Our tips to eating street food safely when you travel include doing a street food tour on your first day in a new place and eating where the locals eat to reduce your chances of getting sick. Whether you’re on a weekend away, a short holiday or long journey, you don’t want to spend a day or two in the hotel bathroom, ill 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 here in Southeast Asia, our home of 12 years, as well as Latin America and the Middle East where a meal or snacking on the street is a daily ritual for many locals.
For travellers, when it comes to eating on the streets, it’s important to follow our rules to ensure you’re eating street food safely, so that roadside meal doesn’t send you to bed for a few days, or, even worse, to the hospital.
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 there is a chance that street food can make you sick, in some places more than others.
And I’m not necessarily referring to tarantulas here in Cambodia or fried insects here or in Thailand‘s Isaan. Even something as innocent as an ice cream or a smoothie made with ‘bad ice’ can send you to the hospital.
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Here’s our Footpath Feasting guide to eating street food safely when you travel.
Tips to Eating Street Food Safely When You Travel – Our Footpath Feasting Guide
Our tips to eating street food safely when you travel are based on our firsthand experience over several decades of global travels for both work and pleasure – starting with our first trip to Mexico way back in the 1990s when we backpacked all over the country to a couple of decades as guidebook authors and food and travel writers covering the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, where we eventually settled.
One of our worst experiences of dealing with food poisoning was on that first trip to Mexico where we didn’t know what we know now. 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. We’d planned to spend most of the time on the beach.
That was a long time ago of course, when we were younger, less-experienced travellers, and we 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, over the years we developed some guidelines to follow for eating street food safely when you travel. 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 when you’re on the road.
Tips to Eating Street Food Safely
Here are our trips to eating street food safely when you travel based on decades of our travel.
Start Your Street Food Adventure Slowly
Our top tip for eating street food safely when you travel is to start slowly and ease into your footpath feasting. Don’t gorge yourself straight off the plane on every delectable street food snack you spot at every street 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 slowly and easy into footpath feasting until you build up some resistance. Also make sure to eat lots of yoghurt and bananas for breakfast every day.
Do a Street Food Tour with a Local Guide
Before you leave home, book a street food tour for your first day in your destination with an expert local guide on Get Your Guide or EatWith, which we also love for booking meals with locals, cooking classes and insider experiences, such as supper clubs.
We might have been eating street food for several decades, and writing about it as professional travel and food writers, but wherever we go in the world we still do a street food tour with a local guide shortly after we arrive in a place that we haven’t been before. Why?
Because there are lots of advantages to kicking off your footpath feasting adventure with a local expert. Firstly, you hit the ground running, as they’ll take you to all the best and safest street food spots, which means you won’t waste time; they’ll introduce you to the local specialties, and they’ll share tips to eating street food safely specific to their city or town.
Eat Where Locals Eat
One of our best tips for eating street food safely when you travel is to eat where the locals eat. Look for the stalls with long lines and tables packed with locals. Though not necessarily teenage locals. Teenagers aren’t the best culinary judges, unless it’s fluorescent green fish balls and pink crab cakes on sticks.
The street food stalls that are busy with locals are obviously the most popular street food stalls and therefore the safest. 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 when you’re on holidays. While those long lines and busy tables might tempt you to return later when it’s quieter, vendors know when their regulars are going to show up. Be patient, wait for a table, and join them.
Street food cooks time their food 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 in the sun 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 street food stall that you’ve got your eye on might look popular with locals, it could simply be because the food is cheap, the stall is new and is still a novelty factor, or it’s just plain convenient to where people work. Scrutinise the street food stall and the street food cook to ensure you’re going to be eating street food safely when you pull up a stool.
Here’s how to do it: check out the prep area and ask yourself does everything look 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 these questions: does the food look fresh? Does it look like it’s been refrigerated? iIs 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 the food might have been sitting around in the sun? Make a note of the hygiene standards of the cook, their food handling habits, their cooking techniques, and what’s actually being dished onto the plates. Then decide whether to get in line or pull up a stool or not.
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, for the first few days it’s best to stay clear of raw fruit and raw vegetables that are especially porous. Thick-skinned fruit and veg is best. Don’t avoid raw fruit and veg and salads your whole trip as some advise. Some of the best street food you can eat are salads, especially the pounded salads, such as bok lahong and som tam in Southeast Asia.
Another issue is that the produce could have been washed in contaminated water. Also consider drinks or desserts that have or might have had ice in them. Here in Southeast Asia, there is ‘good ice’ and ‘bad ice’.
Good ice is generally produced with filtered water. Vendors will buy it in big bags of ice cubes. Bad ice is generally made with unfiltered water and sold in enormous blocks, delivered to street food vendors from the backs of tracks, and is then generally crushed or shaved.
If you ask if the ice is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, a street food vendor will generally tell you. Here in an off-the-beaten-track village in Cambodia that rarely sees foreigners, we stopped for lunch but first ordered cold drinks. I spotted a massive block of ice that had just been delivered and asked if they had ‘good ice’.
The street food cook understood and stopped prepping our iced coffees and dashed across the road to a little shop where we could see her buying a big bag of ice that she subsequently put in our cold drinks. We tipped her to cover the cost of the ice as well as her trouble.
Keep in mind that most street food cooks don’t want you to get sick from their food or drinks. They want you to enjoy their food and enjoy your holiday.
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 you spotted at the market. But maybe not before you’re about to do an overnight bus ride…
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.
First Published on 22 June 2011; Updated and Republished on 17 May 2023
Footpath Feasting is our regular series on street food around the world. 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.
Do you have any tips to eating street food safely when you travel? You’re welcome to share them with our readers in the comments below.