How to Eat Street Food without Fear

Every hardcore traveler has their thing– the metaphorical carrot on a stick that propels them out of bed despite crushing jet lag, leading them to explore sketchy neighborhoods or take logistically ill-advised detours involving dubious forms of transit. For some, it’s museums or architecture, for others, it’s food. For me, it’s the latter- specifically, street food.

I can think of no other way to learn about the cultural mores of a country or city than to dine in small, regional eateries, private homes, or on the street. Street food in particular fascinates me because unlike in North America, where food trucks are a recent phenomenon and more of a pop culture movement (admittedly one borne of economic necessity given the expense of brick-and-mortar eateries) – foreign street food is a way of life in much of the world.

Steaming rice noodles at market in Loas

Steaming rice noodles at market in Laos

From Asia and Latin America to Europe, food cooked and consumed on the street is more than just an inexpensive source of sustenance. It doesn’t matter whether the food in question is kebabs, chaat, or deep-fried crickets- it’s about community. Street food culture is a daily ritual and social exchange where working class folk gather to refuel, gossip and nourish both body and soul.

Street food culture is a daily ritual and social exchange where working class folk gather to refuel, gossip and nourish both body and soul

When I’m eating on the street, I meet and converse (albeit sometimes via sign language) with locals, learn the traditional way to consume regional dishes, support the local economy and sometimes wind up with a tour guide for the day. Consuming street food is also a way to partake of local and regional specialties you often won’t find in other parts of the country or world. Many of the most delicious memorable experiences I’ve had while traveling have come courtesy of street food- from slurping banh cuon in Vietnam and devouring momo’s while wandering the back-alleys of Kathmandu, to gorging on choclo con queso in a Peruvian market and devouring calzones in Naples.

Choclo con queso vendor in Ecuador

Choclo con queso vendor in Ecuador

There are those travelers who equate street food with a latent wish to holiday whilst wearing an adult diaper. These are the same people who eschew produce for fear of getting sick and avoid local eateries in favor of restaurants that cater to tourists. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, they’re missing out some of the most intrinsically rewarding- and authentic- travel experiences.

If you have a fear of street food, just remember that foodborne illness doesn’t discriminate. FDA statistics show you’re more likely to get sick from preparing food at home than from patronizing a domestic restaurant. As a 25-year veteran of the food-service industry, I’ve seen things in American restaurants that would have you rethinking dining out, no matter how high-end the locale.

Nha Trang, Vietnam food vendor

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Food safety anywhere in the world comes down to practicing good sanitation, but admittedly, street food- especially in developing nations- means a host of other factors to take into consideration. Follow my tips below, and I promise that your forays into street food will be unlikely to result in anything more unpleasant than a full stomach. Here’s to staying healthy while eating on the street.

Don’t drink the water

If your guidebook and local advice says to avoid the drinking water, pay heed. This is also why it’s a good idea to peel produce before consuming, or give it a rinse with bottled water (many developing and second-world nations use chemicals banned in the U.S.). Ice cubes are generally okay if you’re in a hotel, bar or restaurant frequented by tourists but when it comes to street food, caveat emptor unless you’re in a place with high-volume tourism and you actually see vendors using bottled water and commercial ice (when I was in Luang Prabang last year, I drank smoothies every day following this example, to no ill effect).

Look for a crowd

You want to go where the locals go, as they know where to find the good eats. High-volume also means that food is being prepared fresh, rather than sitting around attracting flies and turning into a biohazard.

Scope out the vendor(s)

street food in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang, Vietnam

It’s always a good sign when one vendor is the designated cash collector, while the other cooks. Since many street food operations are one-person affairs, my advice is to check out sanitation practices before ordering.  Granted, plates may be “washed” with no more than a quick dip in a bucket of dingy water doubling as a petri dish, but you have to pick your battles. Also bear in mind that in many parts of the world, the left hand performs double-duty as toilet paper, so make sure there’s hand-washing going on in a separate dingy bucket. Most vendors I’ve encountered make effort to avoid cross-contaminating food with money-handling.

Keep an open mind

Tasty treats (chiles, ant eggs, cockroaches) in Laos

Tasty treats (chiles, ant eggs, cockroaches) in Laos

The most memorable meal I had in Nepal was roti and aloo cooked on a makeshift stove set on cinder blocks. The tidy “restaurant” was a few stools situated beneath a tarp in a dusty alley. Street food is borne of poverty, so don’t let a seemingly janky set-up deter you. Just scope things out to be sure that hot food is cooked to order, and cold food is kept cold.

Freshness counts

If the produce is brown and wilted and the meat has clearly seen better days, walk away. I also look at condiments and garnishes- if I see crusty bowls of salsa, slimy herbs or flies congregating on any raw foods I might potentially eat, I’m out of there.

Keep it local

Bolivian Tamales

Bolivian Tamales

Use common sense, here. If you’re in a land-locked nation or in an inland desert region, forgo the ceviche. You can never eliminate all potential pathogens or hazards, but seafood from a vendor in a Saharan souk? Pass.

Pack the hand sanitizer

Use it. Often.

I also swear by taking probiotics prophylactically (I like Jarrow Formulas because they’re shelf-stable and have live cultures, and grapefruit seed extract for stomach upset- it has antimicrobial properties).

Turmeric curcumin is a good immune supplement that my infectious disease doctor (yes, I have one, but not because I eat street food) recommends.

And, because you can’t be too careful get a prescription for a broad-spectrum gastrointestinal antibiotic from your doctor and pack some OTC Imodium before you leave home. You’re welcome.

All photos courtesy of Laurel Miller

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