Are you afraid to eat street food because you don’t want to get sick? While travelling, do you eat only in restaurants to reduce risks? We understand your fears, especially during a trip, no one wants memories of food poisoning. On the other hand, depriving yourself of the street food adventure is the same as saying no to authentic flavours and to opportunities in understanding how local people eat and relate to food.
The street food culture
Usually, street food is associated with large urban centres. In some countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Morocco, and Mexico, to eat street food is also a big part of its food culture. In these cases, if you want to live up your destination, you need to venture yourself out and explore every local food stall and small restaurants around the city. Actually, the experience goes way beyond the plate, the street food vendors give an extra show, they really do magic with their hands. It is a memorable experience, the bustle of the street, the stalls, the ingredients exposed to your eyesight, the authentic taste, and the contact with the locals. It is almost a poetic connection with your destiny through food amidst the chaos.
Understanding the risks of eating street food
Yes, there are risks when you eat street food and the issues are usually related to hygiene standards. If you consider basic sanitation structure, some destinations have a greater inherent risk than others. After that, you also need to consider the hygiene conditions of each food vendor.
The street food industry is one of the most challenging sectors for public health and food safety agencies anywhere in the world. Firstly, due to the high informality rate and turnover of the food vendors, it is quite complex to inspect and control the sector. After that, there is a lack of infrastructure, most of the time the food stalls do not have access to drinking water. The issue is increased by the fact that food is also exposed for long periods at room temperature.
Eating street food in your own city also has its risk, but during a trip, the risks are intensified. The traveller is exposed to different hygiene patterns, viruses and bacteria from those he is not used to. This is so true, that diarrhoea caused by food contamination is the most common disease among travellers.
Don’t be scared! We have been travelling for several months and are always exploring street food in cities considered to be high risk, yet each one of us only had problems with food once. Considering all the places we’ve already eaten, we’re very proud of it, because it shows that our precautions have been effective. ⠀
What should you do to prevent food contamination beyond the street food?
Before starting the trip, we went to a traveller’s Medicine Center in our city. We told them about the purpose of our trip and they gave us a list of recommendations and food safety tips to consider when eating street food. We list here everything we learned on the way and the advice we received from the Traveller’s Center. Of course, no advice is a foolproof method, but it has worked very well.
Choosing Where to Eat:
- Ask local people where to eat!
There is no better guide than someone who lives in the area. A recommendation like this is a guarantee of a hygienic place with an authentic taste. After all, besides not getting sick, you also have to enjoy the experience, right?
- When choosing randomly, give preference to crowded places that have local families with children or older people eating.
The logic is simple. Crowded places are probably good. It has a high turnover, which means fresher food. If children can handle that food well, you will probably be fine, even if you have a sensitive stomach. Oh! Just to be clear, “crowded places, but packed only with tourists” do not meet this rule.
- Figure out what time the local people eat their meals and adjust your schedule
During travels, it is common to end up eating at alternate times. A late breakfast won’t make you hungry anytime soon. However, if the local culture is to have lunch at 12:00 and you want to have it at 2:30 pm, the food will probably not be so fresh and you will find fewer places available.
- Don’t look for food when you are already hungry
When we are hungry, we end up making more emotional choices to meet our urgent needs and these choices won’t always be the best. Instead, watch for and map interesting places to eat while you are walking around and sightseeing. You don’t need to eat at that moment. When you start to get hungry, you can come back! Also, the best street food stalls are not always in touristic areas, pay attention to the way.
Choosing What to Eat:
- Go for fried, cooked, or baked food! Eat when it is still hot! Avoid raw food, including salads.
Temperature helps to kill the bacterias, the hotter the better. Salads are super refreshing, but water is the main means of bacteria proliferation, sometimes the problem lies in the water that the salad has been washed.
- To eat street food, it means local food
If the menu offers both local and international food, for sure the ingredients to make the local food will be fresher than the one to make international food.
- Peel off your own fruit!
Nature is incredibly wise and fruit peels are its protection. Food stalls that offer ready to eat/peeled-off fruits are colourful and beautiful, but it is much better to buy fruits in the market and peel it yourself. Also, by doing that you can save money and reduce plastic consumption.
- Do you love juice? Make sure you buy it from places that use filtered water.
The same is true for ice cubes. When in doubt, choose hot tea, mineral water, or coconut water. Also avoid sodas and artificial juices, not because it has any risk of contamination, but because it is not healthy.
- Wash your hand and carry hand sanitizer with you! Always!
Often the food is not contaminated, but your hand is! It is not always that you will have access to water and soap to wash your hands, so hand sanitizer is the best travel companion. Wet wipes too, and you can give an extra cleaning on some utensils.
- If you have any food restriction, take an information card with you in local the language.
If you have any serious restrictions (eg. Celiacs, Diabetes) and need to avoid some ingredient, take a card explaining the details of your restriction in the local language.
The most important tip: when you feel safe, forget all the recommendations!
We started our trip considering each of these points, however as time goes by your body will get used to the new standards. Also, you will be so used to recognize good places to eat, that you will be able to give up some recommendations and explore the local cuisine further.
Besides that, it is important to understand the context where you are inserted in. If you see signs of similar standards that you are used to at home, there is no need to worry.
What if you eat street food and get food poisoning?
If even with all the care something goes wrong. The first thing to do is to watch your symptoms. It is probable that you have a disease known as traveller’s diarrhoea, it is so common that it has its own name. In this case, a few days of rest and a lot of hydration will take care of it.
Ideally, do electrolytic rehydration, for that you can drink coconut water or oral rehydration salts purchased in any pharmacy around the world. If by any chance you don’t find it, you can appeal to that old homemade recipe (1 litre of mineral water + 1 tablespoon of sugar + 1 teaspoon of salt).
Another amazing tip is to bring activated charcoal tablets with you, which help to detoxify your body. We always take it at the first sign of a bad stomach.
Now, be aware! If the symptoms get worse, visit a doctor! It is not advisable to take an antibiotic, obstipating (e.g. Imodium), or some other kind of similar remedy without medical guidance.
Go for it and eat up! But make good decisions.
We hope that this guide will help you to make conscious decisions regarding street food on your next trip. Enjoy exploring new flavours while watching the scenes of the city. Is there any better way to have an authentic experience?
Do you love Malaysian Food? See here our favourite dishes from Malaysia
Remember! Always pay attention to the local people. They are your best reference.