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Street Food: Eat at Your Own Risk?

Last year I was fortunate enough to take two extended self-guided food tours, one to China and Taipei, one through Southeast Asia, with a particularly focus on food in less formal settings — in food courts, at night markets, from streetside counters, from traveling vendors. (You can see pictures, by city, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/eatingin...

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Outside of Singapore, which posts eight-inch-tall lettered grades from A to D, I don't know much about the health inspections for vendors in these countries. When deciding where to eat, I relied on my eyes, my nose, and, when available and intelligible, on word of mouth. I did visit a travel medicine specialist beforehand and described my intentions in detail; in addition to vaccinations for hepatitis B and typhoid, I received a preseciption for an oral antibiotic, just in case something seriously disagreed with me. During eleven weeks of travel, I had occasion to use it just once; my stomach was less seriously upset three other times.

This year I'm traveling mainly by Metrocard and foot throughout Manhattan, the outer boroughs, and enrivons, and I'm still on the prowl (though with much less to show) for street food and the like. Recently I bought an item from a vendor who almost certainly was not fully licensed; later I witnessed that vendor being written up by the police for certain violations. (The details, I don't know; the food was fine, and so was I.)

My question for chowhounds: Whether you're traveling abroad or simply exploring your own neighborhood, how comfortable are you with street food? Would you always want to be assured that the vendor had been vetted by the local health authorities, or are you willing, in part, to judge for yourself?

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  1. Life is a gamble. You cook at your own risk and you eat at your own risk. Let your nose and eyes be your guide. The popularity of a given food stand is generally a reliable guide.

    1. I like Hallo Berlin on W. 55th by 5th Ave and a lot of the vendors in Chinatown. The rest of the vendors with the Sabretts/shishishkebab and Halal stuff, most of it looks pretty rancid. I will go with the Halal carts if the meat doesn't look dry and aged, but I haven't seen to many of those. If I want a Sabrett I usally find a Gray's Papaya hot dog stand. I will say this, everytime I've gotten sick after eating a meal it's always been from a restaurant and not a food stand.

      1. Nice photos...I've enjoyed street food throughout Southeast Asia, China, etc for many years now and those are some of my best memories of those travel experiences- Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia in particular. In Thailand, you can go into a bar or club, spend an hour, come out and suddenly there's a noodle soup stand where previously there was nothing. I'd get a kick out of thinking that some prudish individual might be hunting around for a health inspection notice maybe taped on the back of a plastic chair or something....

        The only thing I ever brought along when I traveled was a powerful Japanese stomach medicine, which I used after a few restaurant experiences, but never from street food. I say, judge for yourself. You can just as easily get sick in an establishment.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Silverjay

          Wow, awesome photos. Seems like you had a great time!

          1. re: Rick

            davecook, the way i see it, if the locals are eating it and not dying instantly, then it should be ok. as with asian countries, many people are poor and have no choice but to make something we feel gross, taste good. but then again, there is no kaiser permanente out in mainland china. it's your stomach vs. the whole country. i would pack some pills... i use this one chinese pill called Po Chai Pills which are small brown beads packed into a capsule. if i know i'm going to eat something rocky, i'll down one of these with water. these are herbal supplements and have always made me feel better. (i have a rough time eating a lot of spicy korean food so i'll take one b4 hand). when i was in taiwan, i drank snake blood/venom/bile but they provided us with some pills to prepare the stomach. i felt fine afterwards.

            http://photos1.blogger.com/x/blogger/...

            1. re: eatdrinknbmerry

              As a little girl, when we children got sick, stomach type sick, this is what the parents and grandparents would make us take. Bleh! Make sure to swallow and not taste the little beads. They use to come in a small vial and I would have to swallow it with water. It was good stuff, but I hated the taste. Again, bleh!

              1. re: eatdrinknbmerry

                and one would drink blood/venom/bile - WHY?

          2. I love street food and will most likely get it throughout the world. In fact, I've frightened my in-laws by stopping at taco carts in Mexico shortly after finishing dinner in a restaurant. I just can't restrain myself.

