Food is a big part of most people’s travel experiences. It is for many, one of the best ways to experience the local culture.
As fascinating as the local food may be, one question that often tends to linger is “is the food safe? Or the other variation, “will I get sick if I eat the local foods?
Being able to eat local and safely on the street for some might seem rather risky. And while there is no guarantee against getting sick, street food and local food can be safe to eat.
On our quest for authentic food, we’ve eaten a lot of street foods. From eating a like a local on the streets of Bangkok to street food at the markets of Cambodia in Southeast Asia. In South America, we’ve had ceviche from the back of a truck, all the way to choripan grilling on the streets of Argentina.
After visiting 12 countries and over 40+ cities on the hunt for the authentic foods, we’ve been fortunate not to have had any serious stomach issues.
Following are our tips and guidelines for how to eat local and safely on the street.
1- Peel It or Have It Hot
In our free ebook the best 5 ways to find authentic and local food on your travels, we recommend eating at the farmers market!
This does take an adjustment because often times the hygiene standards in some countries might not be the same as what you are used at home.
If you’re curious about some local fruits, ask the vendor about it. More the likely the vendor will cut up a sample for you to try. Choose the fruits that need to be peeled and avoid any samples that have been sitting out.
The same principle applies when it comes to trying local foods at the market. Let the delicious smells of hot food tempt you, but be cautious of what you order.
If you stick with hot food you’ll have a better chance of staying safe.
2- Eat Local and Safely at Popular Street Stalls – Elderly and Children
When looking for a place to eat, make sure it’s popular with the locals. Check the lines. Are there a lot of people waiting to be served? Is there a high turnover of dishes.
Even better, are there any elderly people and children eating there? If so, this is often an indication of food safety. No mother will feed her child unsanitary food. And grandma and grandpa, have been around the block, you can trust them to know what is good.
3- The Kitchen is On The Street
With street food, unlike restaurants, the kitchen is right in front of you. This is the perfect moment to check out the hygiene levels of the food cart. How is the food being prepared? How is it being cooked? Does the oil look used and old or dark? Do the cooking utensils look clean?
If anything looks suspicious, don’t take the risk. Move on to the next vendor or cart!
4- Money and Food Don’t Mix Well
With market or street food vendors, try and avoid the ones where person handling the money is the same person cooking the food. In South America for example, we ate at fo d stalls where there was one person cooking and another person handling the money.
If this is not the case, watch and make sure that the person is cleaning their hands in between cooking the food and handling the money.
In Thailand, we saw vendors who would wear gloves to handle the food and then remove them to receive payment.
Remember, lots of germs get transmitted by dirty bills and coins. If you’re in doubt, keep walking!
5- Watch the Utensils and Glasses
Utensils and glasses is another area to carefully watch for the spread of germs. Make sure to wipe utensils and glasses before using them.
If you can, carry your own personal utensils with you. We personally always carry our Sporks with us. These have come in handy when trying food at the market. They have also been a lifesaver when the utensils don’t look clean.
6- Use Hand Sanitizer
Washing your hand before eating might be second nature to you. And if it is not, we strongly encourage it. But what do you do when there are no bathrooms around?
The best solution is to keep hand sanitizer with you at all times. With a couple drops of gel, you can easily clean your hands on the go. And, with the lack of napkins in most of the countries we visited, hand sanitizer serves a second purpose. It replaces napkins when needed!
Don’t neglect this easy to carry and handy item for the road.
7- Carry Activated Charcoal
Ever since we discovered Activated Charcoal, we cannot travel without it and it an essential part of our packing list.
Activated charcoal is a natural treatment and used around the world as an antidote for hundreds of poisons. It works by absorbing poisons and toxins in the digestive tract, by binding them together thereby reducing their potency.
There is a story that is told about activated charcoal.
“In 1813, French chemist Michel Bertrand swallowed five grams of arsenic trioxide: 150 times the lethal dose. He had mixed it with activated carbon beforehand. He experienced no nausea, no vomiting, no diarrhea, no excruciating cramping, no severe burning in the mouth or throat, no collapse, and no death. In a dangerous but dramatic way, he had avoided certain death while publicly demonstrating charcoal’s phenomenal ability to neutralize poisons”.
We carry activated charcoal pills and use them preventatively before meals. Sometimes, if something is not feeling right after eating, you can also take a couple of pills afterward.
8-Make Friends with Spices
In Southeast Asia in particular, the use of spices and herbs are prominent and give the food rich flavors and taste. Many of these spices and herbs are traditionally known to relieve common ailments and promote generate health.
Garlic, is a typical component in Southeast Asian cooking and its intense flavors and aromas are essential in adding depth to the overall taste of dishes.
While garlic belongs to the onion family, it is used in making the base of many delicious curries.
Garlic, also called “the stinking rose” has many health benefits. When it comes to stomach, garlic clears up most intestinal problems like diarrhea and more. It works by destroying the harmful bacteria present in the intestines.
