One of my favorite things about travelling is eating street food.
You get to experience local flavors and delicacies, and it’s one of the best ways to soak in the local culture. Sitting down and eating street food in the midst of a busy city is an eye-opening experience.
The people around you add to the authenticity, and it’s also far cheaper than a fancy restaurant. If you’re actively out searching for the best street eats, it’s a good chance to see new neighborhoods you’d never visit otherwise.
But with it comes a risk
Travelers stomach. Bubble gut. Bali belly. Whatever you want to call it, the last thing you want when you’re in a foreign country is to find yourself a little under the weather. Or so sick you can barely move.
I’ve been living in Asia for the last eight years. Regardless of how tempting something looks, there’s a few hard and fast rules you need to follow when eating street food. Ignore these at your own peril.
Ignore these at your own peril.
The rules of safely eating street food
Find somewhere that’s popular
My first instinct is always to look at the customers in a street restaurant. If it’s completely packed and there’s plenty of locals eating the street food, it’s a good indication its good quality. If the place is completely empty, it’s a warning sign, and the first thing I wonder is just how long their “fresh” ingredients have been sitting around waiting for a customer. You never want to be the only person eating at a street stall.
Actually look how your food is being cooked
A big perk about eating street food is you can see right into the kitchen. Before sitting down to order, take a look at how they’re working. You want to see that the ingredients going into your dish are fresh and washed, and the chef is running a clean station. If there’s raw meat sitting out in the sun, or it all just looks a little dirty, it’s better to skip it.
Never eat pre-prepared foods
If it looks like a buffet in front of you, and there’s dish after dish laid out, I recommend staying away. You don’t know when that curry was actually cooked. It might have been this morning, or it could have been Thursday last week. Plus you’ve got to wonder just how long it’s been sitting out in the sun. Skip it, and find somewhere that’s cooking every dish fresh.
Make sure the meat is cooked through
Erring on the safe side is a good strategy, as this can vary widely from vendor to vendor. Don’t eat rare or raw meat, there’s just too much risk. Always check that it’s been cooked through, especially on chicken which can be disastrous if you’re halfway through a piece only to find it’s still raw inside.
Give your cutlery a wipe
In your home you can usually trust the cutlery in your drawers are clean, but in a street stall these are usually left out in the open. Bugs climb all over them, and you’ve also got to rely on the street vendor to wash them properly, with good clean water. Not always a good idea. One habit I quickly developed was carrying a single-use pack of wet wipes with me. Like the ones you get with your meal on a plane. Then just give your cutlery (and the plate) a quick wipe over before using it. Bacteria don’t just live in the food.
Be wary of the fruits
In Southeast Asia there’s fruit everywhere, but you can bet there’s been plenty of chemicals and pesticides used on the crops. What causes a problem is if these aren’t properly washed, you ingest a whole terrible cocktail of poisons. My advice is to stick to the ones with a peel. Bananas. Mangoes. Coconuts. Anything where you actually eat the peel, like an apple or a guava, give it a miss.
Ask for no ice
Bacteria thrive in water, and one of the most common ways travelers fall sick is by drinking contaminated water. Not every street vendor is using bottled water to make their ice, especially when you’re traveling around the countryside to all the little villages. Ask for no ice, and skip the blended fruit drinks because you never know what they used to make the ice. A can of coke or a soda is a far safer option.
Skip the spices
Whilst this one isn’t really about contamination, it’s important to know your limits when it comes to the amount of chili you can handle. If you’re not used to it, and you try to power through a spicy dish, this isn’t going to be good for your stomach. A street vendor cooks for the local population, so be sure to ask for the non-spicy versions if you’re not really a chili eater.
Most of these are common sense, but it pays to have your wits about you when you’re eating street food. If you get a weird vibe or something just doesn’t look right, keep walking. Soon enough you’ll come across the little-hidden gem the locals were all walking to!
See more from the blog