A backpacker’s guide to eating street food
There’s no denying that tucking into street food is a delicious option when travelling. Not only is it budget friendly, it’s also a great way to get a feel for a destination and learn more about the local culture. However, it’s not without its pitfalls. While a plate of grub for a couple of pounds (or even pence) might seem like an absolute bargain, the potential of a dodgy belly (or even severe food poisoning) is a much higher price to pay. That doesn’t mean street food needs to be off the menu, but there are some savvy ways to lower your risk. Read on for our top tips for navigating street food while keeping your wallet and your belly happy!
How to find safe street food vendors
Wondering how to tell if street food is fresh? First up, look for busy places – they’re usually your best indicator that a place is popular and that happy customers keep coming back for more. If there are locals queuing up, even better. In fact, some travel experts suggest it’s best to read up on a country’s meal times and adapt your itinerary to uncover the places where locals eat. What’s more, high footfall means that the vendor will constantly be turning over new dishes to keep up with demand, eliminating your risk of buying food that’s been left out for hours.
Next, look at how the dish itself is being prepared. Ideally it should be cooked from scratch in an open kitchen rather than being served up from a pot. This means that the food hasn’t been hanging around too long, which can cause bacteria to fester. It also gives you a chance to take a look at the ingredients and the vendor’s hygiene practices while they rustle it up – otherwise you’ve really got no idea what went in to a dish or how long ago it was cooked.
If you can, take a peek at the workstation. Are ingredients stored individually? Raw meat should always be kept in separate containers to other ingredients. Is it free of insects and bugs? Are the vendors following basic hygiene practices like wiping tools and surfaces down? Do they use gloves to handle ingredients and change them when handling money? These are all factors worth considering. If in doubt, steer clear – believe me when I say it’s just not worth it!
Finally, it’s not just cooking utensils you need to keep your eye on. Be aware of the utensils provided to eat your meal too. To be on the safe side, bring your own or wipe down ones provided before using them if they’re not the single-use kind.
Tips for buying meat from street food vendors
Dishes containing meat may be riskier to purchase and in some countries many travellers stick to vegetarian street food dishes only. Not only is undercooked meat dangerous, but if left out for long periods bugs such as E coli and salmonella can quickly grow and cause serious bouts of food poisoning.
There are a few things you can do to minimise your risk. One is ordering dishes with smaller cuts of meat, since they are more likely to be cooked through properly. Opt for a dish that is cooked in front of you, so you can be sure that the meat is fresh and not merely reheated.
Make sure your dish is piping hot and cooked all the way through before you dig in. You may want to cut chicken down the middle to ensure it’s not pink or bloody. If the meat tastes lukewarm or cold, either return it to the vendor and ask for it to be cooked thoroughly or chuck it away!
The above refers to eating poultry and red meat, but many countries pride themselves on their more exotic street food offerings. Novelty stands on the tourist trail might offer the chance to try insects, frogs, scorpions and bugs, and while this might (rightfully) seem like a great selfie opportunity, the above hygiene recommendations still apply!
Tips for buying fruit from street food vendors
You’d think fruit would be a safe street food bet, but there’s still some things to consider when it comes to safety. When in doubt, peel-able fruit is always the best option.
Although the fruit will likely be fresher than what we’re used to in the UK, it could well have been washed in unsafe water that your tummy doesn’t agree with.
With this in mind you can’t go wrong with fruit that can be peeled, like bananas, oranges, mangoes and papayas. If stocking up on bagged fruit to take on a trip, make sure it’s chopped and peeled in front of you (so you can see it’s fresh and that the knife is clean) and consider giving it an extra rinse in bottled water to be on the safe side.
Tips for buying cold food from street food vendors
Cold foods to look out for include prepared fruit, smoothies and salads. In many South East Asian countries, cheap fruit smoothies from street vendors are a popular way to start the day. Again, you’d assume these would be healthy – but tread carefully!
You may notice that vendors might add in syrups and sweeteners to disguise the taste of gone-off fruit. Avoid these where possible. Also make sure the blending equipment itself is up to scratch. Is it being cleaned thoroughly between each serving? Does it look modern or on the edge of breaking down? Another issue is that ice is often added. Sometimes safe, bagged ice from filtered water will be used, but skip it unless you can be certain it’s from a proper source.
Also take care when ordering dairy products in some countries. They might be unpasteurised, which dramatically increases your chances of foodborne illnesses and exposes you to all sorts of nasty bacteria. Depending where you are, it could be advisable to order coffee and tea black or carry around your own mini pots of long-life milk.
What about water?
When in doubt, filtered water is always best! Luckily in backpacking hotspots such as South East Asia bottled water is incredibly affordable, but to save both your pennies and reduce waste it’s highly recommended to invest in a travel water filter.
It’s easy to slip up and forget to be cautious of ice and foods washed in water, like salads and fruit. Be sure to ask for drinks without added ice. When it comes to things like salad, eating cooked vegetables is a safer bet.
A note on allergies and intolerances
Having allergies or intolerances can be tricky when dining in other countries but it’s still possible to enjoy street food! Research popular local dishes beforehand; for example, if you’re gluten-free, mango sticky rice is a great Thai street food option. Pho (a soup made with rice noodles) and rice paper rolled dishes are a smart choice in Vietnam. Invest in translation cards to explain your allergens clearly. Perhaps you even have a local friend who can do the talking?
Nut and other severe allergies are trickier and will require more in-depth research when planning your trip, including speaking with your doctor and seeking advice from fellow sufferers.
What to avoid when eating street food
Keep our top tips close to hand to avoid any misguided street food hiccups! We recommend that you always swerve the following….
- Dishes that appear to have been left out rather than freshly cooked
- Fruit that isn’t peeled or bagged fruit that isn’t chopped in front of you
- Ice in drinks or fruit smoothies
- Milk, yoghurt and soft cheeses
- Vendors that don’t use gloves or follow proper hygiene practices
- Tap water
So what is safe?
Stick to the following to avert any street food disasters:
- Dishes that are cooked from scratch with ingredients that are clearly stored separately
- Cooked vegetables
- Bottled water
- Fruit that you can easily peel – such as banana, papaya, mango and orange
- Busy vendors who are clearly popular with locals (follow those queues!)
- Vendors who follow hygiene practices (such as changing their gloves and wiping down surfaces)
- Meat that’s piping hot and cooked in small pieces
- Ice made from filtered water
- Bringing your own cutlery
- Bringing your own allergen translation cards
About the author
Jenna Farmer is a freelance journalist from Warwickshire. Having spent several years working in China and travelling across South Asia, she’s now back in the UK. Jenna also runs A Balanced Belly, a blog all about living, eating and travelling with food intolerances.