Shows like No Reservations or Bizarre Foods paint a picture of street food being a delicious and harmless way to experience a new culture. Eating like a local is cheaper and I always condone adding some non-touristy items to your itinerary. However, not everyone has the iron stomach of a Travel Channel host. I recently watched Anderson Cooper interview Anthony Bourdain and Cooper confessed that he is terrified of trying new food while traveling for fear of getting sick. I used to fall into this same category but I’ve loosened up a bit while still being smart about what I put into my body.
My first trip to Thailand in 2011 wasn’t my first trip abroad, but I’d heard horror stories from people (who of course had never been there) about how sick I could get from the food and water. I brushed my teeth with bottled water, kept my mouth closed tightly in the shower to avoid taking in any tap water, and ate mostly packaged snack foods for sustenance. Other members of my tour group wolfed down plates of noodles, curries, and fresh seafood while I ate Pringles for dinner. I’m not aware of anyone that got sick from the food on that trip, but I arrived back in Chicago feeling terrible from 10 days of straight junk food.
Returning to South East Asia for a second time and actually living there, I knew I would have to loosen up. In the six months I was there I got sick to my stomach quite a bit. I think it takes a while for your body to adjust and learn what you can tolerate. The school and town where I lived had very poor standards for food safety; I would see raw meat sitting out in the sun and bugs on food ready to be served, in addition to the number of stray dogs and lack of soap in restrooms. But in addition to the cleanliness, South Asian food tends to be very spicy, which can cause problems too.
|dish washing facilities at a stall in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand|
For anyone a bit wary about eating in South East Asia, here are my tried and trusted tips:
- If it looks like it’s been sitting out all day, it has been. Don’t eat it.
- Fried noodles and fried rice are usually safe. Food cooked to order at high temperatures is less likely to carry bacteria.
- If you aren't used to eating curry, before a bus or boat ride is not the time to chance it.
- Stick to ice cubes with a hole in the center—those are made with bottled water.
- If you see a random pot of hot water next to the utensils, dunk your silverware in it to sanitize them before using.
- Skip dairy altogether.
- There’s no guarantee cold vegetables were washed in clean water, just skip them.
- Fruit that you peel (pineapple, oranges, mango, etc.) are safe.
- Dried fruits and nuts are always available at 7-11 and an easy way to get nutrients.
|maybe skip the fish course|
It is possible to stay healthy while experimenting with street food and new dishes while traveling. Food is just one way to experience a culture with traveling so take your time. After all, that fish head curry isn’t going anywhere!