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Apr 26, 2005 10:24 AM

Latest issue of Gourmet mag - How do they do it??

  • c

So far, I've thoroughly enjoyed the new issue of Gourmet, which focuses on street food around the world. Some of the articles are better than others (I'm sure the city of Bangkok has much more to offer than just a discussion of sanitary food carts), but overall, a very nice read.

My question is do they eat street food in Mexico, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and the like and *not* get God-awful sick?? I work with a woman who grew up in Mexico and she won't eat from street vendors there when she visits for fear of getting ill.

Is there some magic potion available only to food journalists to allow them to sample all this great food without annhialating their GI tracts? I remember watching the Two Hot Tamales (remember them?), eating string cheese made fresh on a Mexican farm in a giant vat of water. I got cramps just watching it!

Any ideas on this phenomonon? I've always thought that the best of any destination isn't found in its white tablecloth restaurants, but in the more rustic, native offerings.


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  1. While there is serious stuff out there (e. coli, salmonella, even cholera) a lot of the milder reactions have to do with what you already have in your gut. One problem with the refined and pastuerized foods diet that we (as Americans) have grown up with is that we don't have the live cultures working in us that humans have had for eons, and that other cultures still do. Montezuma may have his revenge on the gringo visitors, but the locals don't have that problem, and they're eating the same stuff. If you start eating the right foods, you too, will eventually become inured.

    There are rules to follow. I was stationed in an area of Turkey that wasn't so picky about separating the sewage from their drinking source, and hence, cholera ran rampant - but while many of us simply stayed away from the natives, I charged through all the markets and neighborhoods, and just stayed away from raw foods and unboiled water. I had the excellent local tea, the incredible sourdough breads, and the fully cooked meats. I never had a problem.

    1. there is street food, and there is street food....I've lived in Mexico, and ate *lots* of street food, and the only time I ever got ill was when I had some bad chicken in a definitely non-street place (all of the Mexicans I was with that ate the chicken got equally ill). I certainly never got ill from the quesadillas we'd get every Friday from the quesadilla lady who griddled them on a small hibachi/griddle on the sidewalk down the street from my house..

      nor did I get ill on a recent trip to the Middle East (Jordan) where I had plenty of falafels and some fried fish from street vendors...

      Street food won't necessarily make you any more sick than what you buy in a restaurant. Your friend from Mexico is way uneccesarily paranoid, and not using common sense. The answer is not to unilaterally avoid certain types of eateries, but rather to pick your eateries and foods carefully. First of all, does the stand/cart look clean? Watch how they make the food: are they keeping cold foods cold? Hot foods hot? Do they cook the food in front of you? What in the world could make you sick about a quesadilla cooked right in front of you that a quesadilla made in a restaurant and allowed to sit around wouldn't?

      Secondly, watch what types of foods you eat. I am leary about eating any type of undercooked chicken ever since that once experience (though I ate roast chickens a lot in Jordan, where I could see them cooking in front of me, never had a problem). I'd also be extremely leary of juices or drinks not squeezed right in front of me (because they might be diluted with bad water), anything with ice in it, or vegetables that have been washed in bad other words, tempting though it might be, skip the horchata and get a beer or a jarritos (Mexican soda) or even a bottle of coke, instead.

      and all that said, as another poster has pointed out, you may still get a touch of "Montezuma's revenge" just from eating unfamiliar bacteria/foods. It shouldn't be confused with true food poisoning or food-borne illness...Indeed, on the trip to the Middle East I mentioned, I never had any problem in Jordan, but did get a touch of 'tourista' in Amsterdam on my layover on the way over. Got it out of my system there I guess, so to speak. Go figure.

      1 Reply
      1. re: susancinsf

        When traveling I follow some simple rules.

        Always drink bottled water or something that has been boiled (cofee, tea) or soda.

        Whatever you eat, make sure it has been completely cooked. So if yo eat "street food" make sure it is something that has been well heated.

        Don't eat salads or raw vegs. that may have been rinsed in the local water.

        If I follow those rules, I've never had any problem.

      2. Not all street stands and vendors are created equal. Some are much safer than others. the writers or researchers who did the Gourmet articles may have had local guides who steered them to the safer options.

        You can do a lot yourself to avoid unpleasant side effects. If it's raw and unpeeled, pass. Cooked items should be well cooked. Is the stand neat and tidy (or as neat and tidy as possible given the circumstances) or does it look like a bomb exploded in it? The stand should be orderly, food covered if it needs to be. What do the people look like handling the food? While it's not a 100% guarantee, if the person handling the food appears to have pretty good personal hygeine - i.e. clean cloths, clean hands, hair combed, that kind of thing - they're probably taking better care of what they serve. The premise is that if they care enough to take care of themselves, they're going to care enough to take care of the food they serve to others. Your eyes will tell you a lot.

        This past October I had the opportunity to visit a sausage maker in the village of Teotitlan del Valle to observe him making sausage and chicarrones. The first thing that was clearly apparent *was* the attention paid to sanitation. His production area was pristine, as clean or cleaner than some butcher shops I've seen in the U.S. All his pork was received fresh, refrigerated properly and handled properly both during and after the sausage making process. We commented about his high level of sanitation and his response was that it had to be because if anyone got sick from eating his products - 1) he'd be out of business and 2) it would bring shame to him and his family, so his reputation as a good businessman was at stake. I've found this attitude all over Mexico to one degree or another.

