In Dhaka, eating outside is a great way to spend one's free time in a city where options for entertainment are limited. Whether to hang out with old friends, spending time with relatives, going out on a date, or enjoying other social occasions, eating out is probably the most universal approach to having a good time. One might say it is part of our culture nowadays, at least for the ones who can afford it.
However, while enjoying ourselves we tend to overlook the unhygienic quality of the food we consume. Bengali food probably has the best tastes in the world. Unfortunately the greatest flavours in the world are accompanied by the worst healthcare concerns. A good meal at a roadside 'hotel' one day is also very good at giving the worst kind of food poisoning the next day. That is just one side of the problem, the immediate short-term effect. In the long run, unhygienic food has a number of side effects - increased exposure to the risk of jaundice, ulcer, gastric and acidity, heart diseases, and many more.
We, the general public always knew that the food we are consuming is not the best for our health, although actual concerns for health remained low as it does still now. The mobile court drives on restaurants and food outlets, spearheaded by magistrate Rokon uddin revealed the true extent of the unhygienic food prepared for our consumption in the back door kitchens. The culprits included many posh food outlets, places where people go because they expected better quality and healthier food. Their expectations were to be cruelly disappointed. The mobile courts discovered to the people's horror and fury that these expensive outlets had kitchens that tended to embarrass even the horrifying conditions of the cheaper roadside food outlets where the prices are lower and the environment far less sophisticated. With the exceptions of the foreign food franchises, where cleanliness and hygiene have to be maintained because of terms and conditions signed with mother companies based abroad, there were virtually no restaurants that complied with the minimal standards required for food hygiene. As photographs of the kitchens of these restaurants, normally off limits and hidden from view of the customers flooded the national media, the public was dumbfounded. They had put their trust in these posh restaurants for providing quality food. Now they comprehended that the tasty delicates that rested on their tables were prepared in dirty kitchens swarming with flies, floors covered with filth and cooks who could not find time washing their hands after blowing their noises. So if food from these restaurants were prepared in such conditions, what about the roadside restaurants, the neighbourhood phuchka outlets, the more common outlets where most of us tend to eat more often? Surely the whole scenario was too horrible to be acceptable.
We Bengalis have short memories. After the initial shock and horror, everything has returned to normal! The food outlets, initially reeling from an unprecedented drive from the government and rage from the public tended to be a little careful at first. As things settled down, they went back to their old habits. Among the poorer retailers, there is a lack of awareness and a shortage of capital to prepare more hygienic food. As for the richer restaurants, cleaner and more standard conditions increase costs and cuts down net profits. The average customer is becoming indifferent once again. After all they have been consuming these food for time immemorial. Roadside food outlets often prepare their food in front of open manholes and sewers through which waste moves with freedom. The sellers who prepare the food wash their hands only in the most rare circumstances. Surely it does not require an expert to figure out that the food is unhygienic. So it is not only the shortcomings of the sellers that have created a scenario where the consumption of unhygienic food has become an acceptable part of our daily lives.
The lack of awareness that exists on part of both the sellers and customers is the root cause that allows such scenarios to repeat themselves. We Bengalis over the ages have probably developed a wonderfully immune system to the most unhygienic foodstuff. But there are limits to what our system may withstand. Most people before reaching old age develop a number of diseases and illnesses, for which the pattern of food consumption is responsible to a great extent. So once again, it is an awareness that needs to be created among both the food sellers and their customers. Eating is the favourite Bangladeshi pastime but we cannot continue to pay for it with our health and our very lives.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010