28 Mar How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
The dilemma of street food in a foreign city. On the one hand, it’s probably the most authentic way to experience a new culture. And on the other hand, the fear of puking on your own poop is very real for anyone who’s been bitten by the actual travel bug before. Let me show you how to eat street food without getting sick, because it can be done.
I’ll start by saying that it’s not always the street food you need to be cautious of. Restaurants in a lot of under-developed cities can be equally, if not more dangerous. We ate street food in Stone Town, Zanzibar without any issues and it was freaking amazing seafood. A dodgy prawn the following week from a 5-star restaurant in Nungwi caused my four days of serious vomirrhea.
So, with that pleasant visual in mind, here’s how to eat street food and not get sick.
Do some research.
Figure out the local street food specialties in the countries you plan to visit. Research what’s most commonly eaten and get a vague idea about what the food should look like. If you’re on the coast, you’ll be sampling the seafood; if you’re in India, try the vegetarian curries; and the khao pad (fried rice) in Bangkok. Check out travel blogs and books or do a Google search for a street food guide in that city. You can also join a street food walking tour when you arrive and let one of the locals give you the low-down.
Look for a specialist… this guy does two things only; chestnuts and corn.
Follow the local crowd.
Food poisoning is bad for business, so a busy street food stall can be a good indicator of where to eat. A high turnover will also mean food isn’t sitting out for hours in the sun and breeding unfriendly bacteria. I also like to see who is in line; locals are more informative than tourists, while women and children also give me a sense that it isn’t just middle-aged tuk-tuk drivers with cast-iron stomachs who can handle the Pad Thai. Standing in a longer line will probably be worth the wait.
Watch and wait.
Street food carts have been doing the transparent kitchen thing long before the trend hit upmarket restaurants in New York and London. And, it’s one of the advantages that street food has over restaurants in some cities.
Make the most of the opportunity to watch your shortlisted vendor prepare food for several patrons before ordering. This way you know exactly what to expect and what you are getting. Do they handle money and then the raw ingredients? Yeah, don’t go here. Two-person stalls where one does the preparation and the other handles the cash and the serving are a safer bet.
It’s also a good idea to take note of whether the raw ingredients are kept out in the open or covered, and whether raw meat and seafood are correctly stored on ice.
Only eat what is cooked in front of you.
Don’t settle for food that has been prepared and cooked in bulk at the start of the day, just sitting around in the sun attracting bacteria. Watching it being prepared and cooked in front of you is where it’s at.
Croatian seafood market on the coast of Makarska.
Check cutlery isn’t the culprit.
Germs don’t just hide in food, they can be lurking in the cutlery too. If you’re unsure about the reusable chopsticks, you can always (discretely) clean the cutlery with baby wipes or hand sanitiser… or skip the knife and fork and use your fingers if it’s that kind of meal.
Make sure your hands are clean.
It’s not always the street food vendor who’s responsible for your travel poo-mergency. If you’ve been hitting the streets of Mumbai all day and then dive straight in with fingers to your samosa, it might be you and your dirty hands. Washing your hands with baby wipes or natural/alcohol-based hand sanitisers are both easy options on the go and essential before putting your fingers anywhere near your food or mouth.
Rise and shine with the morning markets.
Food stalls at the morning markets often have the freshest ingredients, sourced from the markets themselves and with a high turnover to feed the hungry shoppers and shopkeepers. You’re not going to have food or ingredients that have been sitting around in the hot sun, making morning markets a great option… especially for street food newbies or those with a sensitive gut.
Eat when the locals are eating.
Local meal times might vary from what you’re used to at home. But, when in Rome / Rio… This tip has two parts. The first relates to mealtimes generally. In hotter climates, the locals tend to eat early in the morning and late at night to avoid the hottest times of the day. If you do your own thing, you might find food that’s been sitting out in the sun for longer than you’d like.
The second point is to know what types of meals the locals eat in the morning and in the evening. This is another reason that watching and waiting (above) is a good idea.
