Street Smarts About Street Food
5 Ways To Enjoy Your Street Food Without Getting Sick
When given the choice of eating street food or taking the safe route, choose street food. Not only it easier on the pocketbook, but it’s also essential for sampling some of the best and most authentic foods a city has to offer. Lining up for street food allows you to get a glimpse into how the locals dine on a budget. You have a front row seat to local culture, whether you are perched on a tiny stool gulping down a steaming bowl of pho in Ho Chi Minh City, or slurping mid-day ramen in Tokyo, or trying not to burn your tongue on a late night lamb kebab in Cairo.
The street food experience is one of the best parts of travel - food poisoning is one of the worst. I’ve made some of the most disastrous culinary decisions one could make while traveling and have lost weeks squatting on toilets, booting into hotel trashcans, and sweating through the sheets.
Thankfully, I’ve also learned some lessons. Take my advice and you’ll enjoy the delights of street food without curling up on the bathroom floor, in a puddle of your own fluids, feeling like you’re moments away from death. Here are my 5 tips on how to eat on the street and live to tell to your story.
1. The Busier the Stall, the Tastier & Safer the Bet
Nobody wants to spend their holiday in a queue. But when it comes to trying to pick the right street vendor, find the one with the longest line of locals. This rule has never done me wrong. If the locals are willing to wait, the food is most likely the freshest, safest, and tastiest of the lot. Are there old local women and children in the line? Bonus! Would you rather spend one hour in a line to eat the best ceviche in Lima or spend two days on the toilet because you were impatient?
2. Eat When Everyone Else Eats
Jetlag is a pain. It throws everything off: sleep, mood, meal times. In the United States, we typically have our lunch around noon, but in many southeast Asian countries they have lunch early (around 11AM) and in Spain they have lunch late (around 2PM). So, it’s important to adjust your eating schedule around local eating routines. Why? It’s your best chance to eat the freshest food.
When you eat during local eating hours, you reduce the risk that food has sat in the open environment, waiting for bacteria to thrive. Food kept at room temperature has about a two-hour window for safe consumption, and that time is halved if the air temperature is hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Besides you give yourself the best chance to have the most food options available to you.
3. If You Can’t Drink the Tap Water, Don’t Eat the Salad
Most people get paranoid about not drinking tap water when in foreign countries, but they don’t think about the the other ways that water is used for food service. After days of meat skewers and kebabs, a fresh crunchy salad sounds pretty darn good. But, chances are high that the salad you’re crunching on wasn’t rinsed with filtered water.
Since most non-US countries don’t use chemicals and fertilizers to grow their produce, fruits and veggies tend to either be unwashed or rinsed with tap water. Unless you are already used to a place (and its bacteria), when you start to crave produce, stick to either fruits you can peel or cooked vegetables.
The same rule goes for ice. Nothing sounds better after a long walk through the humid streets of Luang Prabang than a smoothie or fruit shake. Beware! Most ice is not made from distilled water. Instead opt for the fruit juice without ice (a good rule of thumb is that the machine made juices are usually safe) and you will quench your thirst pain-free.
4. You’re Trying to Protect Your Gut, Trust It
Scope the scene. Observe the server preparing food. Are they wearing gloves? Do you see them washing their hands? Are they handling food with tongs or their bare hands? How are raw ingredients being handled? Do the utensils generally look clean? Are the cooks handling both money and food? Are there flies? Is there visible garbage laying around?
Use your travel brain. If it doesn’t look right, doesn’t smell right, or doesn’t feel right, don’t eat it! Have faith in your judgement. If a vendor’s cart seems sketchy, it probably is. Be patient. You will find something more delicious around the next corner, hopefully with a long line!
5. Be Cautious Of These Things
Empanadas - These tasty little gems tend to be one of the biggest diarrhea traps I’ve encountered over the years. Here’s why: We recognize them on a menu, they are easy to eat on the go, and they are delicious when paired with a cold beer. However, empanadas are quite often prepared the night before and left out in the open until you place your order. If you see them being made fresh, indulge!
- American Breakfast - This one goes back to the rule of thumb, eat what the locals eat. The locals aren’t ordering a traditional American breakfast. So, when you’ve backpacked in Sri Lanka for two weeks eating nothing but potato curry and coconut sambol for breakfast every day, the Traditional American breakfast you stumbled upon will sound amazing. Avoid it. It’s always the traveler who is wary of street food, who is “playing it safe” by ordering the hotel’s English-style-breakfast-buffet who get’s nailed. These buffets often feature undercooked meats, prepared on the same surface as other foods. This cross contamination can lead to trouble. So, more than likely the “American Style” will leave you disappointed and disordered. Resist the urge.
Concierge - If you ask your hotel concierge where to eat, will they point you toward a place that will get you sick? Probably not. Will they point you toward a place that will be filled with people who look exactly like you? Probably. When you’re traveling, ask a local or someone who is unaffiliated with the hotel industry where to go. You’ll more likely get pointed towards an inexpensive yet memorable hole-in-the-wall to immerse yourself in another culture and provide one more incredible travel story to tell.
Street food stories are some of my favorites. Where is your favorite city to eat street food? Have you had any mishaps of your own? What street food tips do you have? I’d love to hear them!