Tasting the local cuisine of a city is absolutely essential to understanding that city’s identity, past and present. In most cities you will find restaurants that offer some typical foods, though if they’re aimed at tourists you can expect to find higher-than-normal prices and watered-down flavors. Short of accepting an invitation to dine at a local’s house, your best bet for local cuisine will often be on the street.
The street is where a city’s history collides with the modern day, where old traditions exist alongside such newfangled developments as designer stores and street food palaces. It’s where the poor mingle with the well-off over a light lunch, where tourists can interact with locals of all stripes–and often score the best food at dirt-cheap prices.
Meaningful, delicious, authentic street eats are not only found in big foreign cities with famous food cultures, like Bangkok and Mexico City: Even in a city like New York, the simple act of buying a hot dog on the street links you with a century’s worth of New Yorkers who have done the same. But it’s in those other cities where street food poses the bigger perceived risk, and where tourists are more likely to shy away from the street altogether for fear of getting sick. By heeding the following advice, you can drastically decrease your chances of falling ill from eating well on the street (or anywhere else, for that matter).
1. Check that your vaccinations are up-to-date before traveling, especially to developing countries. Hepatitis A, for example, can be transmitted through contaminated food or water; the full vaccine (two shots) protects you for at least 10 years.
2. Never drink the tap water, including ice. In some countries, even your average tourist restaurant may not be filtering water to make ice, so always ask, or play it safe and avoid ice altogether. If you can, bring your own water bottle from home, as many hotels offer filtered water for fill-ups–that way you’ll save money and decrease plastic waste.
3. Choose established venues, or eat where lots of locals are eating–and try to visit during peak times of the day. Use websites, guidebooks, and blogs to research what street vendors have been around for a long time, are consistently visited by non-locals without issue, and are generally popular. When in doubt, follow the local crowds, as they’re only going to eat where the food is good and fresh–where there are lots of customers, there will be lots of turnover behind the scenes. For the same reason, avoid street stands at odd hours when it’s more likely the food has been sitting out for too long.
4. Avoid raw, unpeeled fruits and vegetables. If it has a thick skin, however–like bananas, mangoes, cucumbers-or if you can wash it off with your own filtered water (say, an apple), it’s fine to eat. You can do without cold salads on your trip, but don’t forgo all healthy fruits and veggies–you may end up upsetting your stomach if you limit yourself to meats and carbs! And remember: Cooked vegetables are generally just fine. Strive for a somewhat balanced diet.
5. Always wash your hands before eating. The importance of this cannot be understated. On the street you likely won’t find a sink and soap, so always carry antibacterial hand gel with you.
6. Be prepared. Take care to travel with a good first-aid kit that includes, among other items, oral rehydration salts, antacids, and antidiarrheals. But don’t reach for the latter at the first sign of a problem–often a bad stomach bout only requires time, rest, bland foods, and lots of fluids. It also pays to research what local food to ask for if you do fall ill, as the local remedy is often both tastier and more effective than plain toast and chicken broth! Depending on where you’re going, you may want to ask your doctor about traveling with a dose of antibiotics (and instructions on when to take them) just in case.
The most memorable and delicious travel experiences often come at the hand of a street-food vendor. Don’t let fear prevent you from digging in–the responsible way.