If you can’t drink the water, don’t eat the salad.
Raw fruit and vegetables, salads, etc. can be affected by contaminated water so just don’t go there. It also explains why salads are not traditional dishes in poorer countries. So forget your Caesar Salad and go with something local.
If you’re going to eat fruit, just make sure you go with varieties you can peel (yourself!). That means bananas and mangoes are good, apples and strawberries not so much. And steer clear of the pre-peeled varieties common on Asian street carts that have been sitting out all day exposed to the sun, flies, pollution and questionable water. Most vendors will cut you up a fresh one on the spot anyway and your stomach will thank you for it.
Ask for a fresh paw paw to be cut in front of you, not the pre-peeled variety sitting on ice.
Fully cooked food is the safest.
Seems obvious but if it’s just been cooked (well) then it’s generally safe. Never accept undercooked meats. If the meat looks, smells or feels weird, spit it out immediately as discretely as possible. I learnt this the hard way with a dodgy prawn in Zanzibar that had me hugging the toilet bowl for three days. I knew it didn’t feel right when I was chewing it but I hadn’t yet been to the school of hard-knocks… Don’t be me!
Become a part-time vegetarian.
A bad experience with undercooked meat will likely turn even the most carnivorous of tourists into a temporary vegetarian, if only for the rest of the holiday. It’s an approach I often take when I’m not sure about the food in a city or town, especially if they have a reputation for amazing vegetarian food… places like Cambodia and India are great examples, where going vegetarian means you’re not even missing out.
A tip for actual vegetarians: in some Asian countries, they still consider ‘vegetarian’ to include pork. Best way to get around this is to ask for ‘monks food’ or ‘Buddhist food’ as buddhist monks are strict vegetarian and this is something the locals do tend to understand.
This meat market in rural Chiang Mai would be enough to turn anyone vegetarian… certainly worked for me.
Ice, ice baby.
Beware of ice or fruit shakes in cities where water is contaminated. Same as the water in salads, ice is often contaminated and used in fresh juice to water it down. My advice: stick to sealed bottles and check the seals. In some parts of Africa they refill juice bottles.
Sauces can be a problem.
Communal table sauces that are kept at room temperature can easily breed bacteria and are mostly a no-go. This is another time it’s best to follow the locals. If sauces are being used liberally and aren’t sitting out in the hot sun all day then they’re more likely to be fresh and less festery. If you can see a nice thick layer of crust around the lid that looks like it’s been building since 2004, then you know what to do. Put down the bottle. Immediately.
Natural supplements to keep you safe.
Making good choices with street food isn’t fail-safe when it comes to avoiding traveler’s diarrhea. Which is why I always bring these two natural supplements with me as a backup.
> Oregano – natural antimicrobial that you can take in capsule form with meals to help kill any lingering pathogens.
> Probiotic – I use temperature stable Saccharomyces Boulardii as a boost for my good bacteria to fight off any potential bad bacteria making it into my GI tract.
Finally, trust your gut.
With everything you now know, just trust your gut instinct. If you’re not sure about the food, how it was prepared or anything else, then move on. There’s usually a heap of options to choose from!
If it looks suss then it probably is, simple. And if you do take a bite into something that just doesn’t taste quite right (like my dodgy prawn), don’t assume it’s supposed to taste like that. Take the cautious approach, spit it out and bin the rest of your dish… discretely, of course.
Healthy Travel Tips – How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
1. Follow the locals – what, where and when they eat.
2. Use the transparent kitchen to your advantage – watch and wait so you know what to expect.
3. Steer clear of raw vegetables and fruits you can’t peel yourself.
4. Be wary of ice and fruit juices that aren’t in properly sealed bottles.
5. Make sure you wash your hands and the cutlery if needed.
6. Pack some oregano as a backup to help kill any lingering pathogens.
Do you have any of your own tips on how to eat street food without getting sick? Share them with us below.