The idea of street food usually brings two reactions. The first is the excitement at cheap, good food. The second is the terrified thought of getting sick from it and spending precious days of your vacation holed up in a bathroom feeling like you are going to die. Unfortunately, both can be a reality and yes, I have been on both ends.
However, I have also learned from my mistakes, picked up some tricks along the way, and can say that street food is one of my absolute favourites in southeast Asia. In fact, it was only after eating in a restaurant during my last 14 weeks of Asian adventures that made me sick (see tip #4 to avoid that). Which, as a girl who can’t handle spice and does not have a stomach of iron like most other avid travellers, is kind of a big deal.
So from the girl with the super sensitive stomach, here are my top 5 tried and tested survival tips for eating street food without getting sick.
1) Follow the Crowds
While you might usually want to stay away from the pack, this is not a situation where that was advised. If you see a big line up for a certain street vendor- join it. Especially if the lineup is mostly locals. It’s pretty much a guarantee that whatever is being served is fresh, safe, and tasty. What more can you ask for?
2) Only Eat What is Made in Front of You
There are generally two types of food stalls; the ones where the food is already prepared and waiting for be scooped into your plate, or the ones where it is cooked right in front of you. Always choose what is cooked right in front of you. That way you know it’s fresh and therefore less likely to be contaminated and full of bacteria, especially in hot and humid destinations.
3) Eat During Normal Meal Times
It might be busier, and lineups might have longer wait times, but having your meals during the normal eating times of whatever country you are in is an easy way to help avoid getting sick. These are the times that the food is the freshest; it’s usually just brought in and hasn’t been sitting in the heat or out in the open for hours. Plus, you usually have more options available and aren’t stuck with leftovers, which is always a win.
4) Think Before You Order
Sometimes the best thing is just to use your brain. Would you still eat mayonnaise that you forgot in the car during a hot day for a few hours? No. So you probably shouldn’t ask for it on your sandwich when you see that the bottle just sits in the sun all day. Some other basic rules to stick by are to be careful with ice cubes for fruit shakes (rule of thumb is the machine made ones with the holes through the middle are usually safe), and avoid fruit and vegetables that need to be washed, because usually it’s done with tap water. This includes at restaurants, so as good as a caesar salad sounds after not having one for three months, just say no. And yes, that’s me speaking from experience.
5) When in Doubt, Drink a Coke
This is my number one secret tip, something that was passed onto my by a fellow traveller in Thailand and I have live off ever since. So how does it work? Well for the exact same reasons that everyone tells you to avoid it. Think about all those horror stories you heard about Coke being able to clean your toilet. If it can clean a toilet, it can probably kill any nasty germs or bugs in the food, right? Plus, you can get a bottle or can pretty much everywhere. So if you are eating something you aren’t too sure about, get a Coke with it. Personally, I don’t even really like the stuff, but if it means avoiding crippling stomach cramps and other awful side effects, I’ll drink it no problem. And based on the fact that I ate street food constantly (including some sketchy things, especially from the vendors in Laos) for 14 weeks without getting sick from it, I’d say this trick works.
What if you do get sick?
No matter how cautious you are, you can still get sick. So what happens if you do? The main thing is to stay hydrated, especially in warmer climates. Water is your best friend above all else. If you can eat, small portions of white rice, bread, and bananas are best.
When it comes to medication, the best bet is to let it run its course first. Unless you have a long bus or plane ride ahead of you, try to avoid medications like immodium right away. If after a day you are still ill, start taking medications. If you are still really suffering after a couple of days it might be something more serious, at this point you should take any prescribed medications your doctor sent with you (for this exact reason) or visit a local pharmacy or doctor. They are familiar with food poisoning and will have medications to help you. For more tips on how to combat travel tummy troubles check out this post.
Do you have any safe street food tips to share? Would love to hear them in the comments below!