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I basically eat anywhere when I travel. I love street food, and I am usually not afraid of eating anywhere, tasting everything. However, I became a bit more careful recently. I have travelled with some friends and, despite eating in the same places one of them got sick.

When eating street food or small local restaurants, are there any obvious (food safety) red flags that I should take into account?

Obviously I can't control everything. and I am basically looking for some rules of thumb that would indicate that the food stand owners are careful and thoughtful about their customers when handling the food.

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    Not an answer, but I tend to watch where the locals go - the popular places amongst the locals usually is good quality, affordable, and tastes good. In my mind they're not going to frequent the places that have the potential to make them sick. Your own stomach may not appreciate the good food at first, but you possibly will get that anywhere in your destination (it's not due to bad hygiene IMO). I went somewhere once where there were a lot of crocodiles and we were told "swim where the locals swim" as that's likely the safest... I treat food the same way
    – Midavalo
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 0:37
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    Pure anecdote, but when I was in Egypt I ate all and every bit of street food and never got sick during a 6 week visit - but ate only vegetarian dishes because of a lack of refrigeration. On my first day on Jordan I ate meat at a local restaurant (because Jordan supposedly had refrigeration), and came down with the worst case of food poisoning ever - to the point that I was too sick even to leave my hotel room for 3 days. I'm not sure how you can predict this, especially as the locals will be habituated to things that will knock you off your feet.
    – Peter M
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 1:33
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    I won't even eat American street food.
    – user27701
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 16:28
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    @PeterM ironically produce is actually the most common source of food borne illness. People tend to take a lot more care with the preparation of sensitive foodstuffs and underestimate the risks involved with produce and e-coli. Meat is heated - your salad is just rinsed in suspicous water.
    – papirtiger
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 11:15
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    @27701 aka roadkill?
    – Andy
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 16:43

5 Answers 5

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Reviews and ratings are always good but it is possible to get sick pretty much anywhere, even in a well rated restaurant in developed country. Some people just have more sensitive digestive systems. While I also used to eat pretty much anywhere and trying most things, my body cannot handle this anymore and I get violently ill from my stomach very easily now.

The best way to reduce chances of getting sick is to go when the throughput is high, so a popular place at a popular time. This happens simply because ingredients have to be replenished more frequently, so they will be fresher when you get them. With street food, there is much less storage space to keep food at a low temperature to prevent bacteria growth, so a place has to restock often, than food will not have to stay out for long.

Exercise caution according to the cleanliness of the area. There are place with much stricter controls and sanitary rules than others. When you see cleaning crews passing often and surfaces clean, food will be more sanitary as well.

The availability of drinkable water in the area is also a strong indicator. Numerous ingredients have to be washed before preparation and so, if the local water is not drinkable, or not drinkable to you, then it will be more likely to contaminate food. One common rule is to avoid fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled. This rule saved me many times.

Cooking temperature for meat and fish is crucial which is the reason why there are national guidelines in numerous countries. With street food, you can often see the cooking method and learn which is most likely to cook meat sufficiently. Low meat temperature has gotten me seriously sick in many countries, including the US and Canada. Some street food vendors will have cooked early during the day or even in the morning and basically warm it up at the time of serving. This is very bad in my experience. It is better when they start with raw meat and fully cook it right before serving but do pay attention to where they take it from before cooking.

When ordering, consider which items are selling well. If you buy the one off exotic item that rarely sells, you may get sick more easily. This is one lesson I learned the hard way! Consider the risk too. There will be simply times when getting sick is even worse, either because of local healthcare or because of your plans.

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    For tap water I think the intermediate range is most dangerous for tourists. If the tap water is fine to drink for everyone you are okay. If the locals don't consider the tap water safe to drink you are okay as well. The tricky bit is places where locals drink the tap waters but the general recommendation is that tourists should not.
    – quarague
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 18:09
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    Have to many places where the water was drank by locals but not recommended for tourists and the times I accidentally had some because locals were having it, I got really sick. Unfortunately, I get sick very easily from easting abroad, so following these points, reduced occurrence but I still do get sick from time to time because a lof of these things are not precise.
    – Itai
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 23:59
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    @gerrit: It depends on how well the ingredients are stored. If they are commingled with meat or excrement, then you could get just as sick that way.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 9:05
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    Eating vegan can at least be a good idea when travelling to areas where most of the local population are vegan, since in these areas vegan items are likely to be freshest, and meat based items are more likely to be handled by someone not familiar with safe handling of meat.
    – James_pic
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 14:22
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    @gerrit - in 2011 more than 50 people died as a result of an e-coli outbreak in northern Germany; the source of the outbreak was sprouted fresh vegetables from a farm in Saxony. Veganism would arguably have been the worst possibly dietary choice in the circumstances.
    – Spratty
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 14:58
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In my personal experience there is very little correlation between "visible food safety measures" and getting sick. I've been 40+ countries have eaten a lot of local food and had plenty of "mystery meat on a stick" in places where refrigeration isn't a thing.

