I would like to say that we’ve never gotten sick from eating street food, but that isn’t exactly true - more on that at the bottom of this post.
While we are super careful we are also very adventurous eaters. Having taken part in all the crawlies in Cambodia (snakes on a stick and water beetles?) to spicy worms in Oaxaca and everything in between, I did get sick once in Morocco. I got caught up in the excitement of the moment. It’s easy to do. But if you follow these tips, you will go a long way to avoiding getting sick from street food.
Timing is Everything. If you go to a section of town that has a load of street food and they are closing up for the day, skip it and come back when there are more people. This will help you in a number of ways, but mainly you’ll know the food is fresh and not sitting out getting cold and getting loaded with bacteria that will no doubt make you sick - and ruin the rest of your vacation. And wouldn’t you rather be exploring a city than getting intimate with every detail of your hotel bathroom?
Follow the Crowd. If you see a busy stall filled with local people eating and standing in line waiting for their food, you know it’s good. If there is a line filled with tourists, the food will likely be safe to eat, but maybe tailored to a foreign palate. You’ll also likely pay more because you are visiting. But a busy food cart means lots of turnover in the food and little time sitting out developing the nasties that will get you sick.
Watch the Money. As we all know, cash is dirtier than an unwashed toilet seat at a fast food restaurant, so if you see that the cashier is also the chef, walk away. Unless they wear gloves/wash their hands and never ever touch the food with their money hands. We went to a little food stall in a small town in Kyushu, Japan that had a nice long line that moved quickly. They had two money buckets - one for payment and the other to make your own change. They never touched the money because they know how dirty it is.
Cleanliness is Next to Healthiness. We know money is dirty and we touch it with our hands all day. We also touch a bunch of different things all day long too, like doorknobs and bus rails other people’s hands and stray cats (guilty) and, and and. You get the idea. Quite often the thing that will get you sick isn’t the street food. It’s your own hands. So always always keep a bottle of hand sanitizer at the handy, and you’ll be warding off a whole host of stomach problems.
Water, Ice, Salad. I’ve personally never seen a salad at a street food stall, but generally avoid it if I’m also advised to not drink the water. There is quite often some type of veggie or herb as a topping or condiment, and this has never bothered us. I used to steer clear of ice - meaning either in my glass of water, or in any iced coffee or smoothie - but was recently convinced on a food tour that none of the restaurants have their own ice machines and therefore have it delivered from companies who filter and process all the water. But I still feel a little funny about it and wouldn’t risk it outside of big cities. Salad is usually a no go simply because it’s washed with the already contaminated water.
Juicy Fruit. Only eat the fruit you can peel. This is probably the hardest rule for us to follow because we love a good smoothie or fresh pressed juice from the streets of Mexico, Bali, and Morocco to name a few. The real problem is that when you are traveling to places where fruit is abundant year round, you want to eat it all! And people want you to eat it too. It’s on every plate and in every meal and on every street corner. But just be careful of the fruit you can’t peel (like apples and grapes) and opt instead for bananas and mango and orange and kiwi and well, you get the point. There are lots of fruits that don’t need to be washed because they have skin you can remove.
Temperatures May Vary. This is a huge cause of most of the food borne illnesses you would contract by eating street food. If the food is sitting out and isn’t fresh, or isn’t fully cooked to begin with, you are going to find trouble. This isn’t something that is common just to street food mind you - plenty of people get really sick by visiting established sit down restaurants in the most modernized of cities around the world - so it may be best to stick to foods that are fried or that you can watch being cooked to order while you wait.
Get a Guide. The very best times we’ve had visiting any country is when we know somebody there. The easiest way to do this (besides walking up to random locals and asking their advice) is to book into a food tour. We’ve done a lot of these over the years, most recently in Taipei for Culinary Backstreets. This will guarantee you’ll only go to the most reputable and established street food stalls while also getting a little bit of history about the food you are eating.
I hope all the talk of getting sick from street food won’t put you off. That isn’t the intention here. We truly have had some of our best meals of our lives while sitting on tiny stools under a tarp on the street or grabbing something hot and eating it while walking through a market.
There is something so beautiful about being that close to the people who grow and make your food - not hidden away behind doors in an expensively equipped kitchen, but out in the open, where everybody can see what is happening and can be part of the experience.
Ideally this post will help you feel safe the next time you are traveling and walk down the street looking at all the food you may have once been afraid to eat.
In Summary: How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
Timing - visit street food vendors at peak rush so you know the food isn’t sitting out for hours.
Follow the crowd - if the locals line up, it’s bound to be delicious & safe to eat.
Watch the money - you don’t want the same person touching money & the food.
Wash your hands - this is just a good idea for eating any food, not just from the streets.
Water & Ice - Avoid any street food that may contain contaminated water.
Temperature - improperly cooked and heated foods are a risk.
Find a guide - especially at the start of your trip, then you know where to eat on your own.
How did I get sick when eating the street food in Morocco? Because I didn’t follow my own gut/rules!
In the little town of Essaouira there is a wonderful port where the fishing boats come in with their catch and next to that a bunch of stalls that will grill the fish you just bought. After a few bites of my tiny grilled fish I noticed they hadn’t been cleaned. I continued to eat them because they were delicious and partly because I was hungry and already paid for them. I just…ate around the parts that should have been removed before cooking, if you know what I mean. And then I spent the next 3 days or more looking for the nearest toilet.
Do yourself a favor when eating street food and follow these rules. But mostly follow your gut. If something doesn’t look right, don’t eat there. You don’t have to be a food safety expert to stay safe when eating street food. You just need to be a little prepared and and the whole world of local delicacies will open up before you.