As a strong advocate of eating street food, I wanted to put together a post about how I avoid getting sick from food as I travel. I realize people are worried about food poisoning, and the advice out there does seem to suggest restaurants are safer but I strongly disagree. Street food is one of the best ways to experience a country’s culture. While these makeshift stalls might look risky, street food is often just as safe, if not safer than restaurants. Ask any adventurer.
Once you know what to look out for, pay attention to what locals eat and when, you are on well on your way to eating without worry. No advice is a fail-proof method for everyone, but this is what has worked for me.
Before you take off for your next big trip, educate yourself on the common street foods found at your destination. It could be pork satay in Bangkok, or Tcehbb in Senegal, Wherever you’re going, they have specialties you should learn about.
Then use travel sites like Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and personal travel blogs to look up where to find them, find recommendations for specific stalls if possible, and make sure you know what they’re supposed to look like. If you’re worried about how you handle the food of a place you’ve never been, try to train your culinary palate before you travel. If you have food allergies, it’s a good idea to look up the ingredients for popular foods before you go as well.
Eat When the Locals Eat
You may know what you want to eat, but you also need to know when to eat. People eat their meals at different times all over the world. Some countries don’t have lunch until later in the day, like Spain at 2 p.m., or much earlier, like 11 a.m. in many Asian countries while some other countries certain foods are mostly prepared around certain times E.g Suya at night in Nigeria.
Get on their time table so you know the food you’re ordering is freshly made and hasn’t been sitting out for hours amassing bacteria.
Check Out The Length Of The Queues
Asking locals for recommendations is by far the best way to find the best street food. That said, you may not know any locals, or feel comfortable asking them in your perhaps, poorly trained tongue. When in doubt, always go where the lines are the longest.
Why? The locals know exactly what’s up. They know the cheapest places, the neatest places and the places with the best food. Waiting in line sucks, but it’s better than getting stuck on the toilet for two days because you were impatient. World traveler Jodi Ettenberg says it’s also good to see who’s in those lines.
More variety in the customer base usually means the stall has been vetted enough that it’s safe for everyone. Yes, it’s still better to choose a long lineup of men over crickets and an empty stall, but given the choice, women and children in line is where you want to go.
I feel like I have more control with a street stall because I can see how the food and the money is handled. Street food stalls usually cook everything out in the open which gives you the opportunity to watch the process and make sure everything is done under sanitary conditions.
If someone is touching the money and then the raw ingredients, I don’t eat there. Also, watch out for people cooking with old dirty utensils, unclean cooking surfaces, flies and other insects hovering around previously prepared food, etc. Basically, pay attention and find another stall if something seems amiss. Also, if you can, try to stick to stalls that sell only a few items. If a stall is selling a wide variety of foods, that means not everything is being prepared fresh. Some of thee foods will have been sitting around for longer.
Watch The Cutlery
Cutlery can be a source of bacteria even if the food is safe and fresh.
Be cautious of using the tools the stalls give you. They might be dirty; even if they’re clean, they may have been washed with the local water your body can’t handle. I carry baby wipes with me for utensils that don’t seem well-washed. It will get you some weird looks but it can be helpful to ensure the cutlery is clean. Alternatively, you can ensure you always carry your own reusable cutlery set about.
Fully cooked food is safest, always.
Fully cooked food that is fresh is much less likely to be contaminated than salads and half-cooked meals. You might want to stick to eating only food you’re sure has been cooked well.
It’s tricking eating salads because you can’t vouch for the water used to wash the vegetables.
Always Avoid These Four Things
Usually, universally, it’s in your best interest to always avoid these things:
- Stalls that serve things with ice or local water. The water may be dirty, or contain bacteria your body isn’t accustomed to.
- Produce you can’t peel (since it has probably been washed in local water). If it doesn’t have a natural wrapper, stay away.
- Food that isn’t fully cooked.
- Sauces that look like they’ve been sitting out all day and don’t appear to get a lot of use.
What if you do get food poisoning?
The tips above are not 100 guaranteed and even the most resilient stomachs can be affected by a food misstep. It’s the risk you take while sampling strange foods.
If you get food poisoning or a stomach illness, then a visit to a local doctor might be in order. Many of them are familiar with traveler’s diarrhea but also with any lingering viruses circulating in the region.
Also ensure you have a first aid kit packed at all times.
Remember that you can travel to anywhere in the world for cheap, all you just need to do is check out what is flight deals that are cheap or not on Travelstart. Then you are good to go.