Street food in south east Asia has a reputation of being unclean, unsafe and the quickest surefire way to get food poisoning and spending your entire trip on the toilet. That isn’t true at all, and my advice as a qualified health professional will let you know what to look out for, what to eat and how to enjoy the best food on the planet without getting sick.
Food is one of the quickest and most delicious ways to get to the heart of a new culture no matter where in the world you travel, and street food is an absolutely integral part of that. As a traveller myself who loves food, I cannot tell you the joy it brings me to get stuck into a tasty new dish at the side of the road or in a food court with plastic tables and chairs.
Street food is one of the absolute great joys of travel.
But as a nurse, I also see the trepidation and the misinformation from potential travellers about enjoying traditional street eats. I get asked ‘is it safe to eat?’ all the time in my travel clinic, and get regaled with stories about a friend of a friend’s second cousin who spent their entire gap year curled upon a dingy hostel floor with the proverbial wildshites, or doubled up in pain on a beach in Goa with Delhi Belly.
All of which I am sure are not exaggerated in any way.
Bangkok Belly, The squits, the wildeys, Montezuma’s revenge. The fear of the effects of eating street food is universal and has a lot of insalubrious nicknames as a result, all based around spending a lot of time on the toilet and needing to keep the toilet roll in the nearest fridge. (I know, not a nice image, I’m sorry!)
There is really never any guarantee that you won’t get ill on your trip, whether that is from street food, contaminated water or just your own poor hand hygiene. Whatever the cause, diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal upsets are common. Read more about the most common traveller illnesses and how to deal with them here.
The truth is this reputation that street food has is completely undeserved, and those travellers who are brave enough to try it are entering a whole new level of cultural immersion that will make their gap years infinitely more enjoyable.
Street food is absolutely some of the most delicious food you will eat, anywhere. It is simple, quick, healthy and often dirt cheap too. Not only that it is more ethical too as you are supporting local businesses by eating at street stalls.
There are literally no drawbacks to eating street food and plenty of benefits, so what are people so afraid of?
Oh right, getting food poisoning or other gastro problem.
Well in my capacity as a qualified health professional, I can absolutely tell you without doubt or hesitation right now that street food is generally safe to eat. In very general terms it is much safer than most of the restaurants or fast food joints you can eat at for a variety of reasons, and is a lot more delicious too.
There are exceptions to the rule of course, I have seen some stalls over the years and there are ways that you can ensure that what you are about to eat is safe and won’t make you sick, but on the whole you have nothing to worry about. You just have to know what to look for.
Look for the lines.
It’s an old piece of advice, but it’s a good one. If you want to find out the best places to eat, look for the place with the huge queue of locals! This doesn’t just take you to the tastiest dishes around, but if so many people eat there, then odds are it is safe and clean too.
See exactly what you are getting.
One of the reasons I much prefer street food over eating in restaurants or fast food places most of the time is that you can see exactly what is going on and how clean the place is. This isn’t to say indoor eating is a bad thing, far from it, but it does show just how wrong the ‘unclean’ stereotype of street food often is.
Look out for the kitchen or food prep area, you can see it very clearly as it will be right in front of you as you order your food. It should be kept spotlessly clean and cleaned regularly between meals. The vendors should be separating the handling of money and the preparation of the food, either by having two seperate people take on each task, or by using disposable gloves (and changing them in between each task).
A good dose of simple common sense is needed here. Have a look around, if it looks and feels hygienic, you probably have nothing to worry about. Where there is a strong culture of street food such as in Singapore, Bangkok, India, Mexico and so many other places, they know how to get it right.
Make sure the meat is fresh and fully cooked.
This is one of the major things to look out for as meat that has been left out and exposed to the air for a long period of time such as a buffet or simply pre cooked meat, can start to build up a lot of nasty organisms that can give your stomach some serious problems. This is especially true for pre cooked sea food.
Basically you want to make sure that the meat you are eating is not pre prepared, fully cooked right in front of you and served piping hot.
It is important to remember here that as long as you follow that basic common sense rule you will be fine, I have never once gotten sick from any meat served from a street vendor in 15 years of travel all over the world, simply by following that rule.
There are some exceptions to this rule, tasting fresh fish at an early morning produce market in Japan is an absolute treat (fresh ika squid is both a culinary and a cultural adventure!) But I only do this when I trust the source of the food and understand the risk and my own stomachs limitations.
And this rule goes for vegetables too.
Don’t think that vegetables in your meal are exempt from this either, as they could have been exposed to bacteria or flies that can cause illness. Thoroughly cooking them in a clean environment however makes them perfectly fine to eat.
Peel your fruit!
Fresh fruit from a street vendor is one experience no traveller should miss. Your taste buds will explode with flavour and I guarantee you it will ruin the pre packaged stuff you get back home for you!
But you still have to be just a little bit careful. Any peelable fruit such as bananas, mangoes, papayas and many more are absolutely fine. Any fruit with skin such as apples or fruit that you can’t peel should generally be avoided unless you are very used to the local bacteria and trust where you get it from.
Watch out for the ice and the local water.
I love fresh fruit smoothies and ice drinks when travelling, and I have never once gotten sick from drinking any local water in this fashion. Saying that however I am careful to only order ice (or for that matter salads that may have been prepared with local water) in places where I trust the water source such as Bangkok and Singapore for example, as these can generally be trusted to have filtered, sterilised water sources.
If you go off the beaten track however or head somewhere more rural or deserted, or anywhere where you can’t trust the local water source, it is best to avoid anything made from the local water, and use bottled water wherever possible, even to brush your teeth. Whenever I am in a place like this I also like to carry a water filter bottle to stay hydrated safely and save on buying constant bottles of water.
Wash your hands!
I’m a nurse, and have had hand washing drilled into me from the start of my training as an essential part of infection control, so trust me!
A large cause of diarrhoea and gastro upset is caused by bacteria that is spread via the fecal/oral route (and yes that really is as disgusting as it sounds!) Hand hygiene is essential to stop the spread of infection and can dramatically reduce your chances of diarroeah, vomiting, food poisoning, gastroenteritis, flu, norovirus, MRSA or even Hepatitis A.
Just wash your hands!
I can guarantee that a good portion of those who suffer from loose bowels or a gastro upset on their travels and blame the street food didn’t wash their hands first, and that is probably the reason they got sick
Clean your utensils.
Just like contaminated food, your utensils can be a common source of bacteria if they are not cleaned properly. I love street stalls and food courts in Asia that give you disposable wooden chopsticks in paper packets you know are trustworthy, or cheap eats in South America that often need no utensils at all. If you don’t have this option however then there is no shame in carrying a small pack of antiseptic wipes to give the cutlery a wipedown or even carry your own spork or chopsticks too! This is a little bit of overkill I admit, but just check the cutlery before you start eating, a quick wipedown won’t do any harm and may save your stomach a bit of distress!
With these basic rules of thumb and a bit of common sense, you are absolutely safe to dive straight into the awesome world of street food on your gap year or backpacking adventure!
I really hope that with this short guide you will realise that there really is nothing to worry about. Take that plunge and enjoy the quintessential backpacker experience of sitting on a plastic chair and watching the world go by with some awesome food!
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