For some travelers, eating when they travel is just a necessity, but for others, it is one of the primary reasons why they travel. Food is one of the most important parts of any culture and learning about and tasting the different foods people eat when you travel is a great way to learn about different cultures. That is why I absolutely love to tour the local markets when I travel. It is a great way to see which foods the local people are eating and how they prepare their food. However, an even better way to learn about local cuisine is to try some of the street food.
Some of the most authentically local food that you can eat when you travel is sold on the street. It is often the least commercialized and the closest to what the locals actually eat. Whether you are eating bratwurst in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or a Zanzibar Pizza in Zanzibar, Tanzania, the food you find on the street will likely be the most authentic meals of your trip.
For some travelers, the thought of getting sick is always in the back of their minds when the subject of street food is brought up. Whether you have gotten sick from street food in the past, or just heard stories from other travelers who have gotten sick, shaking this fear can be a difficult thing to overcome. I know because I used to be very concerned about eating street food when I traveled. Then I started to travel more.
I think Anthony Bourdain said it best when he said, “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.” When you think about it, he’s absolutely right. If you don’t get out there and try different foods when you travel, then you are missing out on a big part of the adventure of traveling. Instead of avoiding street food, you just need to be smart about which foods you eat.
Learning what street foods to eat, what foods to avoid, how to find the street vendors who take steps to ensure the safety of their food, and other tips on how to safely eat street food have opened up a whole new aspect of travel for me. If you follow these ten simple steps, my hope is that you will be able to put your fears aside and really get to experience the culinary aspect of other cultures as well.
Pay Attention to the Cleanliness of the Stalls
The first tip I have on how to safely eat street food when traveling is probably the most common sense tip on the list. If you are going to eat street food from a vendor, the first thing that I would recommend is that you take a look at the vendor’s cart or preparation area and make sure that everything looks sanitary. Here are some of the things I would recommend you look at:
- Does the food preparation area look clean in general (is it being wiped down)?
- Is the person handling the money also handling the food without gloves (they shouldn’t be)?
- Is the food being properly kept hot or cold (depending on the food type)?
- Are the dishes being washed and how (hopefully not in a river or other unclean water)?
Eat When the Locals Eat
One of the best tips that I can give you to help keep you from getting sick when eating street food when you travel is to try eating when the locals eat. Why is this important, you might ask? It’s fairly intuitive if you think about it. We all know that food is the safest to eat when it is fresh, so we should be looking to eat the freshest food possible when we eat street food. When you travel, the food you eat will never be fresher than during the periods of the day when the locals typically eat.
Think about your average fast food restaurant in the United States as an example. During the breakfast, lunch, and dinner rushes the food that your order is typically made to order. However, if you order a cheeseburger several hours after the typical dinner rush, you are probably going to get a burger that has been sitting under the heat lamps for a few hours.
The same concept applies to street food when you travel. If you eat when the locals eat, then you are typically going to get fresher food. If you decide to eat outside of the times of day when the locals typically eat, you have a higher probability of getting food that has been sitting around for a while and thus a higher probability of getting sick.
Follow the Crowds
A sure-fire way to make sure you don’t get sick from eating street food is to always follow the crowds. If a food stall or street food vendor has a line that wraps around the block, that means that it is very unlikely that the vendor is getting people sick with their food. If they were, word would get out and they wouldn’t have a crowd lining up to eat their food. People don’t typically make a habit out of eating at vendors with a reputation for getting people sick.
Not only does a crowd indicate that the vendor has a good history with clean and safe serving conditions, but it typically means you will get fresher food as well. If they are selling a lot of food, this means that they are likely having to cook fresh food more frequently. Fresh food is always safer than food that has been sitting around all day. For these reasons, I am never hesitant to try street food if it is from a vendor who has a crowd of customers.
Eat Only What You See Prepared
If you want to avoid getting sick when you eat street food while traveling, another great tip that I can give you is to always make sure you see your food being prepared. If you see the street vendor preparing your food, then you will be able to make sure it was prepared properly and with the necessary precautions to make the food safe to eat. If you see the vendor prepare the food in an unclean manner, you can refuse the food.
I would strongly suggest that you stay away from vendors who have already prepared the food they are selling. Sandwiches that are pre-wrapped and food that is already prepared should be avoided. While we were in Zanzibar, Tanzania, we had some of the infamous Zanzibar Pizza that the city is famous for. The vendor who made our food prepared it right in front of us and we got to see first-hand that the food was prepared safely.
Fully Cooked Food is the Safest
If you want to be extra safe to avoid getting sick when trying street food when you travel, a great piece of advice that I have learned thru travel is to make sure the food you eat is fully cooked. Fully cooked food is far less likely to get you sick then food that is uncooked or only partially cooked. If the food you buy is supposed to be cooked and you notice that some is either undercooked or uncooked, don’t be afraid to ask for it to be cooked a bit more. This is especially important with meats that you buy on the street.
