There is nothing quite like sitting on a little plastic stool by the side of a bustling road, aromas of cooking food filling the evening air, immersed in a cacophony of beautifully chaotic sounds that play in an uncoordinated orchestra all around you. Such is the experience of street eating, particularly in Asia. While many shudder at the very thought, (more from lack of knowledge than experience) eating dinner on the street can be one of the most rewarding travelling experiences. If you know your stuff!
That's where I'm here to help. I have compiled a list of top tips to finding and enjoying the best street dishes, whilst resting assured that you will live to travel another day.
1. Give it a Go
Perhaps this seems obvious, but there is usually an element of squeamish do-I-really-want-to-do-this in even just setting out to find a place to eat on the street. We are always taught to fear that what we do not know, which while useful in many situations, can be overcome in this particular one. I can say from personal experience that I have encountered these moments too: faced with a small steaming stall, displaying a number of unidentifiable food items, the first thought rushing through the brain to turn back and search for something 'easier' to digest. But once over this hurdle, you have the opportunity to try new flavours, and sometimes, the best grub you've ever tasted!
2. Busy is Best
Any place that is ram packed with people, particularly locals, even better women and children, is bound to have good food – and even if it's not the best meal of your life, you can be sure it’s not going to end with you spending the night hugging the toilet. (Tips on how to avoid this particular sticky situation later on). My boyfriend and I have stuck to this rule the entire duration of our eight months travelling Asia, and not only have our ventures yet to finish vomit-style, it has given us the chance to try dishes we didn't even know the names of. (Until you fall in love with Indonesian peanut Gado gado and end up doing after-meal homework). Besides the pertinent safety perks, locals of any given country normally know how to find the most delectable dishes. So if it's busy, it's best...
3. Get it while it's HOT!
One way to be absolutely certain it is all A-OK is to eat at a place where the food is cooked fresh in front of you and served piping hot. (If you're still unsure, stick a finger in there). Some of the most delicious street food I have ever had, from India to Thailand, has been thrown into a sizzling pan and fried before me. That is not to say cold is conclusively bad; only the other day I feasted on a rather chilly but nonetheless delectable rice dish with battered fish and tofu. But if you're hesitant, or at the beginning of this new food journey, stick to food that is cooked on the spot, and savour that face-dripping noodle soup! Far more flavoursome in my experience than many restaurants, plus, who can say no to a one dollar dinner?
4. Know What Not to Eat
A night on the toilet in either direction, while survivable, is rather unpleasant, to say the least. Luckily, chances of this can be greatly diminished by a little knowledge about what to avoid when exploring street food. First things first: ice. (Tap water should be a given). There are times when the thought of a delicious, ice-filled cold drink to wash down your meal, is almost impossible to refuse. Particularly as many places set this down in front of you for free. But, just as I would recommend avoiding tap water, don't accept ice cubes in your drinks, either. Stick to cans and bottled drinks for a sociable stomach.
Secondly, uncooked vegetables and skinless fruit. While salad is not a sure thing to make you ill, cautious street eating points to avoiding any veg that has not been cooked first. This is particularly so if your stomach has not yet been weathered by months of Asian food, or the odd hangover-driven gulps of tap water from the sink. The same rule applies generally to fruit, although this time concerning skin not heat. It is best to only consume fruit from street stalls with skin that is either still intact or is peeled and cut directly in front of you. This eliminates the chance of eating fruit that has been sitting on the stall open to the world of bacteria for an unknown length of time. Even if there is a stack of, say, pineapple, waiting ready on the cart, you can always request a freshly cut one.
TOP TIP: Invest in a filtered water bottle before you go. My Water-to-Go bottle proved an absolute lifesaver during my recent trip to India. Save yourself money on endless new bottles, and help to save the planet by contributing a little less to the plastic ridden environment. There are many options to choose from, but as I am away for an extended period, I bought the filtered bottle below from Blacks, which offers 99.9% filtration and includes a filter that lasts 3 months. https://www.blacks.co.uk/equipment/130815-water-to-go-filtered-water-bottle-black.html
I personally tend to forgo meat, though not as an unwavering rule, and not because it’s all bad! This is largely due to preference and a conscious effort to reduce my meat intake wherever I can, be that restaurants or street food markets. Whatever your inclination, it is good to know that there are usually alternatives to meat at road-side stalls. Places differ on their vegetarian options, from a wide range of colourful dishes in India to slightly more limited options in some countries of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, tofu has been my saviour. In Cambodia, it was stirfry noodles. But even if there is not a specific veggie option, you can always ask for a non-meat noodle broth or a rice dish with everything except the meat topping. With meat, the same staples of this article apply: check out where the meat is kept, if the place is popular, and, most importantly, ensure the meat is cooked while you’re there and has not been left sitting out.
I hope I have helped to dispel some myths surrounding street eating, and perhaps inspired you to go out and try something new, with the confidence that you possess the most salient facts to keep you and your stomach safe.
One of the reasons I cherish street eating during my travels is that it is more than simply a meal. Not only do you get the chance to try new cuisine, but it provides a tiny window into the real life and people of the country you are in. The joy of food is something we can all connect over and share together. And one of the simplest ways to begin to really engage with the culture you are in, is to sit with the locals, and watch and enjoy the activity of the street as they do, whilst savouring the same food.