        What's in your gut also plays an important part of whether or not you're apt to have problem tolerating street food. There are literally hundereds of varieties of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal distress. I travel frequently in Mexico and about a month before I leave I up my intake of yogurt made from live culture or containing live bacteria. You can also take large doses of oral lactobacillius or acidophilus (sp?). The yogurt in Mexico is excellent, so I try to have it for breakfast several times a week. Barring that, I can buy Lactovita in any pharmacy, which is the Mexican version of lactobacillius.

        And if all else fails, remember that one of the functions of lime juice is to kill bacteria, so be generous with those squeezes of lime.

        1. Most street foods in Asia, at least, are thoroughly cooked, and if the vendor is popular there is a high turnover so there's virtually no holding time. Unlike the taco trucks in the US, street vendors in Asia generally have very limited facilitites and space and cook in plain sight.

          I've always stuck with the stuff that's just off the griddle or out of a steaming cauldron, and have never had any problems. I think you're much more likely to get food poisoning at a restaurant than from street fare in a lot of countries.


          1. 'I remember watching the Two Hot Tamales (remember them?), eating string cheese made fresh on a Mexican farm in a giant vat of water. I got cramps just watching it!'


            To each her own b/c that sounds great to me! I believe I even caught that episode. Would much rather have fresh from a farm (and risk my GI tract) than old from a factory that has been molded into an unnatural shape, has the texture of rubber, and loaded w/ chemicals that you can't pronounce--now THAT gives me indigestion...and does insidious, long-term damage to one's body IMO.

            Don't get me wrong, I think it's good to be smart and have some caution, but I think that Americans (in general) have a squeamishness about trying food that doesn't look pristinely clean, shiny (from wax), uniform, and as unrecognizable as possible from its natural source (eg, cooked, deboned, deheaded, and cut up).

            As far as street food abroad, 4 of us who travelled to Vietnam about 2 yrs. ago subsisted on 75% street food during our 18 day stay. Most things were cooked, but we all ate the fresh greens and herbs that often come as condiments. We had our stash of GI pills and antibiotics should we hit a rough patch, but didn't need to use anything once! Not even a stomach ache. My parents grew up there so may have developed some antibodies that helped, but I came to the US when I was very young and my husband had never been to Vietnam (and he is notorious for getting ill from food when he has visited parts of Asia and Mexico). A life w/o street food is no life at all...

            BTW, thanks for the tip about the Gourmet issue. Sounds like they've been churning out good stuff the past few months.

            10 Replies
            1. re: Carb Lover

              btw, though I've admittedly only had time to skim it, I wasn't that impressed with the Gourmet article: was fairly glossy, nothing in depth, not sure how much practical information it really has...

              1. re: susancinsf

                I wasn't impressed with the issue at all. I found it to be a big waste of paper. My friend who also has a subscription and gets her MIL's issues too walked in yesterday and saw my issue sitting on the counter. She said "didn't you find that issue worthless? I't is doubly worthless to me because I get 2 subscriptions!" The articles truly were not that entertaining and there was way too much "special advertising".

                1. re: Candy

                  Agree with the "special advertising". Way, way, way too much.

                  As you can tell from my original post, I did enjoy the first part of the issue. I was disappointed, however, in the recipes that followed. I may make one or two dishes, but not much more.

                  1. re: Christina D

                    Yeah, I was pretty underwhelmed.

              2. re: Carb Lover

                I would bet that Christina means it would be scary not because it's rustic, but because she's worried specifically about the water. Water in Mexico very commonly makes Americans sick, because they haven't built a tolerance to whatever is in it.

                I know I spent some of my honeymoon in bed, not for the right reason, and prior to that had considered myself to have an iron-clad stomach.

                1. re: danna

                  Oh, good point. I probably wasn't sensitive to that b/c I sadly and shamefully haven't been to Mexico (except TJ). I do always hear warnings about the water...

                  To the OP: to be clear, my initial comments weren't personal to you, more about Americans in general.

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    Thanks, Carb. Understood.

                    No harm done.

                  2. re: danna

                    Thanks, Danna. That's exactly what I meant.

                    Believe me, I would much rather have fresh, rustic food than pre-packaged yuck. I would just like to be able to function afterwards, that's all.

                    1. re: Christina D

                      yes, you definitely do *not* want to drink tap water in certain countries, including Mexico. I won't even brush my teeth in it.

                      That said, as many of the posters have pointed out, that really has nothing to do with street food, per se. You have no guarentee that the water is good even in top restaurants, and I only drink it in Mexico if I personally pour it out of the bottle! In that regard, I don't trust hotels that say their water is bottled or filtered...maybe it is, maybe it isn't, not worth the risk of false advertising.

                      So, as I said in my other post, avoid ice, avoid vegetables that could have been washed in tap water, avoid drinks made with tap water, but don't miss out on well prepared street food!

                      1. re: susancinsf

                        I was so careful on my trip. No ice, all my drinks from a bottle, only cooked food. Sounds tough, but really, having beer and lobster wasn't that much of a sacrifice.

                        Then, like a fool, I forgot that the food on the plane home was loaded in Mexico. We both ate salad, and I believe that's what did it. The next morning I had to call in to work and extend my "honeymoon" for another couple of days.