The only time I got food poisoning on the road was in un upscale western hotel in China, not street food. The worst food poisoning I ever had (almost died) I got at the food court of the most expensive mall in Cambridge, MA, USA.

Americans seem to be more paranoid about food safety than most other countries. In the US, meat that's been outside the correct temperature zone for a few minutes is considered highly dangerous, in Germany they eat raw ground pork on a roll by the metric ton at every street corner. No one gets sick.

One tip that has probably merit: avoid raw foods (salads, raw vegetables) that's been washed in countries where the tap water is really bad. Street food is generally fine.

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    "Americans seem to be more paranoid about food safety" and with good reason, if it's true that food production is regulated more in favor of the producers than in favor of the consumers.
    – gboffi
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 16:24
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    "in Germany they eat raw ground pork on a roll" really? what dish is that?
    – njzk2
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 17:09
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    @njzk2 Mettbrötchen Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 17:10
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    Notice that there are strict quality measures for this "raw ground pork on a roll", aka "Mett". The whole process, from pork to mouth, is monitored. They don't just pick raw pork and eat it. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 22:18
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    To expand on Mett: "Unless pre-packaged, the German Lebensmittelhygiene-Verordnung ("food hygiene/health directive") permits mett to be sold only on the day of production." (-> Wikipedia). So it's basically like tartar, sushi, or other raw meats. Regarding pork: in Germany, individual animals are tagged and tracked from birth, with all their "stats", and are checked for illnesses not only after slaughter, but before. bzfe.de/lebensmittel/vom-acker-bis-zum-teller/schweinefleisch/… I'm feeling safe eating pork sous vide in Germany (but you do you).
    – AnoE
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 9:51
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Busy places where you can see the kitchen and goings-on (such as freshly prepared, and reasonable treatment of raw meat) and seem to be safest. And limited menus. So a crowded (with locals, especially) street stand where they have one or two wildly popular dishes would be pretty safe. For example, the cowgirl vendor in Chiang Mai.

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Worst would be some place that is deserted, kitchen out of sight and appears to cater to non-locals such as bus tours, and has a suspiciously lengthy menu.

That said, certain countries just seem to be safer than others. China, HK, Singapore are much safer than Vietnam, for example, and I seem to get sick almost every time I go far south of the US border (Mexico City excepted). Part of it is sanitary standards, but maybe also the locals have built up more resistance.

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    I could suggest adding not only seeing the cooking, but indeed that food is cooked to order and so always freshly cooked
    – Mike M
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 14:53
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A couple of perhaps less obvious tips:

  1. Wash/sanitise your hands before every meal - in many countries you can get quite dirty quite quickly, especially when visiting highly trafficked areas like tourist hotspots.

  2. Trust your senses of smell and taste - if something tastes bad, spit it out; that is unless you're trying something that tastes 'bad' by design (I'm looking at you, stinky tofu). Most of us have highly developed food safety sensors built into our faces - pay attention to them.

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Street food should be assumed to be unsafe for human consumption unless you have evidence that it is safe. Before travelling to a country, you should do research about the quality of foods in restaurants, because even in restaurants there can be problems. And it's not that unsafe foods will make you acutely ill, because those problems will get filtered out automatically, as few people will continue to eat in restaurants where they can't make sure people don't get health problems in the hours and days after eating.

For example, the situation in China used to be quite bad, see here. If you eat these oils, you usually don't get ill on short time scales. But you're then risk of getting health problems after eating foods prepared in these oils regularly over a long period of time.

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  • What has thjs to do with travel… unless you insist that all foreign street-food vendors are necessarily different to those at home. Do You? At home or abroad, if you're thinking of buying food from a street vendor don't do that, or catch as catch can or carefully watch the whole cooking process. Clearly, you can never "watch" the storage process prior to the actual cooking, and isn't the same true wherever you travel or anywhere at home? Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 0:23

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