We travel not only for personal experiences but for sensory stimulation. The sight of some architectural marvel, or the beautiful colours of a new landscape, or just the heavy warmth you feel on your body in the tropics – where your clothes never really dry. But above all else, one of the greatest aspects of travel for Kylee and I, are the tastes and smells of the local cuisine in a foreign land; and while there are plenty of restaurants who often do a fairly good job, it’s the street food that truly speaks to us.
Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.Anthony Bourdain
In Culinary school, they typically teach a base level of international cooking, but rarely touch on street food; and while I would love for future generations of cooks to have this seemingly simple understanding, it really isn’t so simple at all.
Street Food is about More than the Dish Itself
Whether you’re waking at sunrise in Saigon for a steaming bowl of Pho, grabbing a quick roadside chaat in Mumbai, or enjoying a charcoal-grilled Oaxacan tlayuda for a late-evening dinner, it’s so much more than just putting together a few ingredients. Street cart food hawkers usually serve a very minimal menu, maybe three or four choices, with one of those being their specialty. More often than not, a street cart will only sell one item, using a mastered family recipe, perfected for decades – generations even.
On top of all that, it’s the ambiance that no restaurant can ever replicate. The smells of the propane burners warming the broth and smoke from the meat grilling over charcoal engulf you. Exhaust fumes and honking horns of cars whizzing directly behind you while you balance not only the steaming bowl of soup in your lap but also your own ass on a tiny red plastic stool.
There’s even something a little adventurous about eating street food. Not in the Indiana Jones swinging from a whip while fighting Nazi’s sense; but there’s always a slight risk involved. But that risk shouldn’t scare you. The odds of you getting more than a slight upset stomach are in your favour. More often than not, you’ll walk away with nothing more than satisfaction from a meal that could never be replicated in some hotel kitchen.
Get Over your Fear. It’s Safe!
In over ten years of travel, Kylee and I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve actually gotten sick from eating street food. Of the hundreds of meals we’ve enjoyed from street vendors, the rare times we’ve gotten sick were usually due to our own negligence. Sometimes we wait too long to eat and hunger catches us off guard. We need to eat something quick to avoid anger and grab a snack from the first cart we find.
Perhaps it’s just some bite of meat or fresh juice from a lonely stall on some quiet street. Either the juice has been contaminated with unwashed fruit peel or the cooked meat has been sitting in the hot tropical sun for just a little too long.
Even under-cooked food needs to be contaminated in the first place before causing any serious issues. Case-in-point, we unintentionally devoured partially-cooked chicken on a dark street in India. It was a small city that rarely sees foreigners, we happened to be stuck overnight between trains and needed food. We came across a cart selling tandoori chicken that smelled so absolutely divine that we couldn’t turn away.
Our Only Real Close Call…
The staff was so excited to be serving foreigners, that they rushed the food in order to please us. They stood beside us with proud smiles as we dug into our meal. It was amazing, probably the best roast chicken we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, due to the relatively dark surroundings, it wasn’t until we’d eaten a pretty significant portion of the bird that we noticed only the outer parts were actually cooked. The entire inside was just barely warm enough to trick us. The texture eventually gave it away, but by that point, it was too late. Horrified, but not wanting to disappoint the beaming cooks, we said we were full and that the food was fantastic.
We spent the night terrified of what might come, with a twelve-hour train the following morning, we expected the worst. However, nothing happened. While the thought of under-cooked chicken still chills me, the bird we ate that night caused no harm. Though the meat hadn’t been cooked enough to kill any contaminants, they simply weren’t there to begin with.
Now by no means am I suggesting eating raw chicken is a good idea. In this case, we were extremely lucky. The example was just to point out that even in one of the worst food-related situations imaginable, we walked away unscathed.
Know What to Look For
Overall, the number one way to make sure the cart your eating from is trustworthy is the clientele. As mentioned above, the times we have gotten ill were carts with no turnaround. The food had likely been sitting out for hours, not moving. Maybe even reheated several days over. Scope out the scene, if a cart is busy – especially with locals – it says two important things. First, the food isn’t sitting for long. If people are continuously ordering food, it’s constantly being cooked. Second, it’s probably popular for good reason.
So next time you’re fortunate enough to be visiting one of the many great countries with a strong street food scene, please indulge. Not only will you be helping the locals directly, but you’ll be treating yourself to one of the greatest experiences in both food and travel. Everything comes with some level of uncertainty. However, while the chances of getting a little ill exist, they’re extremely rare if you’re careful. The reward far outweighs the risk.
A Final Thought
Think of it this way, who do you think is going to produce a better meal: the Thai teenager throwing together a cheeseburger in some faux-Irish pub in Bangkok, or the old lady up the street stirring the same pot of broth she’s been perfecting for twenty years?