Travel is a fun and life-changing experience… until we get ill far from the comforts of home. Food is a huge part of travel for many people, including myself. Keeping healthy is key to a great trip, and since I can see street food preparation and judge its cleanliness, I consider it safer than most restaurants where cooking occurs behind closed doors. Here is my advice on eating street food safely, gained from working and traveling in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
1. Eat With Locals
If locals are not eating the food, there is probably a reason to avoid the place. Also, if the food is not being sold quickly, it may sit for extended periods of time, so is likely cooled improperly, since street stalls rarely have refrigeration.
Eat street food safely by ensuring the food is truly what the locals eating, and not truck drivers or other people passing through the area. I suggest getting in the line with families or teenagers during the meal-time rush. If you aren’t standing in a line watching the food cook, you might have chosen a risky option.
Are you comfortable drinking the local water? If not, be aware of a few things.
Cooking Utensils + Dishes – Does the cooking stall appear clean? Are cooking utensils stored in a clean place when not being used? Whenever possible choose a disposable dish, even if you are eating at the food stall. At the very least, ensure your plate and eating utensils appear clean and are not wet from having been washed recently. Water droplets on a recently washed dish can contain millions of bacteria, and wash water is dirty whether coming directly from a tap or in a washtub where many dishes were washed before yours. If you travel with your own dish and utensils, dry it in sunlight after washing, since UV rays kill bacteria or dip it in bleach-water made of 1 teaspoon (5ml) bleach per 1 quart (1 liter) water*.
Hot Drinks – If water or unpasteurized milk is in your hot drink, such as coffee, tea or milk-tea, ensure it is properly boiled. Clear water is safe after bringing it to a rolling boil for one minute (three minutes at elevations above 6,500 feet)*.
Cold Drinks – Ask whether your drink has safe water, unless it is from a sealed bottle that you opened yourself. Many drinks have water added, even those in unsealed bottles. If you want to refill your own water bottle with safe water, you can purchase bottled water or carry a SteriPen or similar device to sterilize the water yourself.
Ice – Ask if the water was boiled before freezing it into ice. If it is not safe, it probably would not be available to begin with, since locals avoid harming themselves and their families, and they get sick just like you and me. However, better safe than sorry, so ask every time! Even after all my years of travel, I still ask. If I forget to ask when ordering the drink, I ask when I receive the drink.
3. Cooked Food – Vegans, Vegetarians & Everyone Else
Especially in developing countries and with street food anywhere, only buy food that has not been touched by hands after cooking. Low-risk foods include leaf-wrapped steamed items like tamales in Latin America or anything wrapped in banana leaves, like rice balls in Asia and Africa.
Is the food steaming hot when you receive it? Only eat foods that you see cooked at a high temperature, such as grilled, fried, or boiled for at least 60 seconds (not only warmed). If the food has cooled or been kept warm for several hours, bacteria could grow and make you ill, especially if egg, meat, lard, or any other animal product is in the recipe.
Whether meat or vegetables, ensure the food is thoroughly cooked for these 3 reasons. First, people and animals have touched your food during harvest and preparation. Second, just like at home, food is washed in local water. Last, undercooked vegetables are a major source of a type of tapeworm in developing countries, while undercooked poultry can have salmonella microbes, and undercooked pork can have parasites that are brain worms in humans (it is not a rumor). Vegetarians and vegans do not escape the meat-related issues, since it is likely that meat and people’s unwashed hands has directly (touched meat) or indirectly (on a cutting board) come into contact with raw vegetables at some point, so vegetables likely have salmonella bacteria on them.
4. Raw Food
Raw food is delicious! Fresh fruit in a tropical place (I am a sucker for mango), and a nice ceviche (raw fish) cannot be beat, whether tangy or sour. Unpasteurized milk in the form of cheese and yogurt is wonderful, too. Here is how to play it safe.
Understand that since raw food is not cooked, you should definitely avoid eating the outer layer. Only eat foods that have a thick peel or skin that is not eaten. Keep in mind, you are always at risk from the cleanliness of the knife, cutting board, and dish, so select a vendor who appears clean and responsible and has a long line of local customers.
Low-risk foods have thick peels, like banana, avocado, mango, pineapple, and melon.
High-risk foods include tomatoes and lettuce, since they do not have a thick peel. People living in developing countries often wash these in a bleach-water solution, however do not rely on restaurants and food stalls to perform this time-consuming activity correctly.
Dairy products are always a risk if not prepared and stored properly. I have never had a problem eating cheese, milk, or butter, when it is readily available. Cheesemaking is a craft often passed down over generations, but you never know with bacteria.
5. What if I Get Sick?
Of course it is best to prevent illness by carefully selecting food to eat. Vaccines are also necessary to prevent life-threatening ailments like cholera and hepatitis. They last for years, so although you might see the expense as high, think of how much you are paying per year of health. If my vaccine lasts 10 years and costs $200, I consider the cost to be $20 per year for an ‘insurance’. However, if you do become ill:
Stay Hydrated – Your #1 priority is staying hydrated, since extreme dehydration can cause extreme bodily harm, including death, so continue drinking safe water even if you continue vomiting or have diarrhea. Add Gatorade powder or dehydration salts to your water for maintenance of sugars and salts and to encourage drinking. It is easier to drink something sweet when you feel ill, so add whatever you have available, even if it is plain sugar packets. Seek professional medical advice at a pharmacy or doctor’s office, or ask a local where you should go, and determine necessary treatment.
To reiterate, many food- and water-borne diseases cause death or bodily harm indirectly—dehydration is actually the culprit. For example, cholera patients receive a saline IV bag to keep hydrated whenever such treatment is available.
Ask a fellow traveler or your hotel to check on you every couple of hours if you are traveling solo. You may not recognize when you reach extreme dehydration, so do not stay behind a locked door in your room without anyone aware of your ailment. If you have a travel partner, ensure you are both washing your hands frequently, in case the ailment is contagious.
* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention healthy water flyer
Tips for Getting Off the Beaten Path:
7 Easy Tips for getting off the beaten path
5 Simple Tips for getting off the beaten track
What did I miss? Please comment below and share with myself and our fellow travelers!