Eating local will broaden your cultural understanding, delight your palate and save your budget. When you step away from the tourist establishments, you can enjoy (as we have) an eating adventure in the world of street food where smokey, salty, hot, pungent and sweet hit you all at once. What sixth sense will you need to navigate your way around the street vendors?
We often receive questions about the safety of eating street food. It’s an understandable question. After all, no one wants to get sick while traveling. In our seven years of full time travel (and eating on the road) I have experienced two painful bouts of food poisoning. Both were from American chain restaurants abroad. However, we have enjoyed countless meals, enjoyed drinks in lots of good company, shared laughter and saved our budget by going local. You can do the same.
Here are a few “sensible” street food tips we have learned along the way.
Keep an ear to the ground: Ask the locals. They often know what is good. Neighborhood pride helps bring the best suggestions forward. Also, remember Lemming’s Law for street vendors–if a good bunch of locals are happily waiting at a vendor, they all lived to return for seconds.
The eyes have it: Always choose food from vendors who appear clean. For example, we like to find vendors that exercise care handling money while serving food. In Mexico, many vendors don a bag on their change-giving hand. Look for generally good sanitation practices.
If you can watch the cook/vendor as he sears, boils, or grills, it’s likely to be a great option. (Some baked goods and meatless dishes are an exception to this). In contrast, refer to our comments on buffets below.
The nose knows: If the food is hot enough to smell good from a distance, it’s probably hot enough to kill anything that would have killed you. Seriously, good food should smell good. Then again, with an open mind, you can also let local aficionados teach you what smells good to them. We are often guided by our noses and have stopped to eat food many times for no other reason than the amazing smells. Our nose has never let us down. Do be sure, not to keep it up so high you miss something delicious. It’s always fun to try new foods.
Go ahead, take a taste: Why does the homesick Mexican search for handmade tortillas? Why does the Australian dance when he finds Vegemite? Why does the Indian businessman secret a bag of curry in his briefcase? Can a billion Chinese be wrong about rice? Answer–something is absolutely delicious to someone somewhere. One of the great privileges of travel is learning what someone else finds delicious.
Chances are, you will probably start agreeing with them.
Just last night, we all enjoyed gently spicy chicken breast grilled to perfection, covered in cheese melting in the soft, hot tortillas made by hand. We were served large bowls of hot beans, fresh salsa, grilled onions, and delicious lightly-sweetened oatmeal drinks garnished with nutmeg and cinnamon bark. Including the tip, we paid a total of ten dollars. We left happy, bellies full and brought home leftovers.
(1) Hot foods hot, cold foods cold No one likes it from the pot, nine days old. Therefore, we tend to avoid buffets. Buffet offerings may have been sitting a long time; we choose to eat food prepared in our sight.
(2) When eating local: If safety is a concern, forgo lettuce and unpeeled fruits and vegetables.
(3) Drink the water: In Central America, purified water is used by almost everyone. If in doubt, ask. In some parts of the world, if you are not traveling with your own purified water, it’s a safer option to choose a bottled, safety-sealed beverage.
(4) On the rocks: Learn the local way to ask for beverages without ice, particularly if you are in areas not normally frequented by ice-loving norteamericanos.
Without a doubt, some of the most delicious–and certainly the most economical–food on the road will be found with food vendors and small mom and pop shops. Don’t miss out.
What did we miss? Leave us a comment.