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.
Local food, which often can be street food, tends to approached cautiously. One question that often lingers is “can I eat local and safely on the street? Or the other variation, “will I get sick if I eat the street food?
Eating 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.
From eating fresh ceviche from the back of a truck in Peru, to choripan grilling on the streets of Argentina, we’ve been delighted by the street eats we’ve found.
After over 5+ years of traveling through 17 countries and 120+ cities on the hunt for the authentic foods, we’ve been fortunate not to have had any serious stomach issues.
The following are our tips and guidelines for how you can eat local and safely on the street.
What is Street Food?
Food from sidewalk vendors, colorful markets and push carts is one of the best ways to “taste” the local culture. Whether we are traveling in small towns, or cities with a reputation for fine dining, eating on the street is an experience we always look forward to. From Bangkok, Hanoi, Buenos Aires to the U.S., we eat street food as often as we can.
Street food, a concept with many definitions, is inclusive of a wide range of foods and beverages sold and sometimes prepared in public places, most notably on the streets.
Street food is not only delicious, it’s often cheap, too. Experiencing a city through street food is a great way to explore the area.
Popular in Asia, massive in America, and growing in Europe’s, here’s how to be best navigate the street eats on your travels.
1- Peel It or Have It Hot
Local markets are great places to visit and discover the local and regional specialties.
However, depending on the cities you are visiting, it may take some adjustments. 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 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. Go when the market is busy and let the delicious smells of hot food tempt you.
However be cautious about 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 Eats With 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 golden fresh or is it old and 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 the person handling the money is the same person cooking the food.
In South America for example, we ate at food stalls where there was a dedicated person cooking the meals 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, many vendors who would wear gloves to handle the food and then remove them to receive payment.
Remember, 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 have our Sporks with us. These spoon/fork combos have come in handy when trying something at the market. They’ve also been a lifesaver when the utensils don’t look clean.
In Vietnam, we noticed that some local food joints would reuse the water glasses without washing them. If you are going to use the cups, make sure you use the straws that are available. Otherwise, carry your own water bottle or buy a bottle of water instead.
6- Carry 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 of drops of gel, you can easily clean your hands on the go. And, with the lack of napkins in most of the countries, hand sanitizer serves a second purpose. Their use 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 do not travel without them and these pills are 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, taking two pills afterward helps calm the stomach.
Activated charcoal pills are easier to find on Amazon than in retail stores where it is not always readily available. They are definitely a must-have item on your food traveler packing list
8-Make Friends with Spices
In Southeast Asia, the abundant use of spices and herbs are prominent and used to give food rich flavors and taste. Many of the spices and herbs used are traditionally known to relieve common ailments and promote generate health.
Garlic, is a typical ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking and its intense flavors and aromas are essential to adding depth to the overall taste of dishes.
A member of the onion family, garlic is used in making the base of many delicious curries.
Garlic, also called “the stinking rose” has many health benefits. When it comes to the 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 potable 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-potable. The bottles have a slick design, are lightweight and the filters are changed infrequently about every 2 to 3 months.
No matter how you choose to drink safely on your travels, be sure to carry your own water purifier and filtration system to stay safe. With no additional plastic water bottles to buy, you’ll also be doing good for the environment.
10 – Be Wary of Ice Contamination in Your Drinks
While access to safe water can be an issue while traveling, you also want to be cautious about contamination in juices and iced drinks.
It goes without saying that when the water is not potable, the ice needs to be avoided. However, on our travels we’ve been 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, avoid the ice and iced drinks.
Street Food Safety – 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 issues. 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 travel or first aid kit.
2 – Use Local Remedies
One of the benefits of connecting with locals on your travels, is getting local insights on what to do in town. In addition, locals are great resource for what to do when you are not feeling well.
You can count on them to guide you to the necessary medication and local remedies and the best doctors if necessary.
Emoliente: Peru’s 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 better and we were ready to continue our exploration of local flavors.
Eating on the Street Safely with Ginger
While in Southeast Asia, we discovered the healing power of ginger. This traditional food originated in China and 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, cholesterol, and weight-loss.
3 – Get Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is something most travelers consider when traveling. But what about dental insurance?
Unexpectedly, while in Thailand, Rosemary’s tooth suddenly started throbbing and she needed to see a dentist.
In Chiang Mai at the time, her dental x-rays showed that she needed a root canal. It was a surprise and shock to learn that she needed such drastic surgery.
She was glad to have had Allianz Travel Insurance, which we recommend. Because, in the end, everything worked out perfectly.
In case of emergencies or unexpected events, be sure to have travel insurance. We use and recommend Allianz Travel Insurance. The insurance also comes with the handy ap TravelSmart app which has 9 benefits you want to know.
No matter the length of your trip, be prepared for unforeseen circumstances by traveling with insurance.
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.
How to Eat Local and Safely in Bangkok & Hanoi – Authentic Food Quest Food Trails
Bangkok is one of the most exciting cities for street food. There are not many places in the world that offer an incredible variety of spicy, savory, and sweet treats cooked street side.
As exciting as it is, it can also be intimidating. With so many options it’s hard to know where to start. After spending 6 months in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, we created Authentic Food Quest Food Trails to help you eat safely in Bangkok.
In the food trail, you’ll find an overview of the local and authentic dishes, desserts and drinks not to miss on your travels. You’ll also find a downloadable map with the exact location addresses and hours of operations to make planning easier.
To get a copy of your Bangkok food trail, simply click this link – Bangkok Food Trail to download your copy today.
Hanoi Food Trail
Vietnam is one of the cheapest and most delicious places to eat street food. In fact, most of the dining is done on the streets on short little stools.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s cultural center and birthplace of some of the country’s most iconic foods, is a culinary haven worth exploring. We created a food trail to help you navigate the street food scene in Hanoi.
Using pictures and clear directions, we make it easy for you to discover the food and the places to go. You’ll take delicious detours that are worth the extra mile, with no fear of missing out.
Discover where to eat and what to order. With this self-guided food trail, you are in charge. You get to create your own local experience.
To get a copy of your Hanoi food trail, simply click this link – Hanoi Food Trail to download your copy today.
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 for how to eat local and safely on the street? Share your comments below.
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Rosemary is the editor-in-chief and strategist at Authentic Food Quest.
Traveling slow since 2015 with her partner, Claire, she has explored the cuisine in 45 countries and more than 240+ culinary cities.
Her writing about local food specialties has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post.
As a food and travel writer, Rosemary has co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
Rosemary is an avid runner when she’s not eating and exploring new destinations. She has run ten marathons and counting.
Before Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary held senior-level strategy positions in advertising.
Find out more about Authentic Food Quest