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 (or the bathroom), sick from what was meant to be a fantastic street food meal.
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 ice cream can make you ill. This is our Footpath Feasting guide to eating street food safely.
Eating Street Food Safely – Footpath Feasting Street Food Guide
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
Start off slowly
Our top tip for eating street food safely is to start 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.
Eat where locals eat
One of our best tips for eating street food safely is to eat where the locals eat. Look for the stalls with long lines and tables packed with locals. Though not necessarily teenage locals. They aren’t always the best culinary judges, unless we’re talking fluorescent green fish balls and pink crab cakes on sticks. 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. Click through to this post for more tips on how to eat like locals when you travel.
Eat when locals eat
When is just as important as where to eat when it comes to eating street food safely. 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.
Scrutinise the street food stall and its cook
While a stall you’ve got your eye on might look 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 to ensure you’re going to be eating street food safely. 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?
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.
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.
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.
If you’re keen to learn more about food safety, take a look at the incredibly comprehensive A-Z food safety guide on the United Nations Food and Agriculture site.
Footpath Feasting is our regular series on street food. Look out for our forthcoming guidebook! Do you have any tips for eating street food safely? Also see our Tips to Avoid Getting Sick When You Travel.