Whenever I tell friends that I love to eat street food when I travel, their first question is always whether or not I’ve gotten sick. I proudly inform them that, no, I’ve actually never needed the Immodium that I always pack in my carry-on bag.
Not only is street food a cheaper meal option, but it’s also essential to experiencing the best and most authentic food that many cities have to offer. And, frankly, restaurants aren’t always a safer bet.
But before you start trying everything that’s sold from a cart, there a few tricks to living that street-meat life you need to know. Here are our tips for easing your mind (and stomach) around food-handling environments that you may not be used to.
1. Make sure it’s freshly cooked
If you’re eating hot street food, it’s always safest (not to mention more delicious) to eat food you can see being cooked to order.
It’s also a good idea to find what’s commonly eaten in the area you’re traveling to and get an idea of what the food should look like—as well as the scenario in which the food is usually served. Locals and travelers won’t be singing the praises of chicken skewers that have been sitting in the hot sun all day.
2. Look for lines and busy stalls
Busy street food stalls are an indicator of popularity, and their high turnover rate means the food is never sitting out for hours and developing dreaded bacteria. Yes, long lines can be discouraging when you’re hungry after a full day of exploring, but it’s not worth the risk of grabbing precooked food from the empty spot next door.
But there’s a caveat: A line for squid on a stick outside of Wat Pho doesn’t necessarily mean that cart is particularly good—it’s probably busy because of its location. Instead, look for a line that has locals in it and order what they’re ordering. Pointing and nodding your head works just fine when you’re hungry and there’s a language barrier. Think of it as Yelp in real time.
3. Eat when the locals are eating
The last and most important element here is when to eat. You’re likely already on a weird eating schedule while you’re traveling, but it’s important to try and adjust to the eating times of where you are. A bowl of pho might be lunch for Americans, but it’s breakfast for the Vietnamese. This ensures that you’re eating freshly cooked food and that you can find the best and most popular places to eat.
4. If you can’t drink the water, then you can’t eat the salad
Most people get so hung up on not drinking the water or skipping ice in drinks that they don’t think about all of the other ways in which water is used in food service. While eating a salad or fresh strawberries may seem like a much-needed break from the meaty, carb-heavy street meals you’ve been having, you’re much more likely to get sick.
Fruits and vegetables tend to be washed with tap water in most places, rather than the filtered water that locals drink—or sometimes it’s not washed at all. If you’re really craving some produce, try fruits you can peel or cooked veggies.
5. Trust your gut
If you’re unsure about the food or the way that it’s being prepared, then keep moving. Eating street food all over the world doesn’t make you an expert. Every stall and every country are different, and sometimes the rules can be harder to follow. When something doesn’t look, smell, or feel right, don’t eat it! Trust your judgment. Chances are that there’s another spot close by that’s making something more delicious.