Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
now a world heritage site
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Food Hygiene and Safety in the Kitchen 


Giant Sea Snails
kept fresh in crushed ice

Many years ago, I was considering opening a Cambodian restaurant in a famous corner of the UK. One of the requirements for this business was to have a certificate in food hygiene, so I attended the course and obtained the necessary qualification. To be honest, after many years of practicing safe cooking, with the exception of some medical terms, there were only a few things that I was unfamiliar with. 

Foods can carry some bacteria which can lead to food poisoning. Some food poisoning can be seriously life threatening especially to vulnerable people such as the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, babies and young infants. It can however be reduced or even eliminated by implementing good food hygiene. 

When buying foods:
My mother used to say, use your eyes and nose, and occasionally your touch to choose foods.  In the supermarkets, people tend to select their foods according to the ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ dates. However, in a market, these dates are not available; so, here are a few useful tips for choosing fresh ingredients:

  • If the food looks tired, limp, wilted, dull in colour, or has any blemishes, then it is not fresh.
  • If it doesn’t smell fresh, or has a rank and acrid odour, then avoid it under any circumstances.
  • If it feels bruised, swollen, slimy, wrinkly, soft spots, brown spots* or not firm as it should naturally be, then it is not fresh either – avoid it at all costs.

 For example, when buying:

  • A fish, choose one with bright clear eyes, bright pink or red gills, shiny skin/scales, firm/stiff to the touch, with only a slight smell (not a bad smell). If buying a ready prepared fish in a package, its flesh should be translucent with no sign of discoloration. If you are in Cambodia (and in some other countries), the safest way is to buy live fish – yes, still swimming.
  • Molluscs such as mussels, clams, cockles, oysters and scallops, choose ones that are alive. How to tell the difference? The dead ones are those that are open and do not close when tapped lightly on a hard surface (though a closed one could be a dead one too. So, discard any that do not open when cooked).
  • Shellfish and cephalopods such as prawns (shrimps), lobsters, crabs, squids and cuttlefish should have a firm flesh, bright colour and a pleasant sea smell. Krill should be still jumping and dancing.

Temperature danger zone:
Fresh foods lose their nutritional value very quickly. So where possible, buy foods a little at a time and use it quickly. Did you know that an over-packed refrigerator reduces the effectiveness of the temperature required for safekeeping of food? If you have a full fridge, turn down its thermostat to compensate. Be sure to clean the refrigerator regularly.

The temperature range between 5ºC (41ºF) and 60ºC (140ºF) is known as the temperature danger zone. Harmful bacteria grow and multiply faster in this temperature range. So, try to keep food colder than 5ºC (41ºF) or hotter than 60ºC (140ºF). Keeping food at the correct temperature will not only reduce the risk of causing illness, but it will also reduce food spoilage and maximise its shelf-life. Better still, why not do as most housewives do in Cambodia – shop for food daily even if you have a refrigerator at home, if possible.

For cooked food, if left in the danger zone temperature for less than 2 hours, it can be safely refrigerated again but it should be eaten as soon as possible. Leftover must be reheated to at least 74ºC (165ºF). 

However, you may be able to relax a bit with non-high risk foods such as packaged dried powders, jars and tinned (canned) food. Just beware though that, once they are opened, they may become high risk foods like seafood and chicken. 

When preparing food:
Hygiene should be given priority at all times. First, thoroughly clean your working area and wash your hands. Knives, mixing bowls and other utensils should be thoroughly cleaned before and after use. Ensuring that all foods, including vegetables and fruits even the organic ones, are properly washed before preparation. One chopping board should be used for raw meats or raw fish, one for cooked meats, and one for fruits and vegetables. Foods should be thawed in the refrigerator or in cold water. If using the microwave to thaw raw foods, cook it immediately.

When cooking:

  • Keep cooked and raw food separate to avoid cross-contamination
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables regardless of whether they are going to be eaten raw or cooked
  • Do not reheat more than once (with very few exceptions such as some types of curries and cooked vegetables)
  • For frozen food, after being thawed completely and cooked, it is safe to freeze again.
  • Don’t fill the wok/pan more than one-third full of oil and make sure that it is stable.
  • If the oil does catch fire, turn off the heat if possible and cover the wok/pan with heavy cloth or mat to exclude the air (oxygen). This will put out the fire. Never ever throw water on an oil fire or try to move the wok/pan. Try not to panic if you couldn't put it out and call for help.

How do I know when food is cooked?

  • When inserting a knife in to the thick part of the thigh of a cooked chicken, the juices will run clear
  • Fish flesh should look opaque, be firm to touch, and break easily when cooked
  • The desired doneness of beef varies from one person to another. It doesn’t have to be thoroughly cooked providing it is good fresh beef, it can be rare, medium or well done:
    - Rare beef will look reddish pink with pink juice
    - Medium beef has a light pink colour with less pink juice than rare
    - Well-done beef is light brown with slightly yellow juice.
  • Minced (ground) beef must however be cooked through completely
  • Fresh pork in all forms should be well cooked until the juice is clear
  • For vegetables, as long as they are cooked in boiling liquid for a few minutes, the degree of softness is a personal taste.

