Eating Street Food

Street food is one of my very favorite things about travel. In many countries, it’s the most surefire path to authentic, fresh, delicious food at a reasonable price. But I know many travelers who avoid it – whether out of personal fear of getting sick, or because they’re traveling with groups which are seeking to avoid risk. If you’re a little hesitant, there are a few things you can do to make it a safe and fun part of travel. 

One caveat before we dive in – if you’ve got specific food intolerances or allergies, or make choices around avoiding meat or other products, street food in unfamiliar places can be challenging. On the plus side, usually you can watch things being cooked. On the downside, you might not be able to identify all the ingredients. Plan on doing research in advance to get a sense of what to avoid / what to seek out, and when in doubt make good choices. 

Before You Go

Increasingly, cities are seeking to do away with traditional street food – the sort of thing where a vendor preps food at home and then rolls out a cart and sets up on the sidewalk. Various reasons are given – fire risk, health risks, blocking sidewalks, etc. Instead, many cities have set up food halls and food courts. They can be as basic as a few stalls arranged around some central seating, but they usually have running water and the fixed location keeps them on the hook to customers to deliver a good product. What that shift means for you is that you might need to do a little bit of planning to find “street food” – you might not be able to just wander aimlessly and stumble upon a stall. 

What you shouldn’t do is get your heart set on visiting specific stalls. Things change quickly, and you shouldn’t put your faith in some random travel blogger just because they had a single good or bad experience somewhere. Instead, before you travel, you should get a sense of the types of food you want to try, and where in the city you might find them. 

Before you travel, you’ll also want to do a bit of medical legwork. You should be traveling with an emergency supply of antibiotics – Azithromycin or whatever is recommended for your target country. You can just talk to your GP for those. Be sure to ask about any vaccinations or antimalarials too! 

You should also equip your medical kit – just in case. I recommend traveling with Pepto Bismol tablets, an Imodium-esq product, your antibiotics, and oral rehydration salts. (Other, non-food related items in that kit include Benadryl, ibuprofen, and Band-Aids)

Looking for Options

As with almost any question in travel, the first and best answer is “hire a local”. Almost every city with a street food scene will offer some kind of street food tour. Beyond being delicious, these will give you an introduction to ordering and eating etiquette, help you find places to check out, and often help you discover harder-to-find dishes. 

I’ve also had great luck asking locals (when linguistically possible) – if you’re taking an Uber from the airport, ask the driver where they like to grab lunch. On one trip to Kuala Lumpur, our driver said “hey you hungry now? Let’s go!” (Malaysians are the best)

Keep in mind as well that street food scenes often change based on time of day and day of the week. Really hot places often have night markets, where the best food might not be available until after 10:00pm. 

So, how do you pick a stall to eat at? Obviously you want to be interested in the food itself. But, to have the best chance of staying healthy, you should also look for places that seem to be doing a decent bit of business. Places that are doing good business are generally going to be places that locals trust, and high turnover means it’s less likely ingredients have been sitting around. 

Things to Avoid

You’ll find plenty of guides on the web about stuff to avoid when eating street food – often including any-and-all fresh fruit or fresh vegetables. How boring! 

First, let’s talk about what we’re worried about. First, there’s food that will give you an upset stomach – maybe it’s just too spicy or doesn’t quite agree with you. When I travel to a street food destination, I take a daily Pepto Bismol tablet in the morning. It’s almost certainly pure psychosomatics, but the theory is that it can help with that sort of thing. 

Next is getting sick, such that you have an unpleasant night and perhaps your trip gets interrupted a bit. That’s no fun, but if you’re well prepared you can usually minimize the disruption. 

Finally, there are the edge case concerns – picking up some sort of nasty bug or parasite. These can require medical treatment and are potentially massively disruptive. 

The important thing to remember is that in most cases, you’re not inherently more likely to have any of these issues eating street food as compared to eating in a restaurant. In fact, being able to see how your food is prepared is often a good defense – you have no idea what’s happening in the kitchen at a restaurant, but you can see your food being made and see how ingredients are being handled. 

Americans tend to assume the tap water is unsafe to drink when they travel, up to and including in places like western Europe. The reality is that in most moderate-to-large cities around the world, the water is safe from the perspective of stomach bugs. Now, whether it’s healthy for the population to be drinking it every day, that’s another story – just ask Flint or Jackson. But it’s not going to give you an acute problem. 

A quick Google search will tell you if the city water is likely to be delivered through a processing facility or not. That can help you make smart street food decisions. If the water is likely to be unprocessed, stick to boiled / fried / cooked foods. Otherwise, I’ll mostly give myself free reign – if I’m not 100% sure about the tap water, I might avoid drinks that are primarily water, but I won’t worry about vegetables that might have been rinsed in the same water. In most places, the ice used by a street food vendor (in an iced coffee or blended dessert) is coming from ice production facilities which tend to be very safe. 

If You Get Sick

If you travel enough, you’ll probably eventually lose the roulette game. Usually, you’ll discover that you’ve lost around 2 in the morning, when you wake up thinking “uh oh” or “oh no”. In most cases, you’ll be in for a few hours of unpleasant vomiting, diarrhea, or both. As soon as you’re able to keep anything down, you can start drinking water with rehydration salts. If your initial wave has left you still feeling pretty rotten, you can start on your antibiotics (be sure to finish the whole course). If you absolutely must get on a bus or a plane, you can load up on Imodium and hope for the best. Otherwise, give yourself time to rest, drink plenty of water, and when you’re able, some basic foods. 

Everyone’s mileage varies. I’ve usually found that I feel better within 8-12 hours and am fully recovered within a day. There’ve been exceptions, but I attribute that in part to not being well prepared. Kat had a bad experience (with food from a hotel restaurant, not street food) which took a few days to really clear up. We learned our lesson about traveling with rehydration salts. 

It’s no fun when it happens, but statistically it’s probably just as likely to happen ordering takeout from your local salad bar. Don’t let it keep you from exploring the tastiest parts of the world!

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