Street Food, Bangkok. Footpath Feasting: Tips to Eating Street F

Eating Street Food Safely – Footpath Feasting Street Food Guide

Eating street food safely is vital when you’re travelling. Whether you’re on a weekend escape, a short holiday or a long journey, you don’t want to spend a day or two in bed from what was meant to be a fantastic street food meal.

Eating Street Food Safely – Footpath Feasting Street Food Guide

Eating street food is an intrinsic part of the travel experience for many of us, especially in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East where a meal on the street is a daily ritual for many locals. For travellers, it’s important to follow a few rules to ensure you’re eating street food safely, so that roadside meal doesn’t send you to bed for a few days.

Many travellers think of their first feast on a footpath as a rite of passage, and regular curbside dining experiences as badges of courage to be worn proudly.

Why? Because street food can make you sick, and I’m not just talking about tarantulas in Cambodia, fried bugs in Thailand‘s Isaan, and other weird stuff (well, weird to Western eyes and tastes). Even something as innocent as an icecream can make you ill.

We’ll never forget a miserable overnight bus ride from Oaxaca in Mexico’s interior to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast. Due to a seriously mountainous route, the ride was stomach churning in itself, but the queasiness was compounded by our day spent eating and drinking everything in sight at Oaxaca’s fabulous food market. That included several coconut ice creams. Each.

We spent a good half hour in the bathroom at the bus station on arrival, and after checking into our budget hotel, a couple of days in bed – mostly spent with our heads over the toilet bowl.

That was a long time ago of course, when we were younger, less-experienced travellers, and thought we were indestructible.

Time, a few more similar ‘events’, a great deal more travel, and countless conversations with chefs about food hygiene over the years, have combined to teach us to be more cautious and pick and choose our street food vendors very carefully.

These days we’re far more likely to get sick from a molecular-loving chef who has tried to slow-cook chicken in a bag for 36 hours.

As a result, we gradually developed some guidelines to follow for eating street food safely. We thought this might be a good opportunity to commit those to type.

So here we go… the street food rules we feast by – our guide to eating street food safely…

Tips to Eating Street Food Safely

1. Start off slowly

Don’t gorge yourself straight off the plane on every delectable treat you spot at every food stall you set your eyes upon. Every time you travel to a new destination, your body needs to adjust to new bacteria so take it easy when it comes to your footpath feasting until you build up some resistance. Eat yoghurt and bananas for breakfast.

2. Eat where locals eat

Look for the stalls with long lines and tables packed with locals, though not necessarily teenage locals, who aren’t always the best culinary judges, unless we’re talking burgers and cupcakes, of course. The busy stalls are obviously the most popular. And crowded tables of tourists don’t count. Don’t buy food from vendors who aren’t making any sales unless you can establish a good reason why. A new stall selling top quality stuff that’s too expensive perhaps? Maybe…

3. Eat when locals eat

While those long lines and busy tables might tempt you to return later, vendors know when their regulars are going to show up, so be patient, wait for a table, and join them. Cooks time their prep accordingly, so you might return later to find empty tables, but you’ll probably be dished up the last of the over-cooked dregs. Even if the food is cooked in front of you the raw products have probably been sitting out all day. If you can’t stand the wait, return another day before the crowds arrive.

4. Scrutinise the street food stall and its cook

While the stall might be popular with locals it could simply be because the food is cheap, the stall is new (novelty factor), or it’s just plain convenient to where people work. Scrutinise the street food stall and its cook. Check out the prep area. Is everything clean and organised? Does the cook’s hands look clean (hard to tell, I know) or are they wearing plastic gloves? Is the cook also handling the money? Coins and notes are big germ carriers. Are there tubs of soapy water to wash dishes and cutlery?

5. Watch what’s cooking for a while

Take time to take a close look (and sniff) at the quality of the produce and how it’s being kept. Ask yourself: does it look fresh, has it been refrigerated, is it sitting on ice, are different raw meats such as pork, beef and chicken being kept apart to avoid contamination, is cold food kept apart from hot food, how long do you think it’s been sitting around in the sun, etc? Note the hygiene standards of the cook, their food handling habits, their cooking techniques, and what’s actually being dished onto the plates.

6. Look closely at what’s on your fork

Or your spoon, chopsticks or skewers. Once you get your food, make sure you’re not eating chicken that is undercooked or any food that is still raw that shouldn’t be – unless of course you’re confident in the quality or are with a local who is.

7. Know what to avoid when

If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, stay clear of raw fruit and vegetables that are especially porous (thick-skinned fruit and veg is best) and could have been washed in contaminated water, along with drinks or desserts that have or might have had ice in them. Once you’ve been in the place for a while, it’s probably safe to take the risk and try those fresh Vietnamese rice paper rolls. Yum.

Footpath Feasting is our regular series on street food. Look out for our forthcoming guide!

Do you have any tips for eating street food safely?

There are 21 comments

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  1. robert

    My rule is: Make sure it has been cooked to death! If it is constantly on the fire and has been for hours, then it is hard for it to kill you!