            Cops in New York typically write up vendors for minor infractions, such as too close/far away from the curb, not displaying a license prominently, etc, not health code violations. Just use your nose and eyes. Also, highly trafficked carts will have fresher food. In Manhattan you can look at www.midtownlunch.com they have a pretty good source of street carts. Also, a week or two ago in www.nymag.com was a whole spread of NYC (manhattan and outer borough) street food.

            1. When I was in Honduras, a mom and daugther were selling "empanda" style street food which they prepared on a little grill and kept warm in a large pot. It was inexpensive and delicious...and I could tell they were proud of their product. No problem!

              1. During a recent trip to India my husband and I ate a lot of street food and never once got sick during a month of travel there. The only time our stomachs felt a little funny was after eating Western food at a 5 Star Hotel.
                Not only did we not get sick, but we ate some of the most memorable meals of our lives from street vendors.
                By the way, we took Acidophilus Pills before and during our trip to help strengthen our stomachs. We also consumed a lot of yogurt, so perhaps these measures helped as well.

                1. When people get sick from other countries' street food, isn't it more because of the water and foreign germs, etc than from unsanitary conditions? A native Taiwanese person may have no problem eating snacks from vendors on the street, but if I were to go to the same cart, I may get sick just because I'm not used to the same germs, right?

                  I'm going to Istanbul in a few weeks and I plan to sample all the street food I can, but am a little wary of spending my whole vacation cooped up on the toilet. What are these magical Japanese pills you speak of?

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: janethepain

                    There is an herbal concoction called Seirogan (Chinese) that you can get at almost any larger Korean, Chinese, or Japanese market that also carry herbal supplements. It has creosote in it so the strong odor may be off putting, but it has many reputed effects such as quieting indigestion, controlling many types of intestinal discomfort/ailments, etc. Japan also has their own version but I don't remember the name.
                    While I never had any problems with the street food in Korea or the Philippines, Seirogan has come in handy here in the states.

                    1. re: hannaone

                      Yes, it is called Seirogan in Japan as well. That's what I was referring to above. Yeah, it's Chinese in origin.

                    2. re: janethepain

                      The first time I visited the Philippines (where my wife is from), I got horribly sick after eating some fresh salad. For my next (and all subsequent) visits, I brought along Immodium, which is available over the counter in Canada. If I got the runs, two pills would normally have me in fine shape in three to four hours. I'm still somewhat careful about what I eat, but I haven't had any major problems in the last four visits.

                      1. re: janethepain

                        Turkish street food is pretty safe, I think. We spent 3 weeks there and never had one bad experience - we ate everything. But of course you'll want to use common sense. The doner kebabs should be fully cooked, not standing around at room temp or looking dried out. The gozelme are usually cooked on the spot so no concerns there. The fish sandwiches on the Galata bridge, however, might be a bit dodgy. Make sure you're getting freshly cooked fish - sometimes they pre-cook the fillets and then just rewarm them when you buy. Kebab shops will often have the meat sitting out in the window - I would make sure the case is refrigerated before eating there. Seriously, just be sensible and you'll be fine.

                        As for the Po Chai pills, years ago I was starting to feel a bit queasy and a friend gave me the pills in an effort to ward off anything worse. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be a simple upset stomach and I got horribly horribly sick. I will never (never!) forget the taste of those damn pills when I revisited them several hours after I took them. Even the mention of the name give me the shivers now.

                        1. re: Nyleve

                          What about Turkish fruit? If they're washed in Turkish water, will I get sick? I really hope not! I doubt they'd serve meat that would make people sick, I'm sure everyone would get food poisoning, Turks included. Thanks!

                          1. re: janethepain

                            The tap water in Turkey is not universally bad, unlike many other countries. We drank bottled water but ate fruit washed under the tap. If you're worried, go ahead and rinse with bottled water, though. Like I said, we ate everything everywhere.

                      2. Nice pictures and good ideas.

                        US licenced street vendors: No more concern than any brick and morter restaurant

                        US illegal street vendors: Cooked foods no problem *. Raw and uncooked foods I check closer. *Even for cooked foods, all the same rules apply. I'm not eating from someone who looks marginal and has no business.

                        International street vendors: Depends on the country. As someone else mentioned, it is the water that is the big concern, so in a country like Mexico I'm less likely to eat raw fruit. Cooked food depends on evalutation the stand in terms of popularity and how it looks.

