Eating local street food is one of the most enjoyable aspects of exploring a new city. It’s also one of the best ways to experience local culture. In many countries, street food recipes are tied up in tradition and recipes are handed down from generation to generation. Every cooking method used, every spice, and every ingredient is somehow connected to that country’s landscape, history, and people.
But before you eat a crispy samosa in India or slurp down a smoothie in Thailand, there are some things you should look out for. Food poisoning can be enough to spoil anyone’s holiday and street food is a major culprit. However, as long as you take these reasonable precautions, you’ll be able to enjoy all of the flavours of the city you’re visiting. Here are some street food safety tips to help you stay healthy and well on your travels:
1. Food should be cooked to order whenever possible
When buying hot food from a street vendor, ask them to cook it fresh for you. Cooked food that has been kept at room temperature for hours is much more likely to be contaminated. Avoid pre-prepared meals or food that is scooped from a large batch, as it may have been cooked the day before. Freshly-cooked food usually tastes better anyway.
2. Check that food is at the right temperature before eating
Food should either be served piping hot or ice cold, to minimise the chances of food poisoning. Hot food should be served at a temperature of 70°C or above. To check whether your food is hot enough, see if it burns the tip of your tongue. If you don’t need to let it cool, then it’s not hot enough! Cold food should always be refrigerated on ice and kept below 5°, so bacteria doesn’t get a chance to grow.
3. Raw and cooked food should be stored separately
This is one of the most important food safety rules to check for. Raw ingredients and cooked food should never be kept together. Raw food can introduce disease-causing bacteria into previously safe, cooked foods.
4. Look out for popular vendors with a limited selection
When a vendor has a limited selection of food available, it means they probably have a high turnover. This also means that the food is less likely to have been sitting around for hours.
5. Follow locals to popular stalls
If you see locals crowding around a stall, it’s a good sign. You’re likely to get not only the tastiest food but also freshly-cooked food that’s safe to eat. If you’re travelling with a guide, ask them to recommend their favourite street vendors.
6. Check that the vendor is using clean utensils and a clean workspace
Before you buy, make sure the vendor looks organised and that their utensils are clean. Hot food vendors should always have separate chopping boards for raw and cooked ingredients. Look out for flies, which can also be a major source of food contamination. And if it’s a smoothie stall, watch and see whether the blender is being cleaned regularly.
7. Fruit should always be sold uncut and unpeeled
Avoid eating pre-cut fruits and make sure to peel all new fruits and veggies before eating. Leafy green vegetables can be particularly risky, as they sometimes contain dangerous microorganisms that are hard to remove.
8. Ice should be stored in bags
If ice is being used in the preparation of your snack or drink, make sure it’s stored in bags to prevent cross-contamination.
9. Avoid vendors who use cloudy oil
When oil is cloudy, it means that it’s old. Oil should always be clear.
10. Choose safe water
Bottled water is always the safest option. But it’s important to check the seal to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. And if you’re ever in doubt, boil the water vigorously to destroy any harmful microorganisms.
Although prevention is definitely better than cure, it’s a good idea to be prepared in case food poisoning strikes. Travelling with probiotics that don’t need to be refrigerated (eg. Hyperbiotics Pro-15) can be helpful. Activated charcoal can be used to soothe a queasy stomach. It’s available on Amazon and in 7-11s throughout India. For more useful information on food safety, the World Health Organisation published this guide for travellers.
As long as you take reasonable precautions and follow the street food safety tips listed above, you should be able to enjoy all kinds of delicious food without issue. Don’t let the risk of getting sick stop you from diving into the culture of a new city. Learning about the world is a precious benefit of traveling and sampling local street food is a wonderful way to do it. And you can get started right now reading about some amazing street food in our blog about Delhi.