I should probably have titled this post “trying your best to eat street food safely”, because, let’s face it, eating street food is just riskier, especially in low-income countries where the safety of the food supply is already in question and pasteurization and refrigeration may be non-existent, not to mention low enforcement of sanitation and food handling regulations. But food safety in many sit-down restaurants in low-income countries can be risky as well, and sometimes street food cooked hot in front of your eyes is a safer bet.
Our home is in Portland, Oregon, a city renowned for its food carts, with over 500 carts scattered in “pods” around the city. I have eaten at many of them and have never gotten sick once. The food is great…in fact if you look at restaurant rating sites online some of the highest rated restaurants in Portland are actually food carts. The carts are licensed and health-inspected by the city, the same as restaurants, so I’m not surprised that I haven’t gotten sick from them.
In many foreign countries, some of the cheapest and best tasting food available is from street food stalls, and budget travelers who want to eat at low cost can’t really ignore the lure of these places. However, you need to be careful in choosing what you eat and drink, and the establishments themselves, in order to give yourself the best chance of avoiding food and water-borne illnesses. Read my post on that topic here.
So, here is a list of my recommendations for choosing a street food vendor and what types of foods and drinks to select to avoid getting sick.
Choosing the Food Vendor
In general, the things to look for when choosing a street food vendor are:
Popularity and high-food-turnover.
If there are lots of people in line that means the food isn’t sitting around for a long time. That’s always better. Try to visit food stalls at the standard meal times when everyone else is eating and there is a lot more turnover. Eating at stalls earlier in the day is always safer than later because the food has been sitting around for a shorter time.
Locals are eating there.
If there are locals regularly eating at a stall, it probably has good food, but more importantly it probably has a reputation for not making people sick. A lot of tourists eating there doesn’t necessarily tell you much as they could have just arrived and are as clueless as you about the reputation of the stall.
Watch their hands.
If there is one person taking your money as well as cooking or handling the food, that person will have a hard time keeping germs from the money away from the food unless he is taking the money and then sanitizing his hands and\or gloving each time before handling the food (not likely). Look for stalls where the cook just cooks and plates or wraps the food and the person taking orders and money doesn’t touch the food at all. Money is a fantastic medium for transmitting germs. Also, often the person taking the money will be handing you a drink, or condiments, napkins, utensils, etc. without sanitizing after handling someone else’s money. These items should all be considered contaminated at that point. Also look at their hands and general cleanliness of the people working there. If you see dirty hands or hair dangling over the food and not tied back or netted, think twice about eating there.
Watch the food prep.
I prefer to visit stalls where I can watch the cook preparing the meals. Look at the overall cleanliness of the food prep area. Check to see if meat and veggies are chopped on separate cutting boards with separate knives. If not, then germs from the meat are contaminating the veggies. If the veggies are soaked and sanitized beforehand, all that effort is wasted. Same thing if the cook handles meat with his hands and doesn’t wash or sanitize or re-glove when handling veggies next. If everything the cook prepares will be heated sufficiently afterward, this isn’t such a problem, as any germs will get destroyed by the heat of cooking anyway, but if any of the veggies or fruits will be served uncooked, just say no.
How is it served to you?
It’s best if the food is served to you in a disposable wrapper or container which isn’t likely to have been washed or handled much, with disposable utensils, preferably sealed in plastic, but at least not reused. If the food gets touched at any point by persons who have been handling anything unsanitary, beware. Paper wrappers, paper or styrofoam cups and bowls with plastic forks and spoons are good. Reusable dishes and cutlery are bad…avoid.
Choosing Foods and Drinks
As you read through these rules I’m sure you’ll probably start to ask yourself, is there really any street food I can safely eat? Understandably, eating to avoid illness will definitely cut down on your food choices. If you are staying in a place for a longer time, you may be able to learn more about how street vendors prepare their foods and that may reduce your risks enough that you can add some foods that you would normally pass on. But, as they stand, if you follow these rules you will have a very good chance of not getting sick from eating street foods.
- Buy hot cooked foods.The number one rule of street food safety is “hotter is safer”. If you only buy foods that are freshly cooked and served piping hot you will rarely ever have problems getting sick from street food. However, it’s not always easy to determine if “all” your food got hot enough. Take for example a pre-prepared egg roll which is deep fried before serving. The outside is so hot it will burn your mouth, but how hot did the ingredients in the middle get? Maybe not even hot enough to kill any germs inside. Certainly your chances are a lot better with this food choice than with a pre-cooked egg roll sitting in a warming tray which is lukewarm to the touch when you buy it. Foods that are easy to verify have been heated sufficiently are things like skewers of chicken or meat (satay), hamburgers cooked at least medium well done, soups or stews that are served straight from a simmering pot and are too hot to eat right away, drinks prepared with boiling water, etc. You can usually make an educated guess about how hot the food was before it got to you.
