Everyone has heard of Montezuma’s Revenge and the Delhi Belly. But there’s a common misconception that going to a foreign destination automatically means food poisoning, but here’s a little fact for you: in 12 years of traveling I’ve eaten street food at a wide variety of places in countries around the world, and I’ve only had food poisoning three times. All three times were in the United States at sit-down establishments.
Here’s the thing: once you settle on the ground living like a local in your chosen city you are going to quickly establish your favorite street food vendors. Why? Because it’s a source of cheap, damn tasty food that is part of the culture. And while there are some downsides to eating street food as long as you play it safe you won’t have any issues regardless of where you are living. Believe me, you don’t want to pass up street food because it is the only way you find the true nature of things like sopes, arepas, banitza and beyond. These are the finger-licking good delicacies that serve as fast food in countries around the world.
There’s a few things to look for in a street vendor to determine if they are reasonably safe or not. If the veggies look fresh, they probably are, in which case the bought and cut them that morning. Even better is if you like to get out and walk in the mornings you can see which vendors are setting up in the mornings and how they prepare their setup. Professionals exist in all corners of the world and some of these street vendors are professionals. This is their living and they do it well. You just have to know what to look for. Hand in hand with this is vendors who take the time to use disinfectant on their veggies while cleaning them. A little harder to find, but still possible.
While fresh produce is important, it is equally important that the meat is fresh that morning and not re-used from a day previously. I’ve only came across a handful of street vendors in my time who do this, as most either use up all their meat in a day or they have a little extra that gets parceled out as dinner for whoever is working the night shift. Even so, it’s always worth it to check in the morning to ensure the meat they are using is fresh.
Covered condiments is probably the most important aspect of a good street vendor. Any type of food or condiment can last a day in the elements, no matter how hot or cold it is, and as long as things are kept in a covered or sealed container they are completely safe within that 24 hour period. The ones you want to watch out for are the street vendors who have an uncovered or unsealed container, such as with a potato salad or a yogurt dressing. If it’s open and uncovered it has a chance to collect some fairly unfriendly passengers.
And lastly but not least is the hygiene of the individual or the operation. Professional-level street vendors will be wearing hair nets, masks and plastic gloves, while some people might just be wearing a pair of gloves. Your own personal level of comfort will determine which vendor you go with, but at the very least look for places where the people wear gloves. For example, there was a place in Bogota I loved that served up roasted chickens and they always wore gloves and handed out plastic gloves to the clients as well for eating their chicken. On the other hand, I’ve been out in the jungle and seen people making quesadillas for customers while they were eating with the same hands, and not washing in between or wearing gloves. You can tell within an instant if a place is professional or not by the way they approach hygiene.
And one final note. Remember that food poisoning is not always about the food itself. Bacteria also plays an important role. Sometimes the food can be completely sanitary, everything can look just perfect and you will eat something and wind up getting sick because your stomach isn’t used to the bacteria for this particular section of the world. Which is a normal thing and only takes a little bit of time to adjust to once you have settled in to live like a local. Just remember that even Superman has his kryptonite, and not all of our stomachs are created equal.
If the place is a little run-down, a little dirty or a little off-the-beaten path, I’m all for it, because these are generally the places the locals are going most of the time. They are well-traveled hot-spots on the way between work and home, and if the food is good enough for the people who live there it’s good enough for you. These are the cultural dishes that don’t make it into the international cookbooks, the hidden treasures that you will only find after spending an extensive amount of time in a country or know about from a friend or website. And they are well worth your time so long as you choose the right ones.