Street food: Love it or leave it, but at least try it!

$1.00 noodle soup in Bangkok

Indian hawker stalls in Singapore, hot dog vendors in Manhattan, roasted duck head carts in China. Over 2.5 billion people eat street food everyday, and in addition to providing cheap food for urban dwellers, the art of eating street food has also become a traveler’s rite of passage. One of the best ways to get to know a new place is through its food, and one of the best places to eat it? On the streets, of course!

In addition to the low cost and convenience of eating on the go, the street food enterprise is owned by individuals and families, supports the local economy and sustains the need for local meat and produce. A McDonald’s chicken burger in Kuala Lumpur supports the franchise or foreign owner, while the ayam percik grilled chicken is local and fresh and supports the family who made it for you. Globalization and massive development in the food industry threaten the culinary tradition, often eliminating local stalls to make way for larger franchises.“Consumers International” has an entire global initiative working to preserve street food culture, and laments that the “rich, cultural importance of street food is fragile.” The group’s goal is to improve vendor safety conditions so the world’s most delicious street stalls stick around and stay safe for locals and tourists alike.

Street food is a budget traveler’s dietary staple, but it’s not uncommon to think it’s dirty and dangerous at first glance. Travel doctors often warn tourists to stay away from food outside of hotel restaurants, and avoid fresh fruits and vegetables in much of central America and Asia.

Roasted duck head: Photo from buzzfeed

A glimpse of the more intimidating foods (roasted Chinese duck heads, stir fried Thai cockroaches, mysterious New York street meat) may leave you running back to the nearest tourist restaurant. Poor hygiene during food preparation and storage are the biggest contributors to foodborne illnesses in street food, and while many countries don’t have official policies to regulate their street vendors, don’t write it off just yet.

Take some extra precaution, but there’s no reason to deprive yourself of what could be your most inexpensive, delicious (and certainly most authentic) meal. With a little common sense, you can indulge in flavorful local food, whether traveling internationally or grabbing a pretzel from the vendor next to your office.

Feeling nervous? Here are some hints for the weary:

Buy from a busy stall :High turnover rates mean fresher food. Remember that locals get sick, too! They wouldn’t keep eating at stalls serving unsafe food. A long line is a good sign.

Start with cooked food: a boiling hot bowl of Thai noodle soup with red pork is arguably one of Thailand’s best street foods, and the boiling broth kills any harmful bacteria. If you’re in Thailand, don’t miss it! This dish is available on the street only.

Eat at a stand that specializes in a certain food. Going to a famed Mexican taco stand that specializes in fish tacos? Go for the fish.

Avoid carts that park near sewers, trash, or busy street corners: I don’t want my pad thai mixed with car exhaust and dust from Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

Watch the prep: Street food is unique because we can actually see our food being prepared. Worried about stir fried noodles? Watch a dish being prepared before you order, and ensure that the frying oil is fresh, not dark and reused.

When it comes to eating on the street, common sense is key. Does the food smell good? Do the ingredients look like they’re properly handled? Do the dishes look clean? Do you like what you see? Give it a try! The authentic tastes of local culture certainly won’t break the bank.

What are your favorite street foods? Do you have any tips to add to this list?

This traveler will steer clear of Thailand's fish balls

Posted by | Comments (5)  | March 27, 2012
Category: General

5 Responses to “Street food: Love it or leave it, but at least try it!”

  1. Sage Says:

    Get it hot off the grill–I traveled for 3 1/2 months last year and didn’t take a single Imodium and ate lots of street food, but I tried to be wise about my choices.

  2. Adriano Says:

    Street food: currywurst (curry hot-dog) in Berlin (believe it or not, it’s a typical dish)! and “frites” in Brussels (the so-called French Fries were actually invented in Belgium…). Last but not least: panzerotti (a sort of fried folded pizza) in Milan (at Luini, next to the cathedral). They are not typical from Milan (actually they come from Apulia…) but have been produced and sold here for ages!

    @ Paul. Good point. But would the same people be employed in other restaurants?