What’s a trip to Ho Chi Minh City without a steaming bowl of pho eaten curbside? Or a stroll through Mexico City without a stop for tacos al pastor, dished up from a wheeled cart?
Like the open sea, street food was once explored only by the most adventurous of travelers—those willing to put aside a picky palate and overcome language barriers to experience a taste of local culture.
Deterred by tales of a vacation ruined by stomach trouble or myths of questionably-sourced meat, most travelers have long instead opted for the safety of hotel and restaurant fare. After all, no one wants to drop hundreds (or more) on airfare, hotels, and other travel expenses only to spend the majority of their vacation touring public bathrooms!
But those wary tides are turning thanks, in part, to food-oriented travel programs such as Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” In case you haven’t heard of it, the Emmy Award-winning show follows Bourdain, a renowned chef, as he explores cultures via their traditional cuisines.
Bourdain’s unflinching willingness to saddle up to street food carts started a trend. Now, more travelers are embracing the authentic, no-frills experience of eating street food. Tossing aside a preference for indoor dining has become so popular, it’s been given a name!
That’s right, “foodie-tourism” celebrates traveling with your taste buds in mind. To help you become a connoisseur of local cuisine, we’ve compiled a list of “dos” and “don’ts” from some of the most seasoned, street food-savvy travelers:
Scouting Out Great Street Food
Do Follow the Locals
In a busy marketplace, you can often tell if a stall is reputable based on the line. Even better, pay attention to who is lining up. Avoid food stalls that draw a primarily young—and less cautious—crowd. Instead, look for a mix of clientele that includes older customers and local workers.
Don’t Blindly Follow Recommendations
A common word of advice when scoping out street food is to ask a local. While asking around isn’t the worst way to find favorite street vendors, the quality of a recommendation can be greatly affected by your ability to communicate. So, while your hotel’s front desk clerk can likely guide you through an area’s culinary landscape, a random passerby might simply mention the most popular tourist restaurant out of sheer shyness.
Do Look Past the Decor
Often little more than pushcarts decorated with tattered advertisements and cheap vinyl awnings, some with a ragtag assortment of plastic stools for al fresco dining, street food defines a “no frills” experience. Just remember that unlike the “westernized” dishes served in more touristy venues, what streetside dining lacks in formality, it often makes up for in flavors.
Eating Street Food Without Getting Sick
Do Watch Your Food Being Cooked
Keep an eye out for food vendors that display partially or pre-cooked food that is then warmed again before serving. Particularly a danger at bus stops or other places tourists need to quickly grab a bite to eat, food that’s been warmed then left to sit is one of the surest ways to get sick. Instead, watch to be sure your meal is made with fresh, uncooked ingredients from pot to plate.
Don’t Go Straight for the Meat
Coming down with a case of “Traveler’s Tummy” doesn’t mean your food was dirty! Your stomach simply isn’t used to some foreign bacteria. Since building a tolerance often takes longer than the average vacation, it’s smart to start with vegetarian dishes that are easier to digest.
You can also up your tolerance to foreign bacterial flora by regularly chugging probiotic yogurts starting a few weeks before your trip.
Just be warned: veggies aren’t a fail-safe option, either. The FDA warns travelers that fresh veg should be boiled to reduce your chances of chomping down on greens that have been rinsed in contaminated water.
Do Pocket Some Silverware
We don’t mean stealing silverware from a street food stall. Instead, bringing your own utensils can provide an extra ounce of protection, as there’s no way to tell if those chopsticks have been given more than an obligatory rinse.
Don’t Ignore Signs of Uncleanliness
Sometimes as travelers, we’re so concerned with not appearing rude, we’ll ignore what would otherwise make us uncomfortable. However, checking for sanitation is not a time to be shy. Keep an eye out for signs of cross-contamination between raw ingredients, look to see that prep surfaces appear clean, and make sure that whoever is handling money washes their hands before touching food.
Digging Into Local Culture
Do Pull Up a Stool
In the U.S. and most other Western nations, we’re not accustomed to eating elbow to elbow with strangers, and doing so can feel oddly intimate. At street food stalls, people from every social status cozy up next to each other for a no-frills experience. Embrace the chance to connect, not only with local tastes, but those who enjoy them as well.
Don’t Make a Fuss
Take a bite of something not to your taste? Try not to scream and spit it out! Remember, street food is no different from a country’s paintings, sculptures, or music—they are all sources of cultural pride. So, instead expressing obvious disdain, discretely dispose of the unwanted bite into a napkin and go in search of something more to your taste.
Do Learn About Different Dishes
At the heart of appreciating street food is understanding how a local dish fits into a culture’s history. For example, visitors to Cambodia might raise an eyebrow at the thought of eating deep-fried creepy crawlies. But to Khmer people, insects were a valued source of nutrition during the country’s oppression. Traveling to South Africa? You’re sure to see fresh servings of chicken heads and feet! Called “walkie-talkies,” those less-meaty parts sustained the poorer population throughout the country’s apartheid.
Keep in mind that even if you dislike a dish, the stories behind it are often good enough to be savored.
Don’t Feel Like You Have to Tip
Tipping is ingrained in American culture—so much so that many of us will tip despite less-than-wonderful service. Even after years of travel, it takes me several rounds of street vendors refusing my change to switch back to the no-tipping habit. In many places, it’s simply not the norm. Still in doubt? A quick glance at a guidebook or internet search for your destination’s tipping customs will give you an accurate answer.
Ready to Try Foodie-Tourism?
Cheap, delicious, and culturally authentic, local street foods are often infinitely better than what’s served in tourist restaurants. Of course, the strategies we’ve listed can’t guarantee that you’ll never cross paths with a mean-spirited microorganism. But, combined with a little awareness, they will lessen the odds.
And if you’re still wondering whether trying a particular dish might come between you and a perfectly-planned vacation? I say bon appétit! After all, exploring exotic foods, strange-yet-tantalizing textures, and previously untasted combinations of spices can be some of the most memorable moments of any trip.
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