Thu, Nov 06, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Foul taste

The recent food scares are leaving paranoid consumers with a bad taste in their mouths, and staff reporter Enru Lin’s mission to find out what’s safe to eat on the streets of Taipei only confirmed this widespread fear

By Enru Lin  /  Staff reporter

The food safety statement of a Mos Burger located inside the Eslite at Taipei Main Station.

Photo: Enru Lin, Taipei Times

If you’ve been following the news, you would be well-aware that the Ministry of Health and Welfare has been saying that eating out is an exercise in mettle and courage, seizing the day and welcoming the unexpected, because you only live once.

My editor, a middle-aged office worker who seems interested only in living once but for a long time, was having none of it. For weeks now, he has been asking vendors what’s in their food and whether the ingredients are safe to eat. Last Tuesday, he challenged me to try it as well.

“You can put a pillow under your shirt so they think you’re pregnant,” he said, adding that this could make vendors more willing to open up.

I did not do this, but maybe that’s an idea for the next person. Over two days, I visited 15 food vendors in Taipei, initially expecting a pleasant time. I soon found out how wrong my initial assumption was.

>MOM-AND-POP SHOPS

One of my first stops was a bright little self-owned eatery near the Technology Building. It serves hot snacks like pork intestine with tofu.

I ordered, then paused at the counter. “Do you mind if I ask what type of cooking oil you use?” I asked the employee closest to me.

She was busy and moved away, bagged an order and rang up another. After a while, she looked up and saw that I was still there. “It’s lard-based,” she said.

I asked her for the name of the supplier, and she shouted out the question to another woman.

“We make it ourselves,” said the other woman.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“The way everybody else does. That’s how we make it,” she said with the intensity of a gardener who, sun-beaten and hands full, is trying to shrug off a cloud of gnats.

I ate my order and then it was off to the next stop, which, incidentally, also said they made their own oil — which, quite honestly is all hard to believe, since the process of making your own cooking oil is a complex and time-consuming one. If small shops were making their own cooking oils, they most likely would have made a big fuss out of it and marketed the fact as a major selling point in order to attract customers.

Further down the block, a frail-looking woman was chopping vegetables at a street stall. I asked her for a recommendation from the menu, and she responded in Chinese with a slight Vietnamese accent. We talked about the dishes some more before I asked about the brand of oil she uses. The conversation morphed, nearly instantly, and she switched to speaking in Vietnamese, making it impossible to continue.

CULTURE OF CAUTION

In all of these cases, the vendors were small mom-and-pop stalls or self-owned storefronts, and of the 15 vendors I visited, seven were street-side stalls like the Vietnamese woman’s noodle stand or other self-owned small businesses. The people here, who eke out a living on razor-thin margins, were visibly uncomfortable and often evasive with their responses.

They have good reason to react in such a manner, however. Part of the reason might be that the right answer today will be the wrong answer tomorrow.

“Every day there is a new problem,” said a noodles vendor outside Taipei Main Station, who said only that he uses a brand that is certified safe.

“Today my supplier is safe, but tomorrow they say it’s not safe, who knows? I can’t move my suppliers in and out through a revolving door,” he said.

Meanwhile, health authorities have been emerging from the woodwork, checking old registries and conducting spot-checks.

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