Avoid “raw” foods that don’t have a peel.
If it’s a raw fruit or vegetable that doesn’t have a peel (as opposed to skin), don’t eat it. Fruits with peels are bananas, avocados, and citrus fruits. Fruits without peels are apples, pears, berries, grapes, melons, mangos, papayas, etc. Avoid all street foods, juices, smoothies, salads, etc. prepared with these raw foods.
Avoid all dairy products you can’t verify were made from pasteurized milk.
In general that usually means avoiding all dairy product or foods that contain them, since you have no convenient way to verify pasteurization. The least risky dairy products to consume are hard cheeses and butter which usually contain a lot of salt which inhibits growth of bacteria, but even these products can be contaminated, as evidenced by recent cheese recalls in the U.S. for salmonella. Definitely avoid anything with milk, cream, yogurt, soft cheeses, ice cream, etc. unless you can see the package these came out of and verify they are pasteurized and that the products were cold stored prior to use.
Avoid all products that contain eggs that are not fully cooked.
Salmonella is very common in eggs and they must be cooked fully to destroy the germs. If the dish you are eating has eggs, make sure they are not runny or even soft boiled consistency. Avoid also any food products that are made with uncooked eggs, such as mayonnaise, unless you are sure of the source, preferably seeing the mayo taken from a refrigerated jar just prior to use. Mayonnaise dishes are one of the all-time leading causes of food poisoning.
Avoid all uncooked or partially cooked fish, shellfish, poultry, or meat.
Also any products that contain them. No raw oysters, sushi, ceviche (no, the lime doesn’t kill e-coli or salmonella), steak tartare, rare or medium rare steak, etc. Shellfish are particularly prone to carrying harmful bacteria because they can ingest bacteria and certain types of toxins when they feed. It’s not a bad idea to go easy on eating shellfish in general when you travel. If you are eating any of these products, they should be fully cooked. Well done is best, but certainly no more rare than medium well done. Pink meat from street vendors is not your friend.
Soups and stews are usually a great choice
But only if they are simmering in a pot and served piping hot. If they are lukewarm when you get them, not so good. The major risk here is the container the meal is served in. If it’s a reusable bowl with metal utensils which are returned and washed between customers, it suddenly goes back into the dangerous list.
- Baked goods are generally safe.Breads, cakes, pies, cookies, etc. are typically baked at 350°F for long periods of time, more than hot enough to kill any bacteria, even if these products contain dairy or eggs. However, if they contain substantial eggs or dairy, such as cheesecake or cream cheese toppings, they should be refrigerated after baking.
Nuts are generally safe.
Although there have been a few outbreaks of e-coli and salmonella in nuts in the U.S. in recent years, this has been attributed from the nuts falling to the ground and being contaminated there and then the contamination being transferred from the shells of the nuts to the nut meat during processing. However this type of contamination is fairly rare and is probably not worth being concerned about.
Avoid pre-prepared foods not stored properly
This means any pre-prepared foods that have been sitting around in temperatures between 40-140°F. This is the temperature range where bacteria can thrive and multiply on food. Once food is prepared it should be eaten quickly and not left to sit around. At higher the temperatures, say above 80-90°F a significant amount of bacteria can grow on food in only an hour. You look into a food stall and see trays of deep fried potatoes, barbecued chicken, and pork ribs and they look fresh and delicious, but, before you decide to dive in, take a moment to consider how long they may have been sitting there. If the trays aren’t heated, they are probably mostly at the same temperature as the ambient air, and if they are uncovered they have been exposed to all sorts of bacteria from the air. Street food vendors rarely have the ability to store much refrigerated food or keep food warming at 140°F in trays, so if the food isn’t prepared just before you eat it, you should give it a pass, even though it may look very appetizing.
Other things you can do to help yourself stay healthy
You can help reduce exposure to harmful germs by carrying a few things with you in your daily excursions.
- hand sanitizer (use this liberally, especially before eating)
- handiwipes\ disinfectant wipes (can be used to wipe down items that could be contaminated)
- your own eating utensils (a spork is a good choice)
- water bottle
- light plastic mug with lid
If you get into the habit of carrying a water bottle filled with water that you trust you can avoid having to purchase questionable liquids when you are out. Carrying your own cup and eating utensil(s) allows you to control the sanitation of those items and not have to use a possibly contaminated drinking cup or fork. You can have coffee or tea poured directly into your cup when you buy it rather than use one of their reusable cups.