Street food: to eat or not to eat?

When it comes to street food, most people are in one of two camps – they either won’t go anywhere near it or they will head straight to the food market for a taste of the local cuisine. Those will little travel experience will tell you to steer clear. Your local doctor or health nurse will tell you the same thing. Is it really something to fear or could you be missing out on some of the tastiest food a country has to offer? Let’s get the story straight so that you eat safely while on the road.

When I first started travelling, I was in the ‘avoid it at all costs’ camp. I had a sensitive gut and a very picky attitude towards food. Other travellers would rave about the local food markets and I would be sticking to the ‘safer’ restaurants and foods that I recognised.

And then I got food poisoning. The really bad kind that kept me on rehydration liquids and dry crackers for a week. And it was due to food in a well-frequented restaurant used by tour groups and tourists on a daily basis.   

When I felt better and was finally able to eat proper food again, I began to view street food with different eyes. An unexpected and surprising side effect was a tougher stomach as well! So, on my next trip I ventured out to the street markets for a taste. After 7 months in Asia, living largely on street food, I am now a convert.

What’s so special about street food?

Street food is what the locals eat. It’s inexpensive, authentic and plentiful. While we gorge on fast food in the west, processed to within an inch of its life and with no nutritional value, the rest of the world lives on street food. It’s their version of fast food, but the difference is that it is fresh, nutritious and absolutely delicious. And the variety of street food options you can find in a market will beat what you can find on any restaurant menu.

My favourite places to find food are in the local markets and the hole-in-the-wall ‘restaurants’ that serve a couple of dishes typically cooked by a lady in her kitchen – delicious! And I learned a few important things along the way, so that you can enjoy it and make the most of those culinary delights as well. Believe it or not, I’ve never been ill again!  

Best street vendor in town, Thailand

How to find and eat good street food

There are a few golden rules to street food that you should look out for and keep in mind when browsing the stalls for your next meal:

  • Busy stalls. A busy stall means a high turnover of food and a greater likelihood that it is freshly cooked. This is one time when you shouldn’t shy away from a queue or line of people.
  • What are the locals eating? They will know their local market vendors, and what food is fresh and good.
  • Freshly prepared food. Look out for hot coals and stir fries that are either cooked to order or food that is coming off the heat and moving quickly.  
  • Fruit you can peel. If you can peel it, you don’t have to wash it and it’s safer to eat. Beware of ready-peeled fruit, though. If it’s packaged or covered it should be ok, but it’s still better if you can peel it yourself.
  • Cutlery. Either give it a clean with some paper tissue or rub chop sticks together before you use them.
  • Check the ice cubes. Water is one of the biggest culprits to making you ill. Are the ice cubes large with a hole in the middle? That means they are more likely to be made by a machine using filtered water rather than in a freezer in the back using tap water. But when in doubt, leave them out!  
Roadside kitchen, Thailand

What to avoid

When you’re looking for your next meal use all your senses. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s going on around a stall, how and where food is stored and follow your nose.

  • Flies and other insects. You can’t avoid insects and flies, but you can avoid eating food that they’ve been sitting on. If food and pots are left uncovered and unattended, walk on.
  • Use your nose. If it smells bad, it’s probably not good for you!
  • Fermented food. This can often hide rotten or spoiled food so best to avoid it.
  • Brightly coloured food. Anything that uses strong food colourings could also be hiding older or spoiled produce.
  • Raw vegetables and salads. Again, this is where local water is a potential culprit to making you ill. Vegetables and salads have probably been washed in local water and unless you know that is safe, it’s best avoided.
  • Fruits without a peel. If you can peel it, you can eat it. Fruits without peels, such as apples or berries, may not be clean and you don’t want to worry about the water you’re using to wash them.
  • Spices and sauces. Unless you are used to very spicy food, you may want to avoid it as it could give you a dodgy stomach. Sauces are often left out all day in warm or hot temperatures, accumulating bacteria which will mess with your gut.   
  • Eating out of hours. By that I mean when there are fewer people around eating. Food is more likely to have been sitting out for longer, letting bacteria develop. Find out what time the locals eat and eat at the same time.      
  • Fruit shakes. Be wary of fruit shakes. Check the ice comes from filtered water and choose fruits that are peeled first.
  • Money and food handling. Is the same person handling raw ingredients also working the till? Are they using the same gloves to handle food and money? Are they using bare hands that you haven’t seen them wash before handling food? If yes, move on.
Steaming bowl of pho, Vietnam

What to do if you get sick

Ultimately nothing is foolproof and you may get unlucky. But don’t miss out because you’re too afraid to take a chance – use the tips above and your common sense, and if in doubt move on to the next stall or market. If you do get sick, here are a few tips to help you get back on your feet quickly.

  • Travel with rehydration salts. Easy to carry and they can be a godsend when you’re ill. Avoid the sports drinks you can buy in shops as they are heavy on sugar which isn’t good for you when you’re ill. Remember to use bottled or filtered water.  
  • Don’t take Imodium unless you have to travel. Whatever is in your system needs to get out and it’s better out than in. You’ll feel better sooner without it.
  • Drink plenty of bottled or filtered water. Keep up your fluid intake as much as you can.
  • Stick to simple foods. Those dry crackers? They were great for me! Bread or boiled white rice are also good.
  • Take probiotics. Keep a stash in your travel kit to help re-establish the good gut bacteria after a bout of food poisoning. Plain yoghurt is also good for gut bacteria but check packaging for added sugar.
  • Visit a local doctor. If you can’t keep any fluids down or are running a high fever, it may be a good idea to visit a local doctor or hospital. You may need medication or intravenous fluids. If you need rehydration solutions or over-the-counter medication, try a local pharmacy.

In the first few days of your trip you are bound to have mild stomach upsets as you get used to new foods, water and a different climate. If that happens, take it easy, stick to simple foods, and keep up your fluid intake. You know your body better than anyone, so be sure to listen to what it’s telling you.

Choose your food wisely and you will fall in love with street food, I promise!

Traditional Vietnamese coffee, roadside cafe in rural Vietnam