Is Eating Street Food Safe?
Grilled crab and seafood, Bangkok, Thailand
Due to our restaurant background, one of Billy’s and my greatest joys in traveling is the eating of street food. We can’t imagine going to faraway locations where everything is pulsating with life and exotic new flavors and only eating off a sanitized menu at a name brand hotel. Why limit ourselves and our experiences out of an exaggerated sense of caution?
We aren’t being careless about food and water choices; rather, we have two decades of world travel experience and want to share our perspective with you on this topic.
No matter where one travels, even from NYC to Los Angeles, there are different bacteria in the water, air and food than what we encounter “at home.” Our bodies react to these as if they are invaders and we could develop headaches, nausea, lack of energy or extra activity in our intestines.
Eating tacos at a food cart, Sahuayo, Mexico
It’s not always the food
It doesn't always mean the food, ice or water isn't clean, it might have more to do with someone's personal immune system and their response to the introduction to different bacteria. If one is traveling and finds themselves in windy weather, one can develop stuffy sinuses, a headache or an upset stomach. Again, this may have nothing to do with the food at all, but rather has more to do with what is being blown around in the air. This is especially true if there is livestock nearby or if there are a lot of street dogs in your vicinity. Some countries have the custom of people spitting in the street so you also have that to consider. So to be clear, windy weather is a contributing factor to intestinal distress.
If you do choose to eat at a street stall or sidewalk café, it’s important to find one that is busy and one that cooks what you want right on the spot. This will assure you that the food is being turned over regularly and isn’t sitting around becoming cold.
Dining on the street, Saigon, Vietnam
In normal circumstances if there is going to be an uncomfortable reaction to a new place it happens within the first 10 days to 3 weeks of being in that new location.
For lower intestinal activity, taking a few Imodium should solve the problem. If not, then antibiotics generally do the trick. I'm not a doctor and am not prescribing anything but we have found pharmacists to give Norfloxacin or Nifuroxazida 400 mg tablet over the counter and that normally will take care of the issue of stomach pain or diarrhea in a matter of hours or a day or so, tops.
Stuffed Fur Clams, Restaurant 236, Saigon, Vietnam
We learned years ago that a course of over-the-counter Albendazole or other amoeba and worm pills every 6 months will take care of miscellaneous creatures trying to find a home in our bodies. Even name brand hotels serve salad or fresh vegetables rinsed in water and if you are concerned that you might pick up a bug, these pills can allay that fear.
We also recommend washing one's hands as often as possible, and bringing those moist towelettes or baby wipes with you. They are very handy for this. If you are taking public transportation, going on tours or even visiting museums, this will put you in contact with the general public. Keeping one's hands clean will add to your overall protection from getting something that will upset your stomach.
Billy buying a pate and pork sandwich in Saigon, Vietnam
Keeping hydrated is important and if you bring your own water bottle with you it is wise to check the freshness of the water in your bottle. This is especially true if you are traveling in the tropics. Mold can grow in a few days and simply filling up your bottle with purified water will still not protect you fully. Be sure to wipe off the mouth of your bottle often with something sterile and to bleach the bottle out regularly.
Fortunately, Compass Living provides bottled water for their residents to drink and there is an electric coffee maker that will bring water to a boil to purify it for coffee and tea.
Whole fish and pork BBQ, Ben Thanh Market, Saigon, Vietnam
Some people like the idea of using SteriPENs when they travel so they have access to purifying their own water while traveling through bus stations or while out in the boonies. You can also use this pen when you are staying in hotels and this will allow you to drink from the tap after you have used this pen to sterilize your water. This might be a little more adventurous than you had in mind but at least you know it’s an option that is available.
Enjoying your trip
On a personal level we would rather do the above than miss the exciting opportunities to experience the street food and flavors when traveling. It is just too large a part of our journeying pleasure for us to give up due to fear. As a matter of course we always drink bottled water, but in general, if you are in a civilized city or town (like Saigon) the ice and water served in restaurants are fine. They are not going to serve something unclean to their clientele and expect to stay in business.
There could be the odd time that food poisoning happens - but this occurs anywhere and everywhere in the world, including the United States.
So is eating street food safe? We think it is, if you follow our suggestions above. We hope you find this information useful, insightful and helpful and hopefully it will reduce the fear factor you may have over eating exotic food in foreign countries.