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I would love to someday go to India and travel a bit. I'm just wondering what exactly is the deal with the street food? Is there some wisdom as to what street food you can trust and what you cannot? I have been told you really don't want to get sick in India.

I'm pretty sure a lot of the street food is beyond delicious and it is probably the cheapest way to eat in India, but how do you gauge the safety of Indian street food?

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    Relevant and possibly a duplicate: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/2589/… – Ankur Banerjee Feb 4 at 17:41
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    My comment here is relevant. Don't eat street food. Not even fruit juice. There will always be a clean and inexpensive place that you'll be able to go and eat, wherever you are in the country. – Aaron F Feb 5 at 16:29
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    If you're not going to eat the streetfood, what's the point in going? If it's cooked, consume it. If it's salad or juice, don't (although those lassis are too good to resist). And take a truckload of metronidazole, loperamide, and whatever you need to replace fluids, – Strawberry Feb 5 at 17:23
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    I havent been to India, but the general advise for countries with street food (and non street food) which you suspect of having influence on your health: do not eat where the locals do not eat. So only choose places which are (almost) full or have a queue. – lalala Feb 6 at 9:00
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Indian food is irresistible and street food is even more so. The spicy, tangy, and sweet flavors just explode in your mouth. And the versatility of Indian food is unmatched. Each region in India has something deliciously different to offer.

However your concern about cleanliness and hygiene is valid. Someone newly introduced to Indian food should take precautions. I am sure you will find endless food delicacies in India and the best hospitality you ever had. However I would suggest a few tips which I personally do when I visit India to ensure I stay fit to enjoy my trip.

  1. Avoid tap water. Use only bottled distilled water of good brand.
  2. Always carry a water bottle with you.
  3. Try less spicy stuff before you go pro and try actual Indian spiciness.
  4. Eat things which are fresh and hot.
  5. Keep your emergency medicines with you. Someone not from India may find our medicines extra powerful.
  6. Try not to eat things which are not cooked unless you are absolutely sure that all hygiene measures are taken.

AND DO ENJOY INDIA!

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    I would love to enjoy India, just have to wait for covid to end and the world to go back to normal – Neil Meyer Feb 4 at 20:07
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    You might also consider going veggie when travelling; a couple of very well-travelled relatives recommend avoiding all meat when visiting unfamiliar parts of the world.  (They also confirm the benefits of avoiding tap-water; also things that may have been washed in tap water, such as salad items.) – gidds Feb 5 at 11:09
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    Further to what @gidds writes, India has huge traditions of vegetarianism (in much of the country, at least), so going veggie is very easy and still gives you a vast and varied range of foods. (This by contrast with some other parts of the world, where the range of vegetarian options may be much smaller and less interesting than what’s available to omnivores.) – PLL Feb 5 at 15:31
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    @Travis Yes. Due to high demand in bottled water, few local companies have their own setups which barely follow any compliance of water treatment standards. Also, the bottles will look almost the similar of what would a branded company look like. However not all bad, but only locals would know which is better. – Anand G Feb 5 at 16:40
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    Distilled water is not healthy to drink long-term. It lacks all salts and minerals. It is sold for use in appliances like steam irons that evaporate the water away (and would get crusty with minerals if ordinary purified water were used). – The Photon Feb 6 at 4:41
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Any new country will present your body with new and exciting microorganisms it needs to get used to. My first week in the US was miserable because I didn't expect it, and my first week in India was manageable, because I knew what was coming. The only country I didn't have any issues in was Japan.

The key is to gradually acclimatize yourself and manage exposure. For me, that meant bottled water during the first train ride, and only switching to tap water once I was checked into a hotel room with ready access to a toilet that no one would object to if I stayed there for a while.

The same for street food: venturing out of a hotel room to try things in the vicinity works well, trying stuff in transit between cities, not so much.

After a week or so, you should be used to it, but you might need to repeat this if you travel longer distances. During my second trip, I had no issues refilling my water bottle from the tap at train stations or buying food from mobile vendors there.

You should always have a water bottle with you, and it is a good idea to carry a small bottle of liquid soap -- public toilets generally don't have any.

