Friday, January 28, 2011

The Worrywart’s Guide to Eating Asian Street Food

Thailand's friendly street cooks
Anyone who goes to Asia and doesn’t at least try the street food is missing out on one of the easiest and most satisfying local experiences you can have. It’s not at restaurants and certainly not at your guesthouse café where you experience local flavors, it’s sitting on a plastic chair eating from a chipped Doraemon-printed plate while motorbikes zoom past inches from your elbows.

There are plenty of reasons you may be hesitant to eat street food, but “it’s not safe to eat” shouldn’t be the main one. While it’s certainly true that people develop a resistance to certain bacteria over time, Asians are also susceptible to diarrhea and food poisoning from dirty meals. A street vendor that serves unhygienic food would not be in business very long. Since everyone in Asia, including children, regularly eats street food with no ill effects, this means the vast majority of it is perfectly safe for everyone. 

Asian street food: expect the unexpected.
Of course, locals have some distinct advantages over travelers for choosing agreeable street food because they've eaten there before and know what to look for. As you travel in Asia you too will develop a gut instinct for which street foods you'll love and which will send you running for the toilet. Having enjoyed street food all over Asia with no regrets, here’s what I’ve learned for identifying the cleanest and freshest meals. 

1. Don’t dive in. No matter how invincible you think your gut may be, gorging on street food your first day in a new country is just asking for a GI disaster. Give your body time to acclimate by eating small meals and including some familiar foods – a skewer of chicken, a baggie of pineapple and chili-salt, a sandwich from a café.

2. Hotties only. Nothing kills bacteria like heat, which is probably why we’ve been cooking our food since we discovered fire. That said, street food that is cooked-to-order is the safest to eat. Look for stalls with gas burners and woks to get piping hot noodles in China or curries in Thailand. In India, street snacks like vadai and samosa that are deep fried in hot oil are a safe bet. Street meat may sound gnarly, but if it’s the kind that goes straight from the flames into your hands then you and your stomach should be just fine.  Be wary of food that should be hot but isn’t – who knows how long it’s been sitting there being pooped on by flies!

Meats-on-sticks in Silom, Bangkok
3. Crowd-source. Street food is as much about pleasure as it is convenience, and people think nothing of traveling across the city for a fix of their favorite dish. A busy food vendor is more likely to have hotter, fresher food than one with long gaps between customers. Find a stall that’s drawing a steady crowd and feel confident that you’ll be getting a safe and tasty meal.

4. Mother knows best. I picked up this tip in India and have followed it diligently ever since. Since women are the ones who do the cooking at home, they know what to look for in hygiene and tend to have higher standards than men for the street vendors they frequent. Take it as a positive sign if a good percentage of a street vendor's customers are women and children.

5.  Reconsider the ice. Iced coffee and fruit shakes make a great reprieve from the tropical heat, just be sure to check how the ice is packaged. If you can’t be sure the ice is made from purified water, play it safe and choose a bottled drink.

6. Save the salads for home. One of the worst traveler's diarrhea stories I’ve ever heard was from friends who felt guilty about eating buttery Indian food every day so decided to make a salad with fresh veggies from the market. They washed everything in bottled water as best they could, but still got really, really sick. Lesson learned: broccoli has too many crevices to eat it raw in India. Stick to cooked veggies.

In soviet Thailand, fruit grows on you!
7. Choose fruit with a peel. One of the joys of Thailand is the motorized fruit carts that bring healthy snacks right to you for a mere 10 THB ($0.35 USD). The fruit is stored on ice to keep it chilled, and fruit cut in advance may absorb water from the melting ice. If you're concerned about this, choose fruit with a peel that you remove before eating. Similarly, if you're going to buy fruit from a market choose whole fruit and peel it yourself. This way any dirt, bacteria, or god-knows-what that it’s been in contact with will end up in the trash and not your body. Smart choices include bananas, rambutan, mangos, dragonfruit, and mangosteen.  

The candy man of Mysore, India
8. Indulge your sweet tooth. If you’re still wary about meat and vegetables, sweets and baked goods are less likely to cause food-borne illnesses. Look for candied fruit in China, fresh sugar donuts in Vietnam, coconut cakes in Thailand, and spiral-shaped jalebi in India.

9.  Spice is nice.  People may think foreign flavors are what upset their stomachs, but the spices in curries and stir-frys likely do more good than harm. Essential oils found in many spices like garlic, cumin, and chili actually have antibacterial properties. Instead of blaming the food for your upset tummy, consider that it may be due jet lag, climate change, or the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment.

10. Be prepared for the worst. Sometimes it's the things we love that hurt us the most.  There’s no guarantee that you won’t get ill from street food, but the same applies to restaurants. In fact, the sickest I ever got in Asia was from a hotel buffet breakfast. Since diarrhea is the most common ailment travelers experience, it’s wise to pack stomach meds like loperamide. Loperamide doesn’t get to the root of the problem, but it acts fast and is a god-send if you have to spend 10 hours on a bus. If stomach problems persist for more than a couple days, seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist (and don't blame me!).


  1. Good post. Really good.

    When I was in Taiwan I had fruit shakes everyday. I especially enjoyed watermelon juice sans the sugar.

    I noticed hygiene wasn't really a huge issue. Nobody washed their hands. The fly glue trap was looking pretty black and spotty.

    But whatever. I never got sick or the runs from it.

    I think probably the sure sign of safety is when you see mothers and their kids. If Mom is willing to feed her kids the food, then rest assured it should be okay.

  2. Great photos!

    Some mouth-watering, others, not so much.

  3. Jeffery - I'd imagine hygiene standards for streetfood are pretty high in Taiwan relative to Thailand, India, etc. It's safe to drink the tap water in Taiwan, right? I love watermelon shakes... do you get the yellow watermelon in Japan?

    Anonymous -- Thanks! :)


  5. Street foods being peddled in Asian cities are a part of the countries' flavors. Good food is not found in the streets alone.