Carry Baby Wipes or Your Own Plastic Cutlery
Depending on where you are traveling and which vendor you stop at, they may have a variety of different cutlery for you to use. If they don’t offer disposable forks, knives, and spoons, then you will want to make sure you are prepared to use shared utensils. It could be metal cutlery or wooden chopsticks that the vendor cleans between customers. Depending on which method they use to clean the utensils and how thorough of a job they do, you could get sick from the cutlery and not the actual food you eat.
For this reason, I strongly recommend that you either carry your own disposable cutlery, baby wipes, or other cleaning materials with you when you travel. That way, if the only thing a vendor has to offer is shared cutlery, you are prepared. You can either use your own disposable utensils or further clean the utensils that the vendor provides.
Avoid Ice or Fruit Smoothies Where Water Isn’t Safe
Fruit smoothies are one of my favorite things on Earth, but when I am traveling I am always extra vigilant about whether or not I should eat them. As you are probably aware, water is typically used when making fruit smoothies. If you are traveling to a place where the local water is untreated and unsafe to drink, then you will want to steer clear of having a fruit smoothie.
Even if they don’t use tap water in the smoothies, if they are using tap water to clean out their blenders between the smoothies they make, you can still get sick from eating one. As great as fruit smoothies are, I would definitely steer clear of having one when you travel unless you are completely confident in drinking the local tap water.
Eat Only Fruit that You Peel
Speaking of fruit, another important tip for avoiding getting sick when you eat street food is to avoid eating any fruits that you don’t have to peel. It’s not that the fruits themselves are the issue, but the water that is used to clean the fruits before they are sold can be untreated and ultimately get you sick. Therefore, I would strongly suggest that you avoid fruits such as grapes, strawberries, apples, and other fruits without a hard peel. Instead, focus on eating fruits like bananas, pineapples, oranges, and other fruits with a peel that will protect the fruit you eat from harmful water during washing.
Be Wary of Sauces
It should be no surprise that a large percentage of the people who get sick eating street food while traveling do so because they chose to eat food with a sauce that has been sitting out for a considerable amount of time. Sauces that sit out at room temperature tend to be a breeding ground for bacteria and can really get you into trouble. If you are unsure about how long a sauce has been sitting out, I would suggest that you ask for the food without the sauce or order something that doesn’t have a sauce on it.
When in Doubt, Have a Coke With It
If all else fails and you are still unsure about certain street food that you would like to eat when traveling, another tip that I have picked up during my travels is to drink a coke with your food. You have probably heard the stories about how coke can be used to clean toilets, but what you might not be aware of is that the same anti-bacterial properties in a coke can also help you avoid getting food poisoning while eating.
Keep in mind, I am not suggesting that drinking coke with your food is a license for you to ignore all of the other rules for eating safely while traveling, but it is a good tip for helping you be extra sure you don’t get sick. The best part is, Coca Cola can be found pretty much anywhere in the world these days, which makes it a very accessible remedy for avoiding food poisoning while traveling.
What to Do If You Do Get Sick
Travel is supposed to be a joyful and amazing experience, but getting sick from the food you eat can turn your travel experience into a nightmare. Trust me, food poisoning is an absolutely miserable experience. That is why you will want to be prepared in the event that you do get sick from eating while traveling. Below are some of the ways that you can make sure you are prepared should you get sick while eating food during your travels.
Bring Antibiotics for Traveler’s Diarrhea
One of the best tips that I can give you to prepare yourself should you get sick from food while traveling is to carry a prescription for Traveler’s Diarrhea with you. These antibiotics are tailored to treat foodborne illnesses and can usually get you feeling better within 24 hours. No one goes into a trip expecting to be sick, but being prepared by having an antibiotic such as doxycycline, Bactrim, Septra, and Cipro or norfloxacin can shorten how long you feel the symptoms.
Take Trioral Oral Rehydration Salts
The most dangerous part of getting food poisoning is how dehydrated it can leave your body. Most people who get food poisoning will experience vomiting and diarrhea that can last for days. This can leave your body dangerously dehydrated and prolong the symptoms because your body is too weak and dehydrated to fight off the sickness. One of the best ways to rehydrate your body after getting sick is to take Trioral Oral Rehydration Salts, which replenish the liquids and important electrolytes your body has lost.
Take a Probiotic
Along with valuable hydration, your body also loses the good bacteria that exist in your digestive system when you get sick from food poisoning. This bacteria aids in the digestion of food and is important to your digestive health. To assist in replacing these bacteria after you get sick, I would recommend that you take a probiotic or eat yogurt or other foods that naturally have some of these good bacteria.
Drink Ginger Tea
The worst part about having food poisoning is constant nausea and upset stomach. Really bad food poisoning can make the stomach flu seem like a cake walk, or at least that has been my experience. One natural way that you can soothe your stomach when you get food poisoning is to eat ginger. Ginger is well known for its ability to soothe an upset stomach and reduce nauseousness. If you get food poisoning while traveling, I would try some ginger tea to see if that soothes your aching stomach and gives you some relief.