Other than that, bring a few packs of electrolytes, because that is what you are going to be missing if you get diarrhea for any reason, and go with paracetamol instead of aspirin for headaches if you're in the malaria risk latitudes (Delhi is pretty much in the center of that band, and that is likely your port of entry).

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    I think your first line gets to the underlying issue well.  It's not about one nation's ingredients, preparation, or hygiene being better or worse than another's; it's about regional microorganisms.  Every area has them, and our guts have acclimatised to the local ones — but won't be used to those from distant lands. – gidds Feb 5 at 17:40
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    In the US, paracetamol = acetaminophen. (Often sold under the trade name Tylenol). One of the few drugs where the U.S. generic name differs from the generic name used in the rest of the world. – AndyB Feb 6 at 3:59
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    You don't really just get used to dysentery or typhoid fever. The friend I was traveling in India with, returned with dysentery and it was not pretty. I know of more such cases. I do recommend to get vaccinated against the typhoid fever. I myself got a terrible diarrhea after a month - nothing serious, but the the body certainly wasn't used to everything yet. – Vladimir F Feb 6 at 10:27
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    @gidds yes, but I don't think it's too controversial to say that a tourist in India is more likely to have serious problems than one in, for example, Japan. – leftaroundabout Feb 6 at 23:59
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I have been to India twice in the past and both times kept eating street food with no issues. While food in hotel restaurants was good, it was not even close compared to street food I would buy from a cart across the road from the hotel.

Note that I am used to Indian food and very spicy foods in general. I can eat raw green chilis without much issue (which I did to the amazement of locals in Hassan in Karnathaka where I attended a local wedding).

While India is huge and different areas have different traditions and different foods, I had a simple rule when considering street food: only buy from places/carts where lots of locals buy. For example, with two carts on a street, if many locals are buying from one and very few from the other, I would buy from the one with lots of customers. The other one may be even better, but I certainly didn't want to risk it.

Over two trips, I spent a total of about a month in India (Andra Pradesh and Karnathaka) - and never had any problems.

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There is one easy way how to tell what to eat and what to avoid - see what locals do. If you see street food with lots of locals around, it's probably fine. If there are none, they probably have a bad experience with the place, so you should stay away as well.

You should also have proper vaccination when travelling - standard vaccination that is compulsory / recommended in your home country, as well as some "travel" vaccination (like typhoid fever, hepatitis A, rabies or so). Check with your travel clinic for details, as it depends on the destination.

Carry some hand disinfectant and have travel first aid kit on the hostel with activated carbon (this is not really a precaution, but it can help with consequences of bad food).

As for the tap water - don't bother trying to "acclimatize" unless you are going to stay in the country long-term. Instead drink bottled water or carry a water filter (I prefer Sawyer) and filter the tap water before drinking it. And avoid ice in your drinks.

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    Sadly your "see what the locals do" can produce extremely variable results. I strongly suspect that Somin Richter is correct re acclimatisation to local organisms. In India I was severely sick after eating food which I thought appeared safe and which locals were eating without restraint. | I subsequently travelled Chennai-Pune by 2nd class sleeper (a wonderful journey) and observed most people happily buying food of all types from many dozens of vendors. I didn't. I have had similar experiences in China when initially local fill made me ill but after prolonged experience I had no problems. – Russell McMahon Feb 6 at 12:20
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    Yep. "see what the locals do" is only a good advice if your stomach is just as strong as theirs. – Dmitry Grigoryev Feb 6 at 13:23
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One thing to remark is that people respond different ways to new organisms, so that there's a good chance that even if you follow the best practices described here, you'll become ill. It's really just the luck of the draw.

A travel doctor told me once that she prefers street food to a restaurant, since she can see the food being prepared and can get a sense for the food safety herself. That's reasonable advice, of course, but I would again emphasize the roll of chance.

The best thing is to maintain a good attitude and have a reasonable stock of medicines for traveller's diarrhea—which are probably best to buy in India, where they will be much cheaper.

Those qualifications aside, I really can't recommend the canteen at the New Delhi Zoo. ;-)

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Food safety: Clean it, peel it or cook it.

Cleaning it is obviously not an option in this case. (And remember that tap water is itself contaminated and thus can't clean.)

