5 Steps To Eat Safely From Street Vendors

When you travel on a tight budget, you may choose to dine out at local street vendors and restaurants which are not always safe. Although the quality and taste of food might be great, you are still at risk of suffering from food poisoning for the sake of poor food hygiene. Believe me or not, but I know something about it. Me and my stomach are not very good friends. It is extremely sensitive and cases a lot of trouble when I eat the food which is not cooked properly, contain nuts or it is way too oily and stodgy. On the other hand, Cez can eat nearly everything (lucky).

Collage Food
Having a salmon baguette in Bali while Cez is enjoying samosas in Sri Lanka and Thai spring rolls in Bangkok

 

This happened when I traveled in the Philippines for example (my famous “I would rather go hungry that eat Filipino street food again” post).The street food served there made me really sick and I preferred not to eat too much of it than feel really sick. It also happened in China where I suffered from food poisoning few times, mainly after consuming some egg based dishes from street vendors.

Food vendors fotki
This is how street food is prepared in (from the left) Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand

 

Today I would like to share with you a few tips on how to eat cheap food safely from street vendors. You can basically follow these simple steps anywhere around the world, not exclusively in Asia.

#1 Don’t drink the water from unknown source.

In some cheap places your food may be served with a glass of free water. However, in most cases, it’s a tap water. As we know, water may be contaminated by bacteria, parasites, and viruses that cause hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid fever in some countries. Even a small amount of contaminated water can make you ill so always buy bottled water when ordering your food and don’t ask for ice when ordering your drinks.

#2 Avoid raw fruits and vegetables. 

When visiting local restaurants you might want to order some fruits and vegetables. Before doing so, make sure they are not raw. Some fruits salads and uncooked vegetables may be contaminated or may have been rinsed with unsafe water. They might be also stored way too long in bad conditions so they might not be fresh. That can cause you stomachache and sickness. The best thing to do is eating only food that has been cooked and is still hot, or fruit that you know has been washed in safe water and you have peeled it yourself.

#3 Watch the food preparation.

When I visit local food vendors, I often watch the way my food is prepared. In this case I know what goes on my plate and how long it takes to cook it. I often monitor the food preparation making sure everything is washed properly and all of the ingredients used for making my meal are fresh. By doing that, you can easily tell whether the meat, poultry, seafood and egg dishes are undercooked or overcooked.

Moreover, you should avoid consuming unpasteurized milk and milk products, especially soft cheeses in you travel in hot countries, mainly South-East Asian countries. You should also avoid eating the food that has been left unrefrigerated for several hours, especially food containing meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

#4 Choose busy street vendors. 

If the place you are just about to dine out at is busy and people are still alive, that means it’s safe. Busy food stands are a good sign that the food is not going to make you sick. Moreover, that also shows the food served there is delicious and affordable. Nobody is going to line up for bad and expensive food, right? Therefore, make sure to go where the locals go and you are guaranteed to get a good meal.

#5 Pay attention to details.

If you can spot a dirty plate on the side, cook’s hands are not washed properly and there are rats and cockroaches running around, don’t eat there! Cleanliness and tidiness is the key. You should always look around and check the back, see if the food display is clean enough and tables are clean. If the staff do not allow you to do that and everyone around acts strangely, it’s much better to find another place.

Eating local food is one of the best travel experiences. It’s good to be adventurous when trying new dishes. The truth is that the best and most authentic food is served from street vendors, not some 5 star restaurants! Therefore you should not be afraid of stepping outside your comfort zone and eating on a budget at local places. Just be extra careful with your place choice and make sure it’s safe to dine out there. Trust me, travelling is not much fun if you suffer from a food poisoning.

Choosing who and/or where to eat from boils down to just using your better judgement. If you’re looking at a food stall that seems like its main entree has been sitting out all day, again, listen to the warning going off in the back of your head to not eat there.

Have you ever suffered from a food poisoning after eating from a street vendor? If so, in what country did that happen?

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99 Comments

  • I’m the same Agness, I get sick from so many things. My husband can eat anything he likes and drink the water and has never been sick. My worst experience was a bacterial infection from Cambodia that spoiled my New Years plans in Singapore. I did everything right and still can’t figure out exactly what it was.

    • Awwwww I’m so sorry to hear about Cambodia :(. I lived there for 2 months so I know what you are talking about!

  • Really good advice Agness! I’m like you, my stomach is not an iron gut at all sadly. I’ve even been in hospital for 6 days in Delhi, which believe me was no picnic. Having said that there was a lady in there for 2 weeks with food poisoning and she wasn’t able to leave before I was.

