How to Eat Street Food Safely While Traveling

By Nick Wharton on 21 June 2017 0 comments

Many people would never dream of buying street food from a stall when traveling, and with the number of horror stories out there, that's understandable. Reports of widespread contamination and severe food-borne illnesses are common. As a result, choosing the right stall can feel like a minefield if you don't know what to look for.

I've been seriously ill many times in my eight years of traveling, but in my experience, it's nearly as likely to come from a nice sit down restaurant as from a street food stall.

Street stalls are an important part of the culture in many countries, and they are where you'll find some of the most delicious and authentic cuisine. They also happen to be a cheap way to eat well. It pays to be cautious, but there's no need to miss out on street food altogether if you follow a few basic rules. (See also: Eat These 6 Foods to Stay Healthy While Traveling)

Only eat at local mealtimes

Wherever you are, spend a little time figuring out what time people tend to eat their meals. One way to do this is to observe the areas that serve street food and make a mental note of when they get busy. You can also ask a local resident for the inside scoop. Once you're armed with the local mealtimes, stick to them rigidly and make sure that the stall you choose is bustling before you start to order.

If you arrive before or after peak times, you won't know how long the food ingredients have been sitting around. You want a stall with a high turnover, constantly refreshing their ingredients and swapping out utensils and containers. When it comes to street food, it's always best to follow the crowd.

Look closely at the queue

In almost every other aspect of life, queues are looked at as a tedious and unnecessary waste of time. But if there is not a line of people waiting to order at the stall and you've followed the point above, then you should be questioning why.

Put simply, queues mean quality, because people don't stand in line unless they know they're going to get something that's worth waiting for. Consider queues your best friend. They don't just mean that the food will be tasty, but they virtually guarantee that it will be fresh and safe to eat.

In areas where competition for street food vendors is high, this applies even more so. Quite often, street food stalls that sell exactly the same dishes will group together in one place. Though it seems counterintuitive, the economies of agglomeration mean that it's actually beneficial for vendors to do this, as a higher volume of similar stalls attracts a higher number of buyers. Don't go rogue and be the person that chooses to save time by heading to the place with no queue. (See also: 4 Secrets to Eating Great Food for Cheap While Traveling)

Watch the preparation of the food

One of the greatest things about street food is the element of theater that comes with it. Watching chefs elaborately toss ingredients in the air with their wok, or chop fresh produce at lightning speed can be as entertaining an experience as eating the food itself. But more important than the open air performance is the fact that watching the preparation means you can plainly see how hygienic their methods are.

Take a look at the preparation surfaces that are in use: Are they clean as a whistle or covered in flies? Does the stall owner look like they have decent standards of personal hygiene? Where is the raw food being kept? Is it out in the sun or carefully packed away in a cooler or refrigerator? Watch closely for a few minutes before you make your choice, and if you're not happy with how the food is being prepared, move on. (See also: 14 Best Ways to Cut Food Costs While Traveling)

If it doesn't taste right, don't continue

When it comes to food, using the sniff and poke test to determine whether something is safe to eat is not a good idea. Just because it smells fine, that doesn't necessarily mean it's not going to be harmful. Food could appear on the surface to be perfectly fine and still be riddled with illness-causing bacteria. That said, if a dish smells or tastes terrible, then you should definitely err on the side of caution and take it as a sign that something is potentially off or rotten.

A solid rule of thumb to follow is that if it doesn't seem right, then just don't continue eating it. There's no need to be rude, but you should let the cooks know that something doesn't seem quite right, so they don't pass on contaminated food to other customers. You may have paid for it already, but it's really not worth the risk. You should, quite literally, go with your gut in this instance.

Eat cooked food or peelable food

If it's not cooked, or not peelable, then don't let it pass your lips. In many countries, there are delicacies that are made from raw eggs, raw vegetables, and even raw meat. Though they may be lovely and perfectly safe for those who are used to eating them, don't play Russian roulette with your digestive system. If you are desperate to try one of these dishes, then it's far better to go to a restaurant that you have reference-checked thoroughly beforehand than to take a gamble on the street.

Always be sure to check that food is piping hot throughout, as partial heating is a surefire way to encourage bacterial growth. You can always ask for something to be cooked longer if you're unsure. When it comes to fruit, stick to the stuff that's peelable. A removable skin is nature's promise of sterility within.

What to do if the worst does happen

If you do end up getting sick, the first and most important thing to do is remain hydrated by drinking lots of water, because it's essential to replace any fluids you lose when you're sick. Get lots of rest, as it will help your body recover quickly. Remember, most bouts of food poisoning won't last longer than three days. It's not usually necessary to take any medication for sickness or diarrhea and it will ordinarily just run its course naturally.

If your symptoms are severe, or they haven't improved after three days, then you should get in touch with a medical professional to seek further help.

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