Likewise, peeling is not an option.

Thus, cooking is the only way to ensure safety--only eat things which are freshly cooked and beware of possible contamination from utensils and dishes. Food safety in such places is difficult!

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  • You could also microwave food in your hotel room. Getting it to 100 degrees for a minute or so will kill the vast majority of pathogens. – JonathanReez Feb 8 at 5:47
  • @JonathanReez I hadn't thought of that approach, the last time I was in India microwaves didn't exist, reheating in a hotel room wasn't an option. It won't work for a lunch-on-the-go but otherwise it sounds excellent. – Loren Pechtel Feb 8 at 6:01
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One note, India is HUGE. Asking about "food in India" is like asking about "food in Europe" - Scotland is incredibly different from Italy, from Sweden, from Portugal.

Secondly note that India and Indians have incredibly higher standards about food than Western countries...

Indians and India assume that what we eat in the West is bizarre, shocking.

  • The fact that in the West we eat frozen meat is seen as some sort of desperation measure.

  • The fact that in the West we eat non-frozen meat that has sat around for days or longer in a supermarket fridge is seen as sickening, putrid. Only the freshest imaginable meat is considered worth eating in India.

  • Bread, obviously, is to India what surfing is to Hawaii or gravity it to a neutron star - bread in the West is impossibly bad.

  • The unbelievable amount of additives, chemicals, and artificial ingredients which are part of the Western world is seen as astonishing, incomprehensible.

  • For vegetables and so on, the concept of "Fresh" in the West is just sad, to any Indian from richest to poorest.

  • For world-travelled sophisticated Indians: As you know in the West we nowadays have a "fad" for localvore-ism, whole food -ism, clean food -ism. Which is an admirable micro-step in the right direction. Indians smile at this in the same way that NASA would smile at Tonga's space program.

  • On the ground, Indians don't really care for restaurants: because home cooking is just so incredibly, universally good. It's interesting that in the West, "foodie" culture is about restaurants! famous chefs! etc. In India a restaurant is more of an emergency measure if there's something wrong at home.

Regarding the first paragraph, I can only address Mumbai.

Having spent a lifetime gluttonizing myself at all the world's "famous" whatever restaurants, of the top 10 most amazing, most wonderful, things I have ever had, fully four (if not more) were street food in Mumbai.

Regarding cleanliness etc, maybe I was just incredibly lucky what "streets" I was on but I have never seen or eaten anything other than utterly spotless, fastidious, amazingly healthy street food in Mumbai. It's just that good.

(Comparing the impeccably, fanatically, prepared hyper-fresh, ultra-crafted, street food of India to the bizarre food-like products and conditions that you find in Western fast food outlets, would be ridiculous.)

Bon appetit.

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    No need to insult most of the western world (and put that in the mouth of the Indians.) – Willeke Feb 5 at 14:19
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    This is ridiculous, and all from what appears to be a single brief trip to Mumbai (financial capital of India and not terribly representative, although I still managed to get cholera there). India has serious problems with sanitation and while they are getting better they have the highest diarrheal disease death rate of any country outside sub-Saharan Africa. It's a great country with great food but this is ridiculous whitewashing of a serious problem and frankly dangerous advice. I live in developing Asia and have been to about 35 other countries, India ONLY one I had serious food problems. – Ivan McA Feb 5 at 15:40
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    ? I lived there for years. You should briefly visit the US and go to a Chipotle :) – Fattie Feb 5 at 16:00
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    "Indians don't really care for restaurants" -> As an Indian person this rings false to me. Restaurants are packed even on weeknights and waiting to be seated is common. Whereas in the US I've almost never had to wait for a seat. "Bread, obviously, is to India what surfing is to Hawaii or gravity it to a neutron star" -> This is puzzling. Other than naan and its relatives, Indian breads aren't comparable to Western breads. I'm not saying better or worse, just different. The norm in India is for unleavened breads (rotis, bhakris, theplas, parathas). – Jay Feb 5 at 21:20
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    You start off by talking about the diversity of food in India—and then proceed to talk as if everyone in India shared the same opinion about it! One which seems to be the same as your own, coincidentally. – Obie 2.0 Feb 6 at 7:17

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