Food remains the foundation of society in so many ways. Families gather together, friendships are formed, and lovers unite all over a meal. Regardless of where you might find yourself in the world, the most basic form of cultural exchange occurs on the gastronomical level. Everyone knows the power of bonding with a stranger over a delicious meal.
It is no secret that trying the cuisine of a foreign place is one of the best ways to get a (literal) taste of its culture and atmosphere. While street food is not a common term in the Western world, it is a deeply cherished part of the larger culinary experience in many Asian, African and Latin American countries. Very often, these stalls serve crowd-pleasing, freshly prepared foods along the streets in mobile carts or small roadside booths.
It would be a shame to find yourself surrounded by delicious foods at a night bazaar in Thailand or another gastronomical wonderland only to let your fears of an upset stomach get the better of you.
Following on are some tips on how to take your taste buds on an adventure while minimising the risk of falling sick. All it takes is a little common sense and an open mind and you’ll be looking forward to enjoying some of the best food you’ll ever taste in your lifetime.
Do your research
Perhaps the most important step you can take before this mouth-watering adventure is to do your research on what foods you’ll find on the streets of your destination. Are there any “must try’s” you do not want to leave without getting a taste of? Those should go to the top of your foodie list. If they are famous delicacies, you might even be able to find reviews on specific stalls online.
Also set aside some time to research your dietary restrictions. Are you allergic to any specific ingredient? Are you currently observing a vegetarian diet? If you are, find a way to communicate this if the event rises. This way, you’ll be able to know which foods to steer clear off and which ones you have the green light to go ahead and indulge in.
Do as the locals do
You can never be too far off track if you do as the locals do when it comes to street food. Go towards the stalls featuring the longest queues. That usually indicates an established and time-tested business with a reputation for serving up tasty and authentic fares. The high traffic also means that food is continuously being cooked. If you think you might have a weaker stomach, you might want to watch out for children or the elderly in the lines too.
Try to have your meals around the same time as the locals as well. Food is usually cooked during peak periods when many hungry customers are waiting in-line. You’ll increase your chances of eating a freshly cooked meal instead of something that’s been sitting lukewarm on the cart.
If you speak the local dialect, don’t be shy and ask around for recommendations! Most people are more than happy to share their favourite foods and direct you to trusted stalls. They might even be able to get you a good deal or off-the-menu items!
Observe the food being cooked
Mobile kitchens come with the benefit of being open-air and transparent. That means that the dishes are prepared right in front of you. It would be silly to expect a street food vendor to observe the same regulations as your favourite fine-dining restaurant back home, but a little common sense goes a long way.
Is the vendor handling both money and food with his bare hands? Did they cough or sneeze while preparing the food? What about the cooking area? Are there many flies about, or is it clean and tidy? There are plenty of stalls on offer, so don’t be too quick to settle for the first stall you come across if you spot any red flags.
Some stalls cook their food in big batches in the morning and serve them in smaller heated portions throughout the day. If you do not want to risk consuming food that might have been prepared hours ago, choose to go early in the morning or opt for a stall where you see food continuously being cooked.
Favour specialised vendors
While a store that sells a wide variety of dishes may be tempting, it is safer to bet on a stall that only specialises in one or two main dishes. Firstly, you know that they’ve become experienced at cooking their dish—meaning a potentially higher quality in taste. Those stalls featuring the same fare through the years and generations will be cooking with a perfected family recipe. Secondly, there is a higher chance that the ingredients used will be fresh and ready at hand instead of stored away only to be taken out on rare occasions.
Be aware of liquids and raw fruits and vegetables
If you find yourself seeking something refreshing after a long day, go for pre-bottled, sealed drinks and peelable fruits. Bacteria breeds more quickly in liquids than fully-cooked food. The same goes for sliced fruit and vegetable salads. It’s also best to steer clear of ice unless you are confident that it is made from a distilled source. The same goes for liquid condiments that have potentially been sitting in the sun for a long time.
Wash your hands!
While much ink has been spilled regarding the hygiene standards of street foods, don’t forget to take care of your personal hygiene too! Make sure to wash your hands before eating. If you’re in a country where the tap water is unsafe, use distilled water instead. Some hand sanitiser and wet wipes can help get rid of germs that you might be carrying around after a long day out and about.