When I go travelling, even for a short time, it is always rewarding to get the measure of a country's food heritage. As the late, great Keith Floyd once said (a quote which I think is an important truth of the human condition): 'To know a country, one must eat a country'. Now, obviously, he didn't mean REALLY eating a WHOLE COUNTRY; what he meant is their cuisine. If I interpreted him rightly, I think he was saying was to know the heart and soul of a people, their food is a pretty good indicator of their culture, history and shared experience. Now, people are not always themselves in a formal surrounding, so a posh restaurant won't be real reflection of the place. And in some countries, the indigenous simply can't afford the pleasure of eating in a restaurant. Hence, what better place for them to eat and be themselves than on the street? Street food, just like street photography (the capture of images of people unsuspectingly about their daily business), is often a telling statement about the place it is consumed in.
Many people tell me that they are scared of trying street food. If you live in London and all you have to go on is grubby hot dog stands and dodgy (but strangely alluring) late night kebab vans, I can see your concern. However, as you travel further afield, street food is often the best you can get, both as a culinary experience and as a cultural statement about the place you are visiting. I can vividly remember eating 'fish-bread' (tasty rolls of freshly grilled fish) in Istanbul (from the fish-bread men of Eminonu). In India I have partaken of delicious bhajis and pakoras. In Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore, I have tasted some of the best food I have ever eaten at street food stalls; and that compares with some of the best restaurants London has to offer.
|Possibly the best Satay in the world, Jalan Petalling, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia|
So my advice when it comes to street food is GO FOR IT! But just mind a few basic rules.
Check the stall you are visiting out THOROUGHLY. There are a few things you should look out for. If you can see them prepare the food, then you will be able to see how clean everything is. Don't simply rely on cleanliness. You should also check how well stored the food is: cold items should be kept refrigerated or on ice, hot items should be kept hot. Raw and cooked foods should be stored separately. In Malaysia, I saw street stalls wash down their surfaces regularly with steaming hot water; this is a good sign, as the heated water will kill any germs. Food left sitting in the sun is best avoided, unless a hot dish kept piping hot (see below).
Any food cooked over 60°C will be safe. 60°C is a temperature which is the borderline of getting burnt; about the same temperature as hot candle wax. The temperature that germs and nasties are killed at. So if you cannot touch the pot the food is in without worrying about getting burnt, the food is hot enough. Anything piping hot (so hot there is steam coming off it) will be safe. Avoid any cooked food which is not piping hot. Curry which has been pre-cooked is fine as long as it is hot enough that germs cannot grow in it.
Wok food will generally not make you ill. In south east Asia the wok-cooked food is cooked over extremely fierce gas burners which gets the wok so hot it smokes. This is much hotter than any domestic UK gas burner and will ensure the food is raised to a temperature that no nasties can survive.
A queue is a good thing! I realise we, particularly in big cities, want instant gratification. Therefore we are much more likely to visit a stall with no queue. However, this is not the best logic where street food is concerned. Especially when you are not familiar with the place or quality of the food. A place frequented by locals is a place to be trusted. After all, if they got ill (and there is much likelihood of it happening where hygiene is poor), they won't return to the same place twice and will advise their friends accordingly. So if the place is deserted, on the one hand, they may just be unlucky and on the other, may just have poor standards.
Guide books like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide used to warn you to shy completely away from all ice. These days that advice is a little extreme. And if you happen to be somewhere hot and humid, it is pretty punishing too! So my advice is, when checking out a stall, check out the ice situation. Mass produced ice cubes are much more likely to be safe and can be recognised by their factory consistent shape. These will tend to be made of purified water in factories. However, crushed ice could be made at home from local water and is best avoided.
A smaller choice is generally a safer choice. If a street food stalls sell few dishes, then the chances are they will have a quick turn over. If the turnover is fast then you can be quite sure they are using fresh ingredients and cooking fresh on the spot. The more dishes on offer, the greater the likelihood they have been left hanging around. If so, provided they are kept hot/cold (as appropriate – see above) you should be fine.
There is a theory that having had pro-biotic cultures before you travel can help. In other words, the 'friendly bacteria' in products like Actimel and Yakult can offer protection. It is possible, but I'm not testing this one out: rather you than me!
Don't be too paranoid! I've never gotten ill on my travels from street food. My most violent illnesses were from a restaurant which unbeknownst to me had its kitchen right next to the toilets (in Kerala) and a hippy bar with unclean glasses (in Malaysia). This accords with anecdotal evidence from many of my friends, many of whom were ill from meals from 4 and 5 star hotel restaurants. After all, their kitchens you cannot see, whilst a street stall's kitchen is transparently on display.
Beware the water. Free water will often be proferred with a meal, and is a kind gesture. However, if the water comes from the tap, it may make you unwell. On the other hand, it may be boiled or filtered water. Unless you can see the source, then do not drink it (although you may out of politeness not wish to refuse it). In Thailand, I saw hygienic chilled water filters where the customer could help themselves – a safe option, which may not always be available. Where you doubt the water, stick to bottled. Although if you saw 'Slumdog Millionaire', you will be aware that sometimes bottled water is not what it appears to be. Check you have an unopened bottle with seal attached. Many manufacturers are wise to the scam and make a cellophane cover over the seal which you have to turn to tear.
Think about ancient ethnic wisdom. The dishes which include turmeric, chili, ginger etc did so not just for flavour, but from a science which at the time was not capable of verification. It in fact turns out that ginger is anti-microbial and antiseptic which can kill germs such as salmonella. Chili stimulates the immune system and is thought to have anti-bacterial properties. Turmeric is both anti-bacterial and antiseptic (which is why it is rubbed onto cuts in India), keeping germs away from your food. Dishes including these ingredients are highly likely to be safer than those which do not.
If you get ill, please bear in mind the following:
- Sometimes it is the sheer amount of spice that may trouble your stomach not the food.
- It is dehydration which will do you harm more than the vomiting/diarrhoea. Keep drinking clean bottled/filtered water, checking your urine colour remains light. If orange or brown, you are severely dehydrated.
- When unwell, eat very simply prepared foods. Nothing spicy, or too fatty.
- Always pack some anti-diarrhoea medicine (such as loperamide) and fluid replacement salts (such as dioralyte). When illness strikes, you may feel too unwell or weak to make your way to a pharmacy.
- You won't thank me for this, but please check your sick and your poop. Check there is no blood in either. Check that your poop doesn't become jelly-like or greenish in nature – this may be a sign of infection. Look for any other radical abnormalities and see a doctor or pharmacist when you notice them.
- If your symptoms persist for more than 2-3 days, see a doctor or pharmacist, since you may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.