    I have a nut allergy too so I have to be ultra careful. The worst thing is salads. I went to Jordan and ate a few salads in my first few days, I knew better but they made some really nice greek salads and I was feeling good about eating somewhat healthily. And then I got sick at Petra and couldn’t return on my second day. So I play it ultra cautious these days. Salads are rarely washed in filtered water. Ice is a neddy no-no. In fact street food in some ways can be more reliable than restaurant food because you can see how it’s being cooked.
    Thanks for a great post!

    • I’m really sorry to hear about your Delhi hospital experience. High five! I was taken to Chinese hospital 3 times this week and I need to stick to freshly cooked veggies and steamed fish and chicken, I am not allowed to eat raw food either for the next 6 MONTHS!!!!!! I had another food poisoning which absolutely destroyed my stomach :(.

  • Great tips. I love the one about rats and cockroaches. If I saw either of these, I wouldn’t stay around long enough to eat the food. Two things I travel with that have helped if I eat dicey food- charcoal tablets and grapefruit seed extract just in case. They have both worked well.

  • How about “watch where ice comes from”? Usually we buy bottled water, but if the ice is dirty, we will be sick all the same.
    Also – especially in Thailand or India and the neighbourhood: eat spicy. There aren’t many micro-things out there that can survive Thai peppers!

  • Those are some super tips Agness.

    “Go and visit the busy guys.” Thats what I do in India. The busy guy will also have fresh food as he is selling off everything quickly.

  • A lot of people said to avoid eating raw fruit and veggies, but I cannot help it, most of the time they look so gorgeous and incredibly fresh that I cannot resist! :)

    • I love to eat raw fruits and veggies, but after my stomach problems I have to stick to boiled and cooked food, but I often order fruit and veggies shakes and juices :).

  • These are very good tips: the old “boil it, peel it or leave it” mantra can be a good one to follow if you’re unsure! In South America we pretty much did exactly what you recommend and we never once got sick from street food. I think often people worry more than they need to about this!

    • I love this saying. I’m glad you never got sick in South America. I’m heading there most likely next year :).

    • I felt the same way at the beginning, but street food is so tasty and affordable than I always get back to street vendors :).

  • I grew up eating African street food and I have a theory my stomach was so overexposed to germs that I’m pretty much immune…. I try not to push that theory too much though because food poisoning is terrible. I have some water purification tablets I keep around in case I need them but I haven’t needed them yet. I love watching the food be made too, its so interesting to me.

  • Great advice here, and street food is definitely a great way to experience a country. However I would disagree on just one point though, and that is that “the best and most authentic food is served on the street”. I think that’s true of a lot of countries, but not all. In Iran, for example, street food breakfast is very popular (Ash-e-Reshteh for example, a vegetable and noodle soup with hot bread – yum!), but because of the local culture, the majority of people wouldn’t eat lunch or dinner from the street. You can find lots of coffee and tea vendors, and lots of kebab stands, but most people prefer to eat at home where their families are cooking traditional dishes like Gormeh Sabzi, Tahchin or Khoresht-e-Fesanjan, almost impossible to prepare at a street stand. Luckily for travellers, many Iranians would happily invite you to their homes to sample their mother’s delicious cooking!

    • That’s so interesting Tim. I have never been to Iran, but I get what you mean. It was very similar in the Philippines. Locals were saying that the best Filipino food was served in local restaurants, not from food vendors.

      • You’re right, Agness. Street food is the best. I love street food and I’ve never had food poisoning problems (I guess my stomach has become immune to germs). As for your experience with Filipino food, don’t worry you’re not alone in saying their food is not appealing. Most foreigners I know do not enjoy Filipino food either. I have lived in Manila for one and a half years and there were only three times I found enjoyable local food ( normally it takes only 3-4 days visit in a country for me to identify 2-3 delicious local food). In my first few months in Manila, I lost 6 kilos. Their local restaurants might be cleaner but the taste of the food still inferior compared to other Southeast Asian food. Sometimes I take visiting colleagues to middle-high class Filipino restaurants just for them to taste the local cuisine. I would consider myself lucky if they can finish the food, last week one of them almost throw up.

  • Great tips Agness! Although I’m Indonesian and my tummy should be made accustomed to these street food, I often have tummyaches too if they are not clean. I’m always careful when choosing a street vendors.

