Shawarma is not the villain, but poor food hygiene is: Chef Pillai

Chef Suresh Pillai
Chef Suresh Pillai

It is not when you are infected with food poisoning that you should start taking precautions, ideally, the safety measures should start at homes and hotels. And the work should start from the grass-root level. It is man’s primary right to have safe food. Celebrity Chef Suresh Pillai explains various methods to keep your food hygienic and safe:

We were all saddened by the death of a girl in Kasaragod who died after consuming shawarma. Of course, any death is painful. But for someone like me who is part of the food industry, such a news is more painful to hear. Soon shawarma became the focal point of many discussions and govt initiated raids and quality checking at various eateries. But that alone cannot be the solution. Consuming safe food is every person’s right. We are used to having three meals a day. It is not practical to get all those three meals from home every time. When you pay for a meal, you are expecting good food in return. It can be from a roadside eatery, thattukada, café, restaurant, or a five-star hotel, all we want is hygienic and tasty food. The person spending Rs 100 for a meal or Rs 1000 for a meal is expecting the same level of taste and hygiene.

Shawarma originated from Iran and became popular in the Middle East and the Malayalees who migrated there acquired a taste for it. That’s how Shawarma became so popular among the youth in Kerala. Besides it is very easy to eat. No wonder shawarma shops started mushrooming in the state. When we adopt and update a foreign snack, it is important to understand what causes such food to rot. It is not possible to find out the reasons within a few days. Especially with regards to the cooking time of meat. There is a difference between well-cooked chicken and meat being grilled on a skewer. It should be ensured that the salad served with the dish is washed well and if the mayonnaise is not contaminated. So it is all about getting into the root cause of the matter and finding solutions. True, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But we can make changes with the help of strong laws and awareness regarding food safety and avoid such dangers in the future. When it comes to foreign countries, we know exactly where the shawarma (or any food) comes from. Important thing is to understand how it reaches its destination.

In foreign countries, they use imported meat. That also means it would reach them after doing the quality control measures required during importation. It reaches the butchery only after it is cut into pieces and cleaned. In the butchery, there will be good quality cold storage. It will maintain a certain temperature and have a record of its temperature. Considering a possibility of unplanned inspection from the food control teams, they temnd to stick to the safety practices well and follow the procedure systematically. Such establishments will keep records of the exact temperature of a fridge in the morning, afternoon, and evening, or what corrective action it will take in the event of any deviation. A very clean piece of meat from there arrives in a shop. It is then marinated and refrigerated to the correct temperature and used as needed. A lot of issues can be avoided if the person who is cooking shawarma shows some ethics regarding its quality.

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Back home in Kerala, a lot of details are ambiguous when it comes to the meat, cooking procedure, and hygiene. Anyone can start anything anywhere in Kerala and that’s an alarming fact. Having said that, shutting down shops isn’t a solution rather it is about creating awareness about it. Since shawarma is even available in villages, it is crucial to start from the panchayats. In Kerala, anyone can open a restaurant. Instead, start thinking of it as a business opportunity. Approach it seriously with enough homework and capital and support from State. Be it people who serve or cook food, we all have a basic understanding of the hygiene required. In this field, there are very few young Malayalis involved. Even hotel management students won't work in small hotels. Even for such jobs, they hire migrant workers. Today there are so many migrant workers without prior expertise in the field hired at various organizations. But how can we trust them with food? Give them proper training as food handlers. We have all worked outside the state and country in various hotels. We need to be aware of the rules of these countries. You can only be a food handler in most of the foreign countries as long as you have a license. Because it is their responsibility. Those who work at various levels in a restaurant in other countries are required to have basic skills in cooking. That’s something we should incorporate in Kerala. Such laws should come.

This has been going on like a chain and once it gets broken at some point, things will have an impact. Now imagine this situation. Contaminated meat reaches a farm, and someone buys it. And the person who is cutting the meat is unaware of it. He knows nothing - whether it is contaminated or it is a dead or infected chicken or an underfed chicken or comes from unhygienic surroundings. Or they have taken a clean chicken and kept it under unhygienic conditions. Or it can be that the meat farm followed all the protocols but the place where it was transported stored it at normal temperature. If the rules reach this chain of action and the people in charge of it, food safety can be followed correctly.

During Covid, we started using hand sanitizers but then this was a rule that existed even before. Keeping your hands clean and sanitized is an unwritten rule in every hotel kitchen. It is only after Covid that we have started incorporating such hygienic measures into our daily life. Personal hygiene is a must for every person who handles/cooks food. Because we have heard of various bacterial infections that are also present in humans. This spreads easily and impacts the body like slow poison. Some catch it fast, while others get infected after a few days, depending on the immunity. That’s what probably happened to the girl who died after eating shawarma. Such a danger is lurking in front of us. As a society, it is our duty to take care of food safety. Not just food safety officers but consumers should also pick the right food.

In other countries they give star ratings for food safety. 5 stars will be there. And those ratings will be displayed in front of the restaurants. In a public domain on their food safety website, they will have food safety ratings for all food outlets in their respective municipalities. The ratings are from one to five. If it is less than three, it is not edible. But that is your choice.  

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