Good news! Street food trucks and carts are as safe or safer than their brick-and-mortar restaurant counterparts, reports a recent study done from 260,000 food-safety inspections in seven US cities by the Institute for Justice, “Street Eats, Safe Eats.”
Excellent news for Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.!
But what about the rest of us? And what about eating street food when traveling abroad? Is that street food safe? Is it RISKY BUSINESS?
I’m not gonna mince words. There is risk involved eating at a street food vendor, a restaurant and even at home if food is mishandled. As a contributor to the award-winning book, “Street Food Around the World,” I am often asked how I stay free of gastrointestinal ills through my culinary adventuring. But I am also here to tell you:
Yes, you too can enjoy street food.
If you’re looking to channel your inner Anthony Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame, partake in foodways and traditions, make some new friends, and directly support local entrepreneurs, try these nine tips to keep your taste buds, tummy and the rest of your GI system happy.
1. Ask a local. Locals know where to get the best street food. They’re their streets, after all! They also often know what’s in season and what local or regional or holiday specialties are available right now.
If language is a barrier, pantomine “I’m hungry” then hand your new local friend a paper map and a pen. (For more on language, skip to tip #8 below.) On my flight to Madrid in April, I was seated next to two lovely older gentlemen. One of them knew about food, but he didn’t speak any English nor I any Spanish, unfortunately. But by the number of times he circled Mercado de San Miguel in black ink, I knew I had to make time for that place in particular. I went three times. The market is filled with vendors specializing in all types of food like olives, seafood, desserts, jamón, wine…
2. Get in line. People vote with their feet. Yes, it is annoying to wait — especially if you’re hangry. But if droves of locals are willing to queue up at a particular food stall, vendor or cart, there’s probably a delicious, affordable, locally-grown reason for it. And, as Anthony Bourdain has said, street food vendors are not going to poison their neighbors. It may surprise you but much of the world’s population relies on street food to get them through their days. Take heart in that. It’s gonna be alright.
3. Watch how ingredients are prepared and stored. Take advantage of the fact that street food is often prepared right in front of the customers (unlike the kitchens tucked away in traditional restaurants)! Are meats cooked to order? Or, worse, are meats just sitting around? Are ingredients covered and stored in a cooler, away from flies, heat, feral cats? Are clean or gloved hands on food only, and not on money?
If you don’t know what to watch for, check out FoodSafety.gov — which will help you cook safely in your kitchen at home, too!
4. Sneak a peek at the final product. Before standing in line, observe a few finished dishes as they leave the truck/cart. Trust your gut, your nose and your eyes.
5. Go online. Research travel blogs and local media. Google “street food [LOCATION NAME].” Ask friends and contacts on social media and other online forums. Here we’ve even got something called the Chicago Food Truck Finder. If you want to know where to get started, seek out travel reviewer sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. (Yelp is now in twenty-seven countries including Argentina, see sidebar.)
While you’ve got the browser open, find out from traveler sites like the US State Department’s Country Specific Information or Fodor’s or Frommers if the water is safe to drink or of any other reported food-borne concerns. If the water is questionable, steer clear of street foods with ice.
6. Look where locals congregate. If the map-and-pen method didn’t work and you don’t have Internet access, go to the popular local spots.
- The open-air or covered markets.
- Shopping malls.
- The major plaza or square.
- Near places of worship. I know I’m always hungriest during church…
- By the university.
- In or near major public transit hubs.
- Lunchtime near offices
Lunchtime has a different meaning, depending on where you are. In Manila, Philippines, one night market, Banchetto, caters specifically to several call centers, where English speaking employees provide customer service to callers from the Western Hemisphere. Place opens up at 10 PM local time.
7. Pace yourself, don’t overeat. Belly aches are the bane of too-zealous gustatory explorers, and will put you down as easily as overexposed ingredients or buggy water. Get a small portion or split one order among several companions. Some vendors may even offer a free sample! If you only have a short amount of time in a city or country, you may be tempted to eat as much as possible. Maybe wear looser-fitting pants or a maxi dress.
8. Learn some key phrases in the local language. Useful example, “I am allergic to shrimp.” Or, “One, please?” How about “Where did you buy that?” or “How much does that cost?” Learning a little of the local language always, always, always leads to richer travel experiences because you can talk to more locals than with just English. A simple please or thank you shows hosts courtesy and respect.
Or just try body language: smiling, pointing (at things, not at people!) and pantomine. Perhaps my favorite pantomine conversation I had while walking the Camino de Santiago (yes, that’s where I was for so long). I was eating with a group of pilgrims from all over the world at a communal dinner at an albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) in a small town in Spain. The Spanish lady seated next to me was from Burgos, a large city a few day’s walk ahead. In my broken Spanish I asked her what we should eat when we arrive in her city. Unfortunately her blister situation was sidelining her and her husband from continuing. Morcilla, she said, taking her index finger to pretend-stab her jugular vein, spraying forth the word in question.
Though our resulting meal in Burgos was not a street food experience, it was DELICIOUS.
9. Bring medicine from home. All the preparation and caution in the world may not prevent you from getting ill. The reality is there’s always some risk whether at home or away so you may as well prepare yourself for that scenario. And almost nothing is less fun than trying to explain GI symptoms in a pharmacy where you can’t speak the local language.
What are your tips for street food indulgence?