“I think food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.”-Anthony Bourdain
Street food is akin to what you’d buy in a food stall at a festival or a fair, except in less developed countries. You’ll find that there is usually less (sometimes zero) oversight when it comes to hygiene, food handling, temperatures and storage. Y’all don’t freak out! Keep reading. I have a friend who’s been to Bali more than 20 times, and she swears that if you chug half a can of Coke after every meal, you’ll dodge the Bali Belly. When I went, I ended up in the hospital with the most godawful-system-clearing-superbug food poisoning, lettuce being the culprit. Lettuce!!! A wolf in sheeps clothing! (Guess I need to drink more Coke; apparently, it’s the real thing.) I was unsure if I should kick us off with a cautionary tale or with an anecdote of delight and discovery when it comes to street food. You see, you really can’t have one without the other.
One of the great joys of travel is trying new things. Street food is an expeditious bullseye into the deep red center of the culture – it’s nutritional anthropology. Made of fresh in-season and readily available ingredients, you’ll enjoy an authentic venture into what the locals eat, made by people who are REALLY good at cooking it. In many parts of the world, it’s safer than restaurants due to the care and pride these food artisans put into their work, and the obligation they feel to their customers.
Eating is so intimate. When you invite someone to sit at your table and you cook for them, you’re inviting them into your life.-Maya Angelou
There’s some fear around busting a big cannonball into that pool, so try putting in your baby toe first, and not only because of the unusual menu offerings. Would you taste tarantula in Cambodia? Sip snakehead soup in China? Gorge on guinea pig in Peru? Street food runs the gamut from the unusual (at least to us) to the very well known, think Phở and pad thai. Arm yourself with a few ninja tricks and you too will be eating your way from food stall to hawkers market and exploring the cuisine like a real Ferdinand Magellan.
Deciding where to eat: Seek out stalls where the locals congregate. Pay attention to whose congregating- it’s even better if there are women and children in the queue. Mama’s aren’t going to let their kids eat dodgy food. A busy stall means high turnover and the fare won’t sit around for long. Look for stalls with 2 people running them, one who handles the grimy germy cash, and another who handles the food (with gloves.) Is the food served from giant bowls? That’s a concern because you don’t know how long it’s been sitting there- bacteria loves room temperature environments. It’s always best to choose the option that is made to order. Observe the vendors. Is the workstation clean? Is the food covered? Is the vendor touching their face or scratching their butt? (That’s me seeing if you’re paying attention.)
Choosing what to eat: If you’re having fruit, go with something peelable like a banana, orange, lychee, melon or mango. Otherwise, go to a stall where it’s peeled to order in front of you. Considering one of those exquisite raw smoothies or ice juices? You should be because it’s torture to walk past and not have one. Consider- is the water safe? Is the ice made from tap or filtered water? Often times when you inquire as to the safety of the water, you’ll be told ‘yes’, as there is a language barrier and they are trying to please you. So, look for evidence of ice that’s been purchased (usually plastic bags.) For dishes containing meat (and these are usually the most delectable) choose thinner or bite-sized cuts, as it cooks through more easily. The thick cuts take more time and might be worth the wait, but if you’re unsure, just ask them to cook it longer. The meat needs to reach a temperature of 145F/63C in order to be considered safe to eat. For ground meats and poultry, that temperature is 160F/71C. You won’t be carrying around a meat thermometer (will you?) so use your judgement. If it’s in boiling soup or oil or over hot coals it’s likely good to go. Again, ‘made to order’ is the safest option to avoid foodborne illnesses. It’s probably best to avoid dairy altogether. Yogurt, milk and soft cheeses are Petri dishes just waiting to happen. There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong here. You also won’t know if it’s been pasteurized. This means you’ll want your coffee or tea black or bring your own Coffeemate. Vegetables and herbs may seem like a safer choice, but you’ll need to have your wits about you here too. Again with the peel, and think about the water the veggies have been washed in. Is the water safe? Bangkok and Saigon would be generally yes, and Bali and India would be generally no. Avoid salad.
Determining when to eat: Go when the locals go. Adjust your schedule to fit theirs. You want to be there at the busiest time for freshness, turnover, selection and to give yourself time to look around and decide. Go have a look before you plan to purchase, think of it as a scouting mission. It’s fun, and it will build your confidence. You’re well-armed now with tips and facts, do you feel ready to go out and give it a red hot go?
- Popular Stalls
- Food cooked to order
- Dried foods (fruit, chips, nuts, insects – crickets are delicious!
- Canned and bottled beverages
- Fruit unpeeled to order
- Stalls with women and children
- Uncovered food
- Pre-peeled fruit
- Pre-made food held under heat lamps
- Ice (unless filtered)
- Beverages made with tap water
- Unclean stalls
Tell me then. Are you a fan of street food? Do you seek it out or avoid it? What’s your favorite?