 Most foods are suitable for refrigerating and freezing

  • The freezer temperature should be no higher than -18ºC (-4ºF)
  • The refrigerator temperature should be between 1-5ºC (34-41ºF):
    - avoid leaving the door of the refrigerator or freezer open for long as it can affect the operating temperature of the refrigerator and ice up the freezer
    - do not overstock the refrigerator as it will reduce the airflow inside and spoil the foods
    - leave cooked food to cool down to room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator
    - Foods should be covered before putting in the refrigerator or freezer
    - Cooked food should be stored on higher shelves
    - Store raw meat on the bottom shelf to avoid drips on other foods that can cause cross- contamination
    - Eggs should be refrigerated to maintain their freshness and shelf life. Although eggs are said to be
      alright kept outside for up to 3 weeks, they are not as fresh as they are in the refrigerator.
     

How long should foods be stored in the freezer before affecting their texture and taste?

  • Blanched vegetables for 1 month
  •  Raw beef, Lamb, poultry and pork  for 4-12 months
  • Oily fish and sausages for 2-3 months
  • Cakes, pastries and dairy products for 4-6 months
     
  • Cooked foods such as soups, stews, dinners, ham, meat and poultry 2-4 months

Note: Make sure you consult your freezer manufacturer’s instruction book and food packages for more information.

 It is good practice that food should be divided and stored in small required quantities:

  • When possible, cut or divide foods into small amounts needed for individual future dishes; then store in small freezer bags and label them including the date, with a permanent marker (as it won’t rub off in contact with freezer moisture). If a plastic container is used, stick a strip of cello-tape (scotch tape) on it and write the label with a permanent marker. This way, you can peel the label off later and re-use the container.
  • If using a chest freezer where foods are likely to be mixed up together, use big boxes with a label on each one of them, to store different types of food, i.e. one for meat, one for fish and seafood, one for vegetables, one for pudding, etc… This way, you can find what you need very quickly, and avoid leaving the freezer door open for longer than necessary.

 Safety in the Kitchen

  • After food and fire, knives are the most dangerous thing around the kitchen:
    - Ironically, sharp knives are safer as it will slide easily through what you are cutting. With blunt knives, you have to force it which could make you slip and cut your finger.
    - Don’t store sharp knives loose in the drawer which can be dangerous if someone reaches into the
      drawer for something else. Banging around with other metal utensils can ruin the sharp edge of the knives
    - In between each cutting, place the knife in front of you, horizontally along the other side of the chopping board with the sharp edge away from you.
    - Always remind yourself not to try and catch dropped knives.
  • Next to knives is broken glass. Carefully brush it off the floor completely, put it in a rubbish bag and wrap it in newspaper before putting it in the bin.
  • Don't let the wok or pan handles on the stove stick out over the floor.
  • If you must store cleaning chemicals such as drain cleaners, bleaches and cleaning fluids, always store them on the bottom shelf and far away from foodstuffs, so if they leak, they can’t get anywhere near your food.

 General Safety Rules

  • If you spill something on the floor, warn everybody about the wet floor, and proceed to wipe it off and dry it immediately.
  • Don’t leave boxes, stools, bags and other things out on the floor in the kitchen where they can trip you up while you are moving fast trying the get the dinner ready for the family.
  • Keep an eye on all electrical cords. Make sure they are put safely out of the way or covered with a rubber tunnel to avoid tripping over them; and repair any damage you find.
  • Don't overload circuits by using multiple plugs, extension cords or the like.
  • Don't use electrical appliances near the sink or other water as this might cause electrocution.

 Basic First Aid in the Kitchen

  • Always have a ‘First Aid’ box in the house; or better still, attend a ‘First Aid’ course.
  • If you cut yourself and if the wound is shallow, wash the wound under cold water and dry the wound and the skin around it with clean absorbent paper. Then, place and press a clean cloth or cotton wool on it and cover with a waterproof plaster.
  • If the wound is deep:
    - apply pressure to it to stem the bleeding
    - raise it above the heart
    - seek medical attention
  • If you burn or scald yourself, in order to reduce blistering:
    - place hand under gently running cold water or
    - wrap ice in a plastic bag and place gently on the affected area, for as long as you can bear it.
    - if you spill a large quantity of hot liquid on yourself, do not remove the clothing (which could rip
      off the skin), get under a cold shower or into a cold bath, then get medical help immediately.

Emergency Telephone Number

I hope everyone knows the emergency phone number of their own country. However, when you travel abroad, it would be useful to remember this number: 112 *

 * The 112 number, which is the European Union emergency telephone number, is a very useful number to remember. If you are visiting a foreign country even if it is not European and need help but do not know their emergency number, call 112. This number will redirect you to the correct emergency number of the country. For example, if you are in Australia, 112 will redirect you to 000 which is the Australian emergency telephone number. This applies to most countries in the world – check it out on the link below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/112_(emergency_telephone_number) 

Tips for Foods and Drinks Abroad 

When visiting a developing country, eat fruits that have skin that can be peeled and wash other fruits well before eating. Drink canned or bottled drinks. Choose a restaurant where you could see a lot of people especially locals. This will suggest that the food turnovers are quick, thus, the ingredients used are likely to be fresh. Secondly, the dishes served are likely to be authentic and tasty. Last but not least, avoid having salads and ice cubes in your drinks.

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 * Brown spots on fruits and vegetables such as bananas, apples and aubergines (eggplants) are unharmed. This discoloration is due to their enzymes coming into contact with the air (oxygen). This can easily be prevented by adding lime/lemon juice, sugar or salt.