On your travels, particularly to spice-loving countries, load up on the spices and enjoy all the local flavors.
9- Use a Water Filtration Bottle
Having clean water for your travels is paramount. Not all cities and towns have portable water. To be safe, it’s better to be prepared with your own water purifier and filtration system.
We use GRAYL water bottles, for purifying and filtering water. In less than one minute you can filter any water deemed non-portable. The bottles have a slick design, are lightweight and requires changing the filter every 2 to 3 months.
No batteries needed, and convenient to carry, this has been our best solution so far.
As a quick note, through our partnership with GRAYL, Authentic Food Quest readers get 20% off their order of GRAYL Bottles using the code AFQ-WATER at checkout.
10 – Be Wary of Water Contamination
With having access to safe water being an issue while traveling, you want to be cautious about contamination in juices and ice.
It goes without saying that when the water is not portable, the ice needs to be avoided. However, on our travels, we were pleasantly surprised to see ice being distributed widely in cities. In Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam for example, in the mornings we would see ice trucks delivering huge blocks of ice to restaurants and local vendors.
Even though you may have to pay extra for it, it’s worth the peace of mind knowing the ice is safe. However, if you are in smaller towns or in doubt, play it safe and avoid the ice and iced drinks.
What to Do If You Get Sick on the Road
No matter how much precaution you take, sometimes, you may just simply fall sick. If that happens, the most important thing to do is to stay calm.
When traveling and away from your familiar comforts, getting sick can be scary. If you are in a country where you don’t speak the same language, not getting understood can be challenging.
Regardless of the context, stay calm and remember, there are other people living there who’ve probably had the same issue, so it’s okay. There are doctors and hospitals with qualified staff, and they will take care of you. Learn to trust and don’t let fear make the issue worse.
1- Use Activated Charcoal
As mentioned previously, activated charcoal really helps with stomach bugs and stomach flu. Even if you have already eaten a meal and your stomach starts flip-flopping several hours later, you can still take the activated charcoal pills. Even if you end up throwing up, you’ll feel better faster.
On several occasions, while traveling and exploring the local flavors, our stomachs would sometimes start feeling queasy. Before going to bed, would we pop some activated charcoal pills and wake up the next morning feeling as good as new.
From personal experience, activated charcoal has really worked wonders for us. It is something we recommend highly for any medicine or first aid kit. This is the brand of activated charcoal that we swear by.
2 – Use Local Remedies
One of the benefits of connecting with locals on your travels is that they can give you the “inside scoop” on activities and what to do, as well as what to do when you are not feeling well.
Emoliente natural drink
In Peru, after eating at a local Cusco market, Rosemary started feeling slightly unwell and a little nauseous. After talking to our local host. She recommended trying “emoliente”, a local natural remedy sold by vendors on little street carts.
This magical drink made with natural plants from the Andes mountain cured the symptoms. The next day, after the glass of emoliente, Rosemary’s stomach was ready to continue our exploration of local flavors.
While in Southeast Asia, we discovered the healing power of ginger. This traditional food that originated in China is said to be one of the oldest medicinal foods.
Ginger is often taken for calming an upset stomach and to treat nausea and motion sickness. Beyond healing the stomach, taking ginger has many more benefits, including cancer and cholesterol benefits. For more about the wonders of ginger, read more in this detailed article.
3 – Have Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is something most travelers consider when traveling. But what about dental insurance?
Unexpectedly, while in Argentina, Rosemary’s tooth chipped. She was not eating and was actually working in the room, when all of a sudden she felt something strange on her tongue. A brief look in the mirror revealed a broken tooth. You can read more about the story in the article we published why you need travel insurance for your food adventures.
4 – Get Vaccinated Before You Travel
This is more a preventative tip.
Depending on where you are traveling to and the length of time you will be away, food travelers should consider getting vaccinated. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) offers an extensive list of resources that you can find here.
In our case, for our trip to South America, we got Typhoid and Hepatitis A shots. The Typhoid shot covers us for three years. Before leaving for Southeast Asia, we got a second shot of Hepatitis A, which now has us covered for the next 10 years. Beyond that, we were already up to date with DPT and Hepatitis B vaccination shots.
Please do consult with your doctor or medical professionals before your travels.
Now that you read our tips on how to eat local and safely on the street, are you ready to experience the local flavors on your travels?
At Authentic Food Quest, we strongly believe that traveling through local food is the best way to get to know a culture and connect with the locals. Without eating the local food on one’s travels, you would be missing out on a unique perspective of the destination.
Armed with these tips, we are confident that you will be able to eat local and safely on the street.
Safe travels and explore local flavors!
What are your tips to eat local and safely on the street? Share your comments below.
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Rosemary is a writer and culinary explorer. Together with her partner, Claire, they created Authentic Food Quest to inspire people to travel deeper through authentic food. Through food, they believe, people can have more meaningful connections on their travels. Prior to creating Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary worked as a director of strategy in advertising for over 15 years. Take the quiz and find out your Food Traveler Profile.