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Saturday, Aug. 3, 2002
I'm a carefree street food vendor, baby!
By AMY CHAVEZ
You know what I like about Japan? The mobile food. And I'm not talking about going to the drive-through at McDonald's for takeout. Albeit a dying tradition, in Japan you can still get some food such as noodles, octopus balls and "yaki imo" from street vendors who cruise the neighborhoods. If you have lived in Japan for any amount of time, you have surely become accustomed to the ramen man's whistle, the "tako yaki" man's song and the yaki imo man's cry. In my neighborhood, we even have a man who sells fresh fish from his bicycle. He'll clean and slice the fish right there for you on a piece of plywood attached to the rack on the back of his bike.
The reason I like food from the vendors is not because it tastes any better than what you could get at a restaurant. To the contrary, you can't be as choosy. You have to take whatever the vendor brings. But I like the direction the food moves in: toward you.
In the United States, where food is always stationary, you have to go hunting and gathering for food in restaurants and supermarkets. Try to get someone to deliver your food to you in America and it's called a gourmet lunch delivery service. That'll be an extra $5 charge for delivery, plus a tip please.
The street vendor's food journeys. Before it gets to you, it has likely gone around the neighborhood a few times. You could say it has experience. I imagine Japan used to have a greater variety of street vendors in the old days, like many Asian countries still do. In Indonesia or Vietnam, for example, a woman still passes through the neighborhood on a bicycle selling whatever she made in her kitchen that morning. Can you imagine waking up one morning and deciding to sell some scrambled eggs to your neighbors?
I also like the atmosphere at the mobile food stalls. The ramen man hands you a bowl of piping hot noodles while offering you a dingy plastic stool to sit on. You hunker down over your bowl and slurp away with a few other hungry souls.
With the current economic crisis in Japan, I wonder why more people don't become food vendors. It's much better than being, for example, a waiter. Consider the advantages:
1. No running back and forth to the kitchen for orders. 2. No complicated orders requiring tedious questions such as "mashed or baked?" "Thousand Island or French?" Likewise, no customer complaints that you got their order wrong, as in, "I did not order the cordon bleu du jour! I ordered the crab parfait del mare, baked, sour cream on the side, hold the butter."
3. No arguing with the chef. Chefs are notoriously short-tempered creatures with a propensity for throwing pots and pans when angry. If a vendor throws his ramen pot on the ground, customers will gasp, shove his cart into the river, and shout, "Noodle brute!"
4. No need to hire a dishwasher. The dishes are washed on the premises, void of running water. And no adhering to pesky sanitation regulations. Just dump the plastic bowl into a tub of greasy water with several thousand other dishes.
5. No putting up with difficult customers. If a vendor doesn't like a customer, he can just ditch him and wheel his restaurant elsewhere. If he operates out of a truck, he can burn some rubber to make a real impression.
6. No uniforms or silly hats. No "geta" sandals that may make a quick getaway difficult.
7. Food vendors work their own hours. Like taxi drivers, they can ignore customers completely and go to the park and sleep. Or they can open up for business in the middle of a traffic jam.
But the best reason to be a street vendor is because you can make up your own song.
Contact Amy at email@example.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com