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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!