  • I’ve also noticed that many get food poisoning when eating at international fast/junk food chains. Street food is probably safer, especially when you monitor the whole process, like you do. Good advice, Agness.

    • I am pretty obsessed right now with monitoring the whole process of cooking the food for me. I have just recovered from a bad gastritis and I need to be super careful when dining out :-(.

  • Very good advice Agness. I should always follow your rules too. Especially the thing with not drinking water from the tap. I often do that in other countries too. I’ve luckily never had problems until now, but I should really always buy bottled water. I know that ;). I will work on that:)

  • Those are really great tips! I had a bad experience with raw vegetables once and the food was not even from a street vendor. It was from a nice restaurant! I was about to spoon the food to my mouth when someone told me there was some kind of worm in it. Yucks.

  • This is so excellent advice!

    I learned the hard way in Africa to never ask for “ice water” (even if it comes from a bottle) unless the ice has been pre-packaged. We also learned in Peru that randomly ordering off the menu can be “dangerous” if the sandwich comes with salad/tomatoes (that were washed in tap water).

    I aboslutely LOVE street food, though, and can’t seem to get enough of it when I travel. I will take you advice and only stick to the crowded vendors next time :)

    • Hi Grace,

      Thanks for sharing your lessons learned in Africa and Peru. I will be more careful when travelling there in the future. Yes, crowded vendors are very safe, trust me.

  • I must admit that my stomach is more like yours Agness than Cez’s – I’m very jealous of you Cez.

    I remember getting quite ill eating from a street vendor in Cairo. Our tour guide said it would be okay and we were short of time, so effectively had little choice. Most other people in our group had some form of upset tummy whilst the odd one was fine.

    I also remember eating a cooked curry in a 4/5 star restaurant in India. A South African travel buddy had the same dish as me. He was fine yet for around a week afterwards I was very unpleasantly ill. He explained this as being due to him being used to eating poorly prepared food.

    I also recall a few years ago being in Shanghai. I refused to ever going to a certain restaurant again when I saw a chef leave the bathroom without washing his hands. I always find this behaviour disgusting, but for someone in a chef outfit it is totally unacceptable.

    • Story of my life, the Guy. I remember getting really sick in Egypt and in the Philippines. Without a doubt, we need to be super careful with the food we buy when travelling.

  • “If the place you are just about to dine out at is busy and people are still alive, that means it’s safe.” love this one :D I don’t have much experience with street food but I love collecting good pieces of advice hoping one day I will realise my dream and travel to farther places :)

  • Great list! We follow most of these, though admittedly we always end up eating fruits. I have to agree that the best thing to do is make sure you are eating at the busy stalls where all the locals are. If they know it’s good, chances are you have nothing to worry about :)

  • Thankfully, I never suffered from food poisoning, but I understand street food can have an adverse affect on health. Thus, it is better to be safe than sorry! Your tips really make sense.

  • I love your tips of 1. not getting ice and 2. lining up where the locals eat, so true!! Haha, crazy enough the only country I’ve ever gotten food poisoning from was my own, the good ol’ USA;-) It wasn’t from a street vendor, rather a very popular fast food chain called Chik-fil-a. I was out for a week!!!

  • Nice one Agness!
    Nick and I both always, always eat streetfood. We love it, plus it’s cheap and authentic! We do follow all of the tips you’ve listed though. Especially making sure that the place is busy and the food is hot. We both had food poisoning numerous times in SE Asia and again in the Stans, but we still enjoy street food! haha.

    Cheers :)

  • I think Choose Busy Street Vendors is an excellent tip. In all the times that I’ve been in Asia eating street food, I’ve never once gotten food poisoning. (I hope I didn’t jinx myself just now.) Hence, my standards seem to be going way down. Mice are no longer a turn off for me if the food is tasty. Roaches are a deal breaker, though. I eat raw fruits and veggies. I get ice even if I don’t know the source. Unrefrigerated eggs don’t worry me at all. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my luck will hold.

    • You are so lucky you’ve never experience food poisoning, but be careful with the food when travelling around! :)

  • I agree with this line: “The truth is that the best and most authentic food is served from street vendors, not some 5 star restaurants!” – very true, I’d say I’ve been sick from more restaurants than street vendors. Another thing I’ve learned – stay away from salads in the developing world, just too many things can go wrong in the preparation. Lost 5 lbs in 2 days after eating a salad in Mexico. Stick to fried, boiled, or grilled – maybe not too healthy long term but short term kills the germs.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Great tips! I went to Vietnam back in 2010 and was always too scared to try the street foods but I also regretted not getting fully stuck into the culture! Better to be safe than sorry though, but next time I travel I’ll use your tips :)

    jotlotte.blogspot.co.uk

  • This are rad tips Agness! I especially believe in the “choose busy vendors” especially ones that all of the locals eat at. If you see a stand empty next to one packed, that is saying something. Plus, vegetables that are unwashed or have pesticides or dirty water have always crippled my stomach so I’m very careful about that.