                        i worked a year in Mexico City, often long hours, so I saw vendors setting up in the morning and shutting down at night. Sometimes clean up just meant scraping down grills and little else. I had to work so I really didn't eat much street food if any. I couldn't be down because I got sick. Still, I would have been less likely to eat at vendors that weren't doing a good job at clean-up.

                        Some of it also depends on your stomach being acclimated to local food. It was funny to me that I always got Montezuma's revenge not in Mexico but on the weekends when I flew back to the USA. After eating all week in Mexico City ... all but 8 days a month in the US .. when flew home on the weekends, that first US meal always wrecked revenge.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: rworange

                          Like you I worked a year in the DF back in the mid-90s. Offices were in a sort of crummy section of Morelos with no walkable restaurants except a torta cart at the end of our street. They had plenty of flies, but they also made a mean torta de Cubano. I probably averaged one a week (and it showed - gained 22 lbs in 14 months).

                          I used to always peek at the meat to see if it looked "off". After a couple of months I learned that whatever was going to make me sick was going to make a native sick as well, so I felt comfortable eating just about anywhere I saw other customers with a suit jacket or tie (like you, the implication being these were businesspeople who couldn't afford to take time off for illness).

                          In Mexico it was the strawberries - even the locals wouldn't touch them without thorough cleansing, usually using some type of mild bleach. We were encouraged to eat anything with a thick rind and we did with no ill effects. Not sure if that's changed much - haven't been back.

                          Funny thing was, never had an issue going back to the US which I did about every other month. But, had to do a trade show in Paris and second day there... ooof. This was summer 1994 and wouldn't you know the TV in my pensione had one English channel (no Spanish) and all that was on during my 2 days of recuperation was the OJ chase and arrest. I want those days back!

                          1. re: rworange

                            I think its very much what your stomach is used to. I know Mexicans who refuse to drink the water here....

                            When I lived in Mexico for a year as a teenager, my mother made us be very careful the first few weeks we were there. After that, as we started to make Mexican friends, we would go out with them and sample the same street foods they did. Never had a problem, and maybe the gradual introduction to the stuff helped. By the end of the year I was drinking water from the water fountains. I also never had a problem when traveling in India....but I do tend to have a pretty strong stomach. Heck, I was never naseous even when pregnant...

                            BTW, I was intrigued by the statement that eating yogurt or acidophilus during/prior to a trip abroad might help. In the part of India my husband is from, there is a tradition that they eat some plain yogurt before starting on any journey. It is considered good luck. He still has to have his yogurt before we go anywhere. I wonder if that is one of those food traditions (such as the ban on pork product in some religions) that started from a health and safety viewpoint??

                          2. Did a blog post on this a couple months back:

                            http://frugalcuisine.blogspot.com/200...

                            A basic knowledge of food safety and good powers of observation are your best defense in enjoying street food without bad effects. It is too bad that most travel books advise against it entirely since street food is one of the culinary highlights of any trip I have been on and is for many reasons ideal for travellers - it is cheap, fast, and accessible through a language barrier.

                            Another thing to mention is that the street food here (Chengdu, China) is seasonal and I enjoy it more (and it is much safer) in cooler months - the vendors cook better things and don't have them sitting out for hours in the heat of the day.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: pepper_mil

                              What you see on the vendor's cart is one thing, but you have no way of knowing what happened to that food a few hours or days before.
                              In the early 90s, we were with Chinese govn't officials in the dark service areas in the rear of the Forbidden City late at night after it had closed. There were some vendors' food storage and prep areas where there were trays of meat, unrefrigerated, covered with flies. In August in Beijing. Dusty and hot.
                              Put me off street vendor food for days. Of course, then I yielded to temptation, started eating it again and didn't get sick. I try not to think about those flies...

                            2. I've been very fortunate to work for years all over Asia, Latin America, and Africa; and to seek out and enjoy street food. Never once a problem. Favorite street food countries are Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Guatemala--all delicious, clean, and safe. And safer than 5 star hotel kitchens in the same places. What I haven't had enough of is street foods of NYC!

