Hit the road in search of spice and variety

Checking on hygiene
Hygiene is a crucial factor when it comes to buying food from street vendors. So how do the lunch packets rate?

"We have been checking the standard of lunch packets sold around Colombo, especially in the vicinity of the University of Colombo. We usually take samples and check them on a regular basis, and have been doing this for the last ten years," says Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam, Chief Medical Officer of the Colombo Municipal Council.

According to him, at the start, almost fifty percent of these businesses sold unhygienic products. "Initially, most of these lunch packets were fecally contaminated. They contained e-coli, a very common type of bacteria found in food. But now we find that only about 10-15 per cent of the packets are contaminated,” Dr. Kariyawasam says.He went on to explain that rice should ideally be consumed within two hours of cooking.

But with most of these vendors having to come from the outskirts of the city, the two-hour period is long past by the time the customer purchases the lunch packet and the quantity of bacteria has then multiplied, making it unsuitable for consumption.

So what measures are being taken by the authorities to ensure that customers are safeguarded? According to Dr. Kariyawasam, his authority has proposed to register these businesses, with a certificate from the Medical Officer of Health of the area of residence of the vendor.

A seal would be placed on each packet of lunch, as a guarantee of quality. "Once this criterion is established, if a sample that we inspect is not up to standard, we can sue the owner of that particular business and if necessary, even close it down," he added.

Chicken, fish or veg? A special fried rice or just plain and simple 'buth curry'? The choice is yours. The sight of a vendor selling lunch packets at street corners is all too familiar to us city dwellers. With both parents employed in most families and young adults working or studying, no one seems to be able to find the time to cook their own lunch any more. Given our fondness for our 'buth-curry', buying a home-cooked meal from outside, seems to be the next best option.

"Most people prefer to buy lunch from us mainly because it is economical, hygienic and convenient," says S. Liyanarachchi. A retired building supervisor who worked at the Milk Board, he is one of many who have set up business opposite the University of Colombo. He has been selling lunch packets for the past six years.

"Once I retired, I wanted to be involved in something which would be of service to society and also give me independence," he says. With his wife working full-time and two grown up children who are studying, he is fully involved in his business. His day begins around 5.30 a.m. He has two helpers to prepare the food and they make almost 600 packets a day, which he himself packs. Customers, who are mainly university students, have a choice between a regular meal containing fish, egg and chicken, accompanied with four vegetables, for a price of rupees 20 and a special meal containing four vegetables, egg and fried fish, at a slightly higher price. Coming to his "spot" around 11.00 a.m, he leaves by 3.00 p.m.

"It's a good job and it enables me to receive a monthly salary, but I want to move onto another job someday. It is quite difficult to stand for such a long period of time everyday," says Pradeep Weerakoon, a young man who also sells lunch packets near the University of Colombo. At his employer's base at Kirulapone about 15 workers are assigned to prepare the food, a daily quota of some 50 kg of rice and adequate quantities of curries. For the 600 packets they produce a day, their expenditure is around Rs. 7,000.

While for some, making lunch packets is an individual effort, there are others for whom it is a family affair. Susantha Jayalath who sells his packets at the corner of Hunupitya Cross Road, Colombo 2 works for his brother who has been in this business for the past couple of years. "We are originally from Galle, and came to Colombo about ten years ago. We first sold our lunch packets in front of the Colombo University, but now have other places too near House of Fashion and at Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 as well."

At their Battaramulla 'head office', they have 15 employees who prepare around 2000 packets daily. Three sacks of rice are used on a daily basis. Containing four curries, which include fish, meat or eggs, the packets are priced between Rs 35 and 50. Forty packets are delivered to each trader and their daily income amounts to about Rs. 5,000.

P. Rasiah and his wife Vijayalakshmi have been involved in the lunch packet business for the past two years. Originally from Pussallawa, they now live at Kirulapone and use a three-wheeler to transport their lunch packets to the selling point, opposite the entrance to the faculty of arts of the University of Colombo.

"With two grown up children who are studying, we thought of starting our own business. The two of us start work around 6.00 a.m. every day. We usually cook around ten to 15 kg of rice, but this differs if there are prior orders," says Rasiah. They make around sixty packets every day, selling them from Rs 30 to 45 depending on the menu.

Do they make a profit from this business? While some vendors felt that the income they made was not sufficient for a comfortable living, others seemed satisfied with a profit of about ten rupees per lunch packet. Surprisingly, most said they had more business during weekends and public holidays such as Poya. Speaking to the customers who make this business a success, we had a mixed array of opinions.
“Since I am originally from Kegalle but work in Colombo, I am living on my own at a boarding. Obviously I can't cook my own food, so I opt to buy my lunch from outside. The hygiene factor is what I really look into, and since I buy my lunch from one dealer everyday, I am quite satisfied with his standards," says K. Weerasinghe, (42) an employee at a private company.

Himali de Silva, (23) who is an IT student, agrees that while hygiene was the key factor when eating outdoors, taste and quality too were important. "After all, you are looking for a substitute for your average home cooked meal. Everyone who buys lunch packets from outside, particularly from these dealers, look for something as close to home, as possible. This is why I feel that hygiene, taste, quality and quantity, should all come together.”

The economic aspect too obviously mattered to some. "Being a full time student, still completely dependent on my parents, I need to think of the money factor when it comes to buying lunch from outside. Considering the fact that this is an everyday occurrence, the nominal price of these lunch packets is quite welcome!" says M. Gooneratne (21).

But like in every business, there are the ups and downs for the vendors. The rain is their chief worry for they are unable to sell their packets on the streets during heavy showers. Another problem is the frequent campus closures.

"When the university closes, there is a huge drop in business," says Pradeep.
Price hikes in almost all essential food items don't make their life any easier as they are unable to raise prices for fear of losing business. What happens to the unsold packets, we wonder. It was quite heartening to know that almost all these vendors did something positive with the leftovers.

"On a normal day, about five or six lunch packets get left over, and we usually give them to the less fortunate around us," said Rasiah, adding that it gave them a chance of ending their day on a charitable note. Picking up a lunch packet is now as common as buying a newspaper. Convenience and variety seem to be the key reasons why most people opt to literally buy lunch off the streets. So the next time you have the urge to "spice up" your lunchtime…. hit the road.

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