  • It seems that everyone has said everything I was going to write! My #1 rule is to go to the busy vendors, although maybe I should be a bit more cautious about things like drinking the free water and eating the raw fruits and veggies because my tummy gives me a little trouble about once a month (only once really bad) – Chris practically has none! Stay strong to your boiled meats and veggies diet. Have you gone out of your way to eat things like fermented foods or yogurts? (I haven’t, but I feel like those would help.) Feel better soon :)

    • I have tried some fermented foods in China, never had a stomach problem afterwards, but I should be a bit more cautious about that!

  • Great post! :)

    I look at many factors but number one I look for is how they wash their dishes (they don’t always use plastic bowls). If they use the same water all day – I stay away. It’s a great way to get hepatitis. Another tip is to bring your own chopsticks just in-case they don’t have those exposable ones. (Although, one can’t be too careful, I saw in the news where people would pick up used toothpicks and put it back as if they’re new). :O!

  • I love street food! I guess I am quite lucky to have a strong stomach too. It must be a pain in the arse (literally? eww… sorry) to have to be careful, but your tips are very helpful. I think the point about salad is a good one. You always expect meat to be the culprit, but anything uncooked can be worse.

    • Katie, you are a lucky girl! I always struggle with my stomach and it’s been never strong :(!

  • I ate each one of these insects at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok, including a scorpion. I’m surprised I didn’t keel over and die on the spot. I definitely agree with your points, especially #5… checking the detail (of picking their noses while they prepare your food). Oh, yes, happened so many times. What surprises me more is I have so many friends heading over to SE Asia, eating all that street food, and yet have never had vaccines for water and food-borne illness such as Hep A and Typhoid. I would think it’s rather important…

    • I never gad vaccines either, but I will think of it next time. I struggled with my stomach way too many times :-(!!! GGGGrrrrrrrrrrr!

  • Sometimes I prefer not to watch how the seller prepares the dish because if I were to see it, I will probably have half the mind not to eat it. Ok, maybe I have a stronger stomach but I believe that one should always try to build up the immune system. As long as there are people queuing, I am always assuming that it is good and safe! :)

  • As someone who has suffered from food poisoning more than once, I know it is a reality of traveling if you are not careful! These are great tips and hopefully more people will take this advice and take the warnings seriously because spending an entire vacation with a sick stomach is not fun!

  • A much needed post! The most important is water which gives birth to a number of lethal diseases. Apart from this, I have seen them using low grade oil for frying food items..A little care can prevent a lot of pain.

  • Never had a problem on eating food from street vendors on my travels. I wish it stays that way. I think I can put anything in my stomach except milk based products.

  • These are great tips! I’ve had a few pretty bad bouts of sickness from street vendors but, luckily, I usually have a stomach of steel and can handle eating just about anything!

    • Good for you, Jeremy. If you survived in China, you will survive in any place in the world :D!

  • I’m quite sure that street food (where the locals eat) is much safer than tourists restaurants.. but that’s what I think.

    Anyway, great post :)

  • Good advice to watch carefully and to visit busy street vendors. Those have been key for me, because it’s hard to tell how long a food has been out. I actually got sick in India and I’m pretty sure the culprit was a samosa that was out for a while. It’s always best to see things being cooked before you and this can help in seeing how well it’s prepared, cutlery used and what the ingredients are!

  • So, with all the horror stories, why do you travel in Asia on budget? I gotta tell you, nothing they have over there is worth destroying your health. You couldn’t pay me to go there! It’s dirty, hot and smells bad. Ugh

  • Philippine street vendors sell cheap rice and it made me sick. Also had
    some issues with sunny side up eggs in a restaurant. Roasted chicken is good
    and vegetable lumpia (like egg rolls) is great. Thai street food is great.

  • Don’t worry to drink tap water in Sri Lanka. It is very clean and always we drink water from the taps. Not like developed countries like Thailand we have a very good water cleansing mechanism and never felt bad of that water. Do not waste your money on water when you are at Sri Lanka.

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