident resulting from sloppy processing at fast-food joints.

According to the Quang Nam Province Department of Health, a total of 3,600 people ate bread from this bakery over two days last month. Of them 313 people, including 103 foreigners, took ill from salmonella from contaminated pork, lettuce and other vegetables.

The pork was processed at the shop after being bought from Hoi An market, while the vegetables were just cleaned and not soaked in salt as they should have been.

Vietnam is a culinary paradise with diverse street food options.

Seeking to make the country the "Kitchen of the World" is a wise and achievable goal, and will give a fillip to its tourism industry.

However, to attract tourists, safety must precede taste.

To ensure safety, regulatory authorities should strictly monitor street food outlets the way they do driving licenses.

Staff at these establishments should undergo regular knowledge checks, passing which should be mandatory to remain in service.

Sadly, this aspect has been overlooked on Vietnam's street food scene.

Restaurant owners have the right to hire whomever they wish, regardless of skill level.

I have attended food safety training sessions, but they would often feel ritualistic and lack serious investment to instill the importance of food safety discipline.

These trainees are critical links in food preparation and also potential agents of food poisoning if not properly educated.

Investing in processing knowledge and technology and staff training will help restaurants control food safety risks.

But training, maintenance and monitoring of established standards need to be a daily endeavor to significantly reduce incidents.

Whether at high-end restaurants or in street food stalls, minimizing health risks is paramount.

With Vietnam aspiring to become the "Kitchen of the World," unceasing efforts are required and on a daily basis to not only enhance restaurant service quality but also preserve the allure of Vietnam's tourism sector.

*Nguyen Manh Hung is a chef and author of cooking books.

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