  2. Finedininglover

    Hi guys really nice read – seem to have got all the top tips listed. I guess with the age of the internet and social networks always good to ask your followers for recommendations as they have already found a gem and hate to sound a bit pluggy but foodspotting is a great app although I’m not sure how many street stalls they have on their

  3. Frank McMains

    Only eat a places where the person who is cooking doesn’t handle the money. Exceptions would be places that are just serving grilled corn or something like that, but even the locals in Mexico and the rest of Latin America look for taco stands and such where there are two separate people to handle the money and work the grill. There is just some nasty stuff on money. But, it also shows that the person cooking is observing some basic sanitation rules like not shaking hands with the customers and keeping their hands clean while the handle your food. And you guys are right, go to places that are crowded with locals. They know where is good and clean.

  4. Cherszy

    Street food is probably the best thing about any country in Asia as they give you the very experience of that country that no clean-looking restaurant can give. Ha! But, yeah, it is kinda risky to “indulge” in street foods, especially for one with a weak digestive system. Crap! Poor toilets!

    So what my family and I usually do is we buy a plate of whatever local specialty there is and then we share. Everybody takes a bite or two, and we can actually get to eat more kinds of street food. We share the bacteria, so to speak! The bacteria’s weaker that way, and our immune systems can actually fight it.

  5. Lara Dunston

    Hello there! How are you?!

    Thanks for the tip! Perfectly fine if you like eating charcoal I guess 😉

    If I remember correctly last time we met we ate some Mexican street food at a funky place in Buenos Aires. Fun night!

  6. Lara Dunston

    Thanks! If you take a look at our introductory post for Footpath Feasting (the one before this post), we ask people to leave tips there and over coming weeks (this is a weekly series after all), we’ll take the best and most relevant street food posts and include them in a monthly round-up.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Angela

    Well…start off slowly, yeah, definitely.. Eat when and where locals eat too, except in India, where locals can drink local water and tourists should better not do it. Also street food, I’ve been highly recommended (by locals..) not to try it, especially in very tourist and dusty cities.. I got sick once in India, without even having eaten street food, probably due to some expired milk, the second time I went I payed extra attention and nothing happened. I guess you can’t really say you’ve been to India if you haven’t got a little food poisoning 😛

  8. Spiceye Travel

    I would life to know if what is your favorite country where you experienced the most delicious street foods? I will assume to had one or two countries. even the safest.

  9. Lara Dunston

    The money one is a great tip for the Americas! Unfortunately they don’t follow that one in Asia where a lot of food vendors are solo, pulling their carts around on their own. Noticed a lot of Mexicans also use plastic gloves – which they seem to be increasingly doing in the MidEast too. In the MidEast shawarma and falafel stands are often attached to an eatery of some kind so there’s normally a dedicated cashier to handle the money. It’s pretty icky there too. Nice to see you here, Frank!

  10. Lara Dunston

    Hi Angela – yeah, agree, India can be rough. Poor Terence hears you, I know – he had food poisoning there quite bad, which kept him in bed for a couple of days, and he got it from a good restaurant too. But then we’ve both had nasty bouts of food poisoning from good restaurants, even in Europe, including a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris!! Seafood can be a problem, even in the best places – these days, I sniff everything everywhere! Would love to return to India some day. Nice to see you here 🙂

  11. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Jessie! We sat down to make a list of posts we wanted to write for Grantourismo over coming weeks/months and we had so many of street food that it just made sense to start a series. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  12. Terence Carter

    Easy for me to answer: Mexico and Thailand. Both countries have a tradition of eating – and virtually living – on the street and they both have places that do things like tacos (Mexico) and fried chicken (Thailand) that’s better than most restaurants.

  13. Nicholas Gilman

    Good post. I’ve written a lot about street food and highly recommend eating it! Street stalls are simply micro-restaurants and are often no better or worse hygiene-wise then bigger places. Never say never or you’ll be missing out…

  14. Meg Nesterov

    Great post! I’ve had to be more careful than usual since I’m pregnant, and had to avoid some stuff in Malaysia on a recent trip but had no issues in Singapore, heaven for those of us with weaker immune systems but adventurous palates! I did notice a lot of tourists watching me to see what a pregnant woman would eat! Here in Istanbul, I have gone from street stuffed mussels to fried ones (not a bad trade off!) but none of my non-pregnant friends have had issues with them. Biggest adjustment to make has been avoiding fresh veggies here since I haven’t had hepatitis vaccinations (on doctor’s orders) but just 3 more weeks until I can enjoy delicious Turkish salads again!

  15. Lara Dunston

    Thanks. I’m sure we came across your blog when we were last in Mexico City, last year for Grantourismo. Do feel free to leave a link to a favourite street food post on your blog in the Comments of our last post and we’ll include it when we do a street food round-up post.

    Great advice. At least you can see the food being prepped at a street stall, whereas, unless there’s a fishbowl kitchen you don’t know what’s going on in the kitchen, and I’ve worked in kitchens, so *I* know what goes on in some. And it’s not always nice.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  16. Lara Dunston

    Hi Meg. Oh gosh, I can’t imagine being able to survive with all the food sacrifices pregnant women have to make! Congratulations!

    Hepatitis vaccinations? We’ve never got vaccinations for Turkey. The first time we got any shots in (oh dear) almost 15 years (so way overdue on many) was for Kenya actually.

    We’ve only ever had food poisoning in Turkey once too, and boy did I have it bad – it was seafood at Kas. Terence and a friend and I shared an enormous seafood platter from a well-regarded restaurant, and it all tasted delicious too. I was the only one who got sick – we suspected a mussel – and spent 2 days in bed while they enjoyed the sun and sea. Very sad.

    Just 3 weeks!!! How exciting! Take care xx

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