I remember standing at a food stall in China, staring blankly through the plastic window of the vendor’s cart and not having any idea where to start. There was a whirlwind of activity sweeping through the night market as vendors tossed things on sticks onto grills and lowered pans into boiling pits of grease.
I felt like a fish out of water, and I made some poor choices of obscure meats that night that had my stomach twisting and turning like a roller coaster.
There is no better way to get up close and personal than through experimenting with the different foods around a country, and meandering your way around street food markets and stalls that are lined with mind-blowing, bizarre and surprisingly delicious dishes.
Food offers travelers a world of exploration in itself, and it is one the best ways to discover a country. Using food as your travel guide can help you to learn about a country’s people, its flavors, and its culture on an entirely new level. Peel away the layers, and there is so much fun to be had, whether it is befriending the locals huddled together at the tables next to you, being the brave foreigner who tries the notoriously spicy bowl of curry, or just helping you to discover new culinary likes and dislikes.
However, many travelers remain hesitant to put their palates and stomachs to the test when it comes to eating street food; sometimes, rightly so.
There is always a risk that comes with eating street food that will send even the biggest, bravest, and most adventurous appetites home crying, but there are ways to avoid that and go home happy and ready for your next culinary challenge.
Luckily, years of trial and error at food markets around the world have helped me to not only develop an iron stomach (three months traveling India and I was sick only four times!) but have also helped me to develop a framework for how to stay safe while eating street food.
There is some legwork that can be done before a trip, like reading up on a country’s most common culinary offerings, but most of the work is done on the ground, like checking to see how the vendors are washing their dishes and whether the cart is swarming with locals.
So as you ready yourself (and your stomach) for your next adventure, be sure to follow these 9 tips on how to safely eat street food no matter where your travels bring you.
Do Your Research
Have an idea of the kind of food you will find in a particular country. Is the culture big on fish, or do the locals love their beef? Will you mostly find noodle dishes or lots of curries? How is it prepared, and what kind of spices or sauces might you come across? It is good to know the culinary lay of the land!
Look Around the Stall
Does the crockery and condiment tray seem clean, or are things peppered with smears and fingerprints? How are the vendors washing the dishes and utensils — are there dirty dishes piling high on the sidewalk right beside where they are cooking? Are there tables and chairs that are wiped down clean — are there napkins out on the table? Check out the vendor’s etiquette. Are the vendors using tongs when they pick up the food and fry it or throwing it on the grill bare-handed? These are little things to take into account when scoping out some stalls.
Alexandra E. Petri is the travel editor at The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @writewayaround