Eat Better, Eat Street Food

Mark Stewart Food 40 Comments

Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.Anthony Bourdain

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.

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.
 

A layout of ingredients including octopus, onions, and batter.

Our first ever street food experience, from way back in Japan, Takoyaki – Fried Octopus

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.
 

A dark street in Vietnam with food vendors and people eating street food.

Street food in Vietnam is a religious experience
Photo: @fridaae29 – Unsplash

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.
 

A corn fritter filled with cheese and a salsa.

Less than $1, the delicious Regañona of Colombia

A small foil cup filled with fried potato and topped with sauces and herbs. This is a perfect example of street food.

From the streets of AmritsarAloo Tikki Chaat

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.
 

A plate of pork and beef tacos topped with onions and cilantro

So simple, so Perfect. Street tacos in Oaxaca, Mexico

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?
 

Mark and Kylee holding some chicken skewers on a street in Korea.

Eating Dakkochi (grilled chicken skewers) on the streets of Seoul, Korea

 

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Catherine Jamieson
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Catherine Jamieson

That picture of you two in Seoul! Babies! I love it.

Julie Howard
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have you gone to Mexico City? You would love it.

Gererdene
Guest

Great piece. I totally agree with you. In all my time in India I never had a problem with street food and really loved the samosas, chai and potato curry with dhal. On the other hand my initial paranoia sent me to an expensive restaurant in Delhi for eggs and toast which I was told were fool proof. Later saw expose on same restaurant showing filthy kitchen with toilet stuck right in the middle. I didn’t get sick there though so I’m thinking we’re tougher then we think

Angeline
Guest

I love this! I’ve always been attracted to street food vendors and food markets, they portray so much culture and uniqueness. I am indeed afraid of certain foods but I’ll try to be more adventurous next time 🙂

Monica Badiu
Guest

Wow! I loved this post! Street food is my thing! I plan city breaks around yummy street food 😂 There’s this place in Rome, called Trappizini. I could go back and back again just for that.

Hello Yeshi
Guest

I love street food, though my tummy can not always handle it so I am somewhat cautious about what/where I’m eating. I share your sentiments about street food vs restaurant bought – support local!

The Asian Abroad
Guest

omg i LOVE street food! The one you posted from Colombia looks super yums btw! Now that I’m living in Spain, there is no street food for me to indulge in!

Faith Coates
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I am a total street food junkie and the first lesson I learned was the one you teach – if the stall is crazy busy with locals it’s a sure fire best bet. The first place I hit in any town, village or spot is to find the street food, be it a market for farmers or a place like Georgetown in Malaysia I’m in. lol

Pari
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Pari

How kind and gracious of you to not complain even when served undercooked chicken and you were very lucky. I have eaten street food throughout my life in India and have never once gotten sick from it.

Sakina
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I am thinking if starting a food blog but I could rly use some help in food photography

indu
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Like your fabulous pics with great content on street food. In fact local cuisine tastes best as street food with local ingredients and all the authentic flavors

Akram
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Akram

Just randomly stumbled upon this! and I liked the way you’re describing it, although I’m Jordanian and street food here is so good but not something I fancy, maybe if you come you’ll really like it, most people do. I tried street food in every city I visited, sometimes it’s good sometimes it’s OK but I noticed two things, first: specially in europian cities. there’s no inbetweens, it’s either an expensive restaurant (~$30 for a meal) or street food. that’s why street food is more convinient I wanna grab a sandwich and continue exploring. the second thing is that europian… Read more »

Michael
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Whenever I travel, I like to eat local street food. There is a Thai street food place near me in London that does wonderfully delicious stuff. Your final thought is 100% on point.

Mohana Das
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Steet food, truly, is a religious experience! We’ve lived in Calcutta, India our entire lives and we cannot survive without street food. When I arrived in the US, I was so disappointed by the lack of options. Some cities have food carts but not all cities do. When we travel in India, we pretty much survive on street food. Delicious chaat, kulcha, jhaal muri…yes!

Backpacking Series
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Reading your post and looking at those fabulous pictures got me hungry! Seriously! Cannot wait to get back to the streets in Vietnam or have that aloo tikki in India. Jalan Alor in KL and Khaosan Road in Bangkok could be added to your list for the next one! 🙂

Alex Trembath
Guest

Street food is just unbeatable! I really LOVE that you lead this article with emphasising that street food is safe to eat. So many people miss out because of misinformed preconceptions! We ate street food for four months all the way through south-east Asia this year and didn’t have any problems at all!

Purvi Kamaliya
Guest

I loved the title itself. I am more fan of the street food than of a fancy restaurant. And as your blog suggest, you get to eat more of local and better stuff on streets. This, in particular, stands true for most Asian countries. The real taste lies in the street food.

Shaily
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Shaily

I love street food and we make sure we try some whenever we are travelling to a new city. Even Delhi is famous for its street food and I’ve seen many tourists going for the food tour here. Street food carries the authentic flavours of a place and as you mentioned, the old lady with her time tested perfection is to be trusted over the Thai teenager with little experience with food. Love this post! 🙂

Maggie
Guest

This is such a great post! Eating street food is one of the best ways to get truly authentic, local cuisine. NYC isn’t exactly exotic, but can you really find a better bagel anywhere than from a New York street vendor?!

gonca
Guest

Yeah I totally agree w you that street food is safe, cheap and the most amazing:) Especially in Thailand and India!