Great Foodie Travel Blogs I recommend
If you are looking for some more tips on how to eat safely and well when traveling, then I would recommend you check out some of the fantastic foodie blogs that are out there. There are a number of great bloggers who are passionate about traveling to eat and they have some fantastic wisdom to share with you. Below is a list of some of the favorites that I read.
- Will Travel for Food, Mayssam Samaha – @mayssamaha
- Eat Like a Girl, Niamh Shields – @eatlikeagirl
- Our Tasty Travels, Erin Desantiago – @ourtastytravels
- The Travel Bite, Rachelle Lucas – @TravelBlggr
- Bacon is Magic, Ayngelina Brogan & Dave Mottershall – @Ayngelina
- Will Fly for Food, JB & Renee Macatulad – @flyforfoodnow
- The Gastro Gnome, Naomi Tonky – @gastrognome
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Thank you for this post! I’m going to Malaysia in December and I really want to try the street food.
You are so welcome!!! Have a blast on your trip!! 😀👍👍
Great tip about drinking coke. After 7 months travelling SEAsia I have not been without a few bouts of spending days in the bathroom for me in Vietnam and here in Cambodia its the water so I heartily agree about the ice. Your tip eating when the locals do is a good one, a great post.
Thank you so much!! It is great to hear that other frequent travelers have used these same tips and have had success. Really appreciate your comment! 😀👍
Great post! Some of these if never even thought of, especially to eat when the locals do for fresh food…
Thank you so much!! 😀👍
A million thank yous, Josh. This has been on my mind a lot lately. In the podcast I mentioned that the travel medicine doctor said to completely avoid street food, but of course every travel blogger I follow avails themselves of street food on a regular basis. I felt/feel so conflicted!! What a huge disappointment to go all the say to SE Asia and not eat street food. (Plus, restaurants often get some of their ingredients from street vendors, and really, you can get food poisoning anywhere. Restaurants are no guarantee.) I’ve been commenting on a few blogs and gotten some feedback that’s similar to (but nowhere near as thorough as) yours. A lot of the advice you give mirrors what my travel medicine doctor said. I’m especially intrigued by the Coke advice. I gave up all pop (You say “pop,” right? Not soda, because we’re from Wisconsin. 🙂 ) something like 25 years ago, but I may have to make an exception for this trip. Another thing my t.m. doc said was to wash hands frequently. The thing I’m still a little worried about comes from the pictures travel bloggers post of their foods. Often, it’s cooked food, but with a fresh vegetable garnish spread all over it. Ugh. Landmines everywhere!! I, too, have had horrific food poisoning. Fortunately, I was only on the bathroom floor in agony from 11pm – 3am, but I seriously thought I was going to die. Also fortunately, I was at home. I can’t imaging having that happen while on one’s travels, especially if, like us, the trip moves around a lot – a few nights here, a few nights there. I think I’ll have to be a vigilant food hygiene Nazi while I’m there.
Thank you SO MUCH for the kind comments and for the added feedback and tips you provided!!!! 👍
When I was doing the research for this post, (based on my own experiences, those of other frequent travelers, and feedback from my travel medical consult) I learned that a lot of people who get sick while traveling actually get sick in restaurants (not from eating street food).
That’s not to say that people don’t get sick from street food and you shouldn’t be vigilant (hence this article), but you really can get sick from eating anywhere. The good thing about street food is at least sometimes you can see your food get prepared. In a restaurant, that is seldom the case.
I used to be such a picky eater when I travelled because I was so fearful of getting sick. But as I travelled more and saw others I travelled with eat more adventurously and not get sick, I felt like I was missing out.
Glad some of these tips were helpful for you. Hopefully they come in handy on your AMAZING trip to SE Asia 😀👍
And you were right about the flu. Gimme flu any day over food poisoning!!
Your post on the 14,000 foot summits is amazing!!! Anyone that isn’t following your stories and podcast is TOTALLY missing out! (A well deserved plug for you 👍).
Thank you so much!!! You’ve made my day!!
Great article and thank you too for posting those links. I got food poisoning in Singapore a couple of years ago. I spent 4 days in my hotel room. I don’t really know which meal caused it. From what I read, it may not be the last thing I ate. Oddly enough, I didn’t get sick in the 3 times I’ve been to Taiwan and eating street food there. Although I was careful what I ate. I’ll have to look into drinking Coke – that’s a new one.
You are very welcome!! Thank you for reading. I have had food poisoning a few times as well and it is not fun.
Some really useful tips here! I’ve been pretty lucky on my travels and would like that to continue so I’ll be taking note of some of these. I’m not really one to drink Coke but it’s an interesting suggestion nonetheless.
Thank you so much for the kind words Jason! 😀👍
Great tips! We had a terrible series of intestinal events while on a Peru trip years ago, so are definitely more careful these days, when we’re actually traveling. I’m always all about going where I see local folks eating, as they usually know what’s up.
Thank you so much for reading! I have had a bad experience as well, so I know exactly what you mean about being more careful.