Asian street food has a reputation for making foreigners sick. After 14 months of travel in Asia and only a couple of instances of mild diarrhea, we’ve maintained a pretty solid system (pun) for avoiding getting sick from eating street food.
We’d like to share our top tips with you.
One of the major ways we keep our budget down while travelling Asia is by eating street food. On the street you can get a tasty meal for less than a dollar in many countries — while the restaurants are charging up to $5 or more.
We understand that by western standards, getting a full restaurant meal for $5 is a sweet deal, and the fear of getting “Delhi Belly” or any other nasty gastro (we have all heard the nasty poop stories) is a real concern.
But if you want to save money, eat incredible food, and get more of an authentic experience by eating what the locals eat, then pay attention to the following tips about the best ways to find tasty treats that won’t upset your stomach or your wallet.
Street vendors have ways of keeping their food bacteria-free. (All photos: Meagen Collins and Tom Williams)
1. Making people vomit is bad for business
It is death for any business, be it a street vendor or a Michelin star restaurant, for ANY of their patrons to get sick. If they are providing food, they will “try” to make things as safe as possible. Otherwise they no longer have an income. Which in Asian countries can mean extreme poverty.
Some places have little tricks to make food safer. We read that the reason you may find street curries very oily is because this top layer of oil acts to guard off bacteria from the meats in the curry below. The process is similar to preserving other types of food in jars. These methods protect the food and make it better for us, the consumer.
2. Eat where the locals eat
If you pass by a street vendor that has no local customers, this is usually for a reason. Source out the food you’re interested in trying and then see how many locals are also digging in. This is often a great way to find the best food in town, and sometimes the best price too.
3. Are they cooking fresh?
There a quite a few street stalls that will cook early in the morning and then sell their food throughout the day. In places with higher temperatures this can be asking for trouble, especially if meat is involved! Feel free to indulge first thing in the morning, but as the day gets warmer give these places a miss.
The best places are the ones where you can see they are continuously cooking. You can also ask for food to be reheated, rather than just picking some half-cold item straight off the cart.
4. There’s something in the water
Calling it “food” poisoning can be a misnomer. Often it’s water poisoning. Floating fecal matter (yes, microbe sized bits of poo) in untreated water gets on your food, your toothbrush, and many other places if you don’t pay attention to when tap water is used. Diseases like typhoid are regularly transmitted this way.
Thorough cooking often kills that sort of bacteria. So the big pile of deep fried chicken may actually be healthier than a raw green salad that was rinsed before serving.
Avoid anything that is uncooked, as well as anything with ice cubes that weren’t made with drinking water.
5. Beware of the fruit. That rhyme about an apple a day doesn’t always work
Many vendors will sell various melons already cut up, and on a hot day this may look very appetizing, but do not eat the sliced fruit! Most of the time it has been out all day being attacked by flies, dust, and who knows what else. Sometimes the vendor may spray the melon with water to make it look fresher, so the nasty water you have just been trying to avoid is all over your fruit.
Which brings me to my second point on this: rinse your fruit in bottled water. Just as you would do at home to get rid of any lingering pesticides, it’s best to do the same here.
Our suggestion is to stick to bananas or unopened fruit. Most vendors will open up a fresh papaya or mango and cut it up for you on the spot.
6. Does it look safe to try, and how many flies can you count?
Is the food kept covered or out in the open?
Is raw meat / seafood kept on ice?
How recently was the dish you wanted cooked?
Are they making an effort to keep the flies away?
How clean does the stall, equipment, and cook look…..we are serious about the cook, these countries don’t use plastic gloves, so their hands in and all over your food.
7. Is now the time to change to the other side… become vegetarian?
One reason many people get sick is from bad meat, so we ask the question…: do you really need meat in every dish?
Some countries such as India have amazing vegetarian options available where many travelers have said they don’t even miss meat.
Tip: In some Asian countries such as Vietnam, they do still consider “vegetarian” to include pork. We found the best way around this is to ask for “monks food” as buddhist monks are strict vegetarians and locals seem to have a better concept of this than some tourist trying to explain that pork broth is still pork.
8. Clean your hands
From working on cruise ships, we learned early on that it’s not always dodgy preparation of food that makes people sick. It’s all the filth you are carrying around on your hands.
Mum had it right when she made you wash your hands before dinner. Do the same here and wash them thoroughly or sanitize with baby wipes or antibacterial soap before putting your fingers anywhere near your food or mouth.
Related: The Best Street Foods in Trinidad
If you are in a country where the tap water is unsafe for consumption, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a much better option than rinsing your hands in typhoid water.
9. What would Oprah do… follow your gut instinct!
If you bite into something that “just doesn’t seem right,” don’t just assume that’s how it’s meant to taste. Sometimes is best to err on the side of caution and leave the rest of the meal in the bin.
Bonus tip: get a better-priced meal
OK, so this has nothing to do with eating street food and not getting sick, but the financial benefits to eating street food are huge.
It is sometimes possible to haggle to get a better price, especially if there are no written prices. If you feel you a getting ripped off and being charged “tourist prices,” you can move onto the next vendor selling the same dish and see if you can get a better deal.
A dollar here and there can make a BIG difference while travelling!
Bottom line: don’t be afraid to try new foods on the street. There are an amazing assortment of tasty treats waiting for you outside of that cushy overpriced restaurant that is selling you the same “chicken and rice” meal every night.
So get out there give it a go, eat some crazy thing on a stick though you’re not entirely certain what it is, and enjoy the world of street food!