Where and how to eat street food and not get sick when traveling or living overseas
Often when westerners travel overseas, you will hear, “Don’t eat the food! It will make you sick!” And especially food offered by small carts, off the side of the road (a local variation on the vending trucks that prowl many streets and workplaces at lunchtime in the USA.) The thing is, experienced travelers know that often street food can taste better than food in a restaurant. And yes, you can get sick from it, if you’re not careful. That’s why we created this little guide below to help you travel smarter and stay healthy!
I’ve gotten sick from food on the street. I’ve also gotten sick eating in restaurants, so not eating street food doesn’t mean you will stay healthy on your trip (unless you pack all your own food-which would be missing out on an amazing aspect of the local culture – It’s cuisine)!
Some tips on eating street food when traveling:
If you want to try street food, here are some things you can do to avoid getting sick. And even help the local economy and local families (since a street food business requires little overhead or connections within government)! Street food vending also gives a measure of economic independence to women which has many significant positive social implications.
- Often the reason why a person gets sick from street food is because the dishes that the food is served on are not washed in clean water.
Instead of eating the good there, get it “to-go.” This way, they will wrap your food in a clean paper/box/bag, then you can take it home and eat it on your clean plate (in some cultures, eating while walking is considered rude or exceptional). Depending on where you are traveling, there will be food sellers who walk through your neighborhood. If you want their food, you can just hand them your own plate! – They will put your food there, and you can eat it!
- Another big reason why people get sick off of street food are drinks.
If you get a drink on the street, don’t get ice in it! And make sure it’s from a bottle or safe manufacturer/importer. They don’t always use clean water to make the ice, and then you’ll get sick.
And if you get a drink from the bottle, always get a straw, or have them pour it into a clear plastic bag (common in many areas especially if they recycle the bottles for glass) Never drink directly out of the bottle, as often the bottle itself is dirty, even with bottled water.
- Watch where locals are buying/eating: Contrary to what you’ve been told, local people do get sick from food poisoning and many will know the safer/better places to eat. So either ask or simply observe. You wouldn’t necessarily buy something from the first food wagon you saw in the USA either would you? And understand that food quality and taste is not the same so try the places the locals rave about!
- Try to avoid sauces unless you can see them cooking/boiling/frying…Sauces (unless boiled) usually mean water, and water is a primary source of food-born illness, due to e-coli or salmonella. Fresh foods and fresh preparation is always best, especially if you can see how your dish is being prepared.
Abide by these three simple rules, and you will be much less likely to get sick from street food! Enjoy!
Another important resource on street food and health is the FAO Paper on Street Foods (1997) which addresses many of these and other issues related to your health.
Do you know the top cities in the world for street food? You may be surprised!