Street food is one of the best ways to experience a country's culture. While these makeshift stalls might look risky, street food is often just as safe — if not safer — than restaurants. Ask any experienced adventurer. Still, there are a few basic rules you should know to avoid any problems.
Beijing, China. Photo by katiebordner.
Research Common Street Foods Before You Go
Before you take off for your next big trip, educate yourself on the common street foods found at your destination. It could be dürüm in Istanbul, pork satay in Bangkok, choripán in Buenos Aires, or egg waffle in Hong Kong. Wherever you're going, they have specialties you should learn about.
Once you know what they are, use travel sites such as Lonely Planet, Fodor's, TripAdvisor and personal travel blogs to look up where to find them, find recommendations for specific stalls if possible, and make sure you know what they're supposed to look like. If you're worried about how you handle the food of a place you've never been, try to train your culinary palate on the home front. Hit up some local restaurants serving authentic cuisine.
If you have food allergies, it's a good idea to look up the ingredients for popular foods before you go as well. You can also print out specific allergy and food cards on sites such as Select Wisely and Allergy Translation. Picture-based translation books such as Point It can help too.
Eat When the Locals Eat
You may know what you want to eat, but you also need to know when to eat. People eat their meals at different times all over the world. In the US, lunch usually takes place around noon. But some countries don't have lunch until later in the day, like Spain at 2PM, or much earlier, like 11AM in many Asian countries.
Get on their timetable so you know the food you're ordering is freshly made and hasn't been sitting out for hours growing bacteria. You should be able to watch them make your food right then and there.
Look for the Busy Lines
Asking locals for recommendations is by far the best way to find the best street food. That said, you may not know any locals, or feel comfortable asking them in your poorly-trained tongue. When in doubt, always go where the lines are the longest.
Why? The locals know what's up. They know the clean places that have the tastiest offerings. Waiting in line sucks, but it's better than getting stuck on the toilet for two days because you were impatient. World traveller Jodi Ettenberg says it's also good to see who's in those lines. A stall that has the elderly, women and children in line is a good sign.
Scope Out the Open Kitchens
Street food stalls usually cook everything out in the open. The smells wafting along the streets are a great way to draw in customers, but it also gives you the opportunity to watch the process and make sure everything is hunky dory.
Watch out for people who handle money then touch food with their bare hands, people cooking with old dirty utensils, unclean cooking surfaces, flies and other insects hovering around previously prepared food, and so on. Basically, pay attention and find another stall if something seems amiss. Also, if you can, try to stick to stalls that sell only a few items. If a stall is selling a wide variety of foods, that means not everything is being prepared fresh. Stuff will have been sitting around for longer.
Be Wary of Cutlery
Some street foods require some kind of cutlery to eat, but be cautious of using the tools the stalls give you. They might be dirty; even if they're clean, they may have been washed with the local water your body can't handle.
Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt suggests carrying around some sanitising wipes you can use to wipe down cutlery with. Kepnes also suggests travelling with your own pair of personal chopsticks so you're always ready to dig in.
Always Avoid These Four Things
No matter where you are, it's in your best interest to always avoid these things:
- Stalls that serve things with ice or local water. The water may be dirty, or contain bacteria your body isn't accustomed to.
- Produce you can't peel (since it has probably been washed in local water). If it doesn't have a natural wrapper, stay away.
- Food that isn't fully cooked.
- Sauces that look like they have been sitting out all day and don't appear to get a lot of use.
These rules can vary depending on where you're travelling, of course, but they're good to know anyway.
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If Something Doesn't Feel Right, Stop Eating
Lastly, if something seems off about the street food you're eating, stop putting it in your body. You may be an adventurous person, but now's not the time to show how brave you are. For example, meat should be too hot to eat the moment it comes off the cooking surface and is handed to you, it shouldn't look raw inside, and it should never taste or smell like it's rotting.
If you go to take a bite and the meat is cold or something, toss it and find something else. And if a food seems fine going down at first, but starts to give you trouble a minute later, don't power through the meal. Pray you'll only get some indigestion and travel on.