                              Two nights ago we were in Ibague, Colombia: my wife and I shared a "Chinese empanada", a BBQ sausage on a stick, a fried egg arepa, and a platter of great chicken in a tomato based sauce with rice, cassava, potato--all on the street and all for a few bucks. We retired to the hotel and had a late night snack of cheese purchased from a roadside stand (along with a Chilean cabernet)!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                Hey, Sam.... what is a "Chinese empanada"?

                                1. re: hungry_pangolin

                                  First time for me too: a deep fried empanada filled with a combo of sprouts, carrot, ground pork, seasoned with soy sauce and who knows what else.

                                1. re: S U

                                  My husband never got so sick anywhere as he did in China. His own fault, of course - he rinsed his toothbrush under the tap. You really have to be careful about stuff like that in some places.

                                  1. re: Nyleve

                                    i use the tap when i go to china. hell, i even used it in peru to brush my teeth.

                                    1. re: phant0omx

                                      Well, I guess it affects some people and not others. He thought he was going to die. No - he HOPED he would die - that's how awful it was. I was fine, but I used boiled water for everything.

                                  2. re: S U

                                    The news this morning said that this was a hoax and was staged.

                                    1. re: justagthing

                                      Here's a link to the hoax story
                                      http://www.denverpost.com/nationworld...

                                      It is really a shame that unsubstantiated stories like this get such wide circulation. Unfortunately the story of the hoax will probably not get the same amount of attention.

                                  3. Overseas, I'm so paranoid about fake meats I dont think I can eat anything without seeing the head attached. So no protein diced,sliced,chopped etc. I know I am limiting myself but I would rather have less than more than what I asked for.

                                    1. There seems to be some truth in the fact that if you drink with your food it can prevent food poisoning. http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Heal...
                                      So have a little shot of Tequila with that taco!

                                      1. i've been told several times, that to be uber safe with street food it should be a stand that you can see them cooking the food. Or something like that. I suppose that goes back to having more visitors at that particular stand, which means you'll be getting food thats a bit fresher.

                                        oh and i too use Po Chai Pills. they work great.

                                        1. I just returned from a two-week trip to Malaysia and Singapore. It's been eleven years since my last visit and it's the first time that I didn't get some kind of stomach or intestinal issues (at least not yet). I think this is due to the Malaysian Government's stepping up the rules for hawkers. No more hawker stalls - all of them must have hot running water, which means they have to be attached to some sort of brick&mortar. The food court and market that my in-laws still go to (despite moving about 30minutes away to a newer suburb outside KL) no longer has the "beloved" stands, except for certain drink and dessert stands.

                                          Although the new "cafes" are crude by LA standards, the food is still good, although my father-in-law complains that many hawkers who have gained good reputations for their food have branched out. Evidently, they open up cafes in neighboring towns, hire Burmese undocumented immigrants, teach them how to cook, and just supervise with a long leash, only coming by to check and collect the receipts. "It's not the same," according to him. Health-wise though, I'm feeling alot better about these places.

                                          Singapore is a different story. Because the country micromanages everything, including their immigration issues, undocumented immigrants are almost nonexistent, and if they are around, it's not for long. This, along with the Singapore government's strict rules makes opening up a business on the cheap much more difficult. Also, reputation is everything in Singapore. Because it is a small country, word gets around fast - it's more like a series of small towns interconnected with a very active grapevine. If a reputed hawker's food starts to slip, people talk and once-loyal customers will jump ship and go elsewhere.

                                          I now feel pretty confident eating most cooked foods in either country, but am still a little leery about uncooked foods, as one must still trace back the pathes that the local water sources come in contact with. Public water in most of Malaysia is still untreated. And while water in Singapore is supposed to be safe, one needs to be keep up his or her guard on sanitation issues at some of the more ethnic eateries.

                                          I agree with some of the other posters' comments. You use your senses, look for where the crowds line up or gather, and if you're lucky enough to know some locals, they're probably your best source of info.

                                          1. I bought a sweet potato, roasted, from a push-cart vendor in Hong Kong and took it back to my hotel. They were HORRIFIED. Apparently HK has had a huge crackdown on street food, and so now in everyone's mind "street food" might as well mean "salmonella on a stick".

                                            It was delicious, despite the stares.