If you are anything like the staff here at TL Travel, before you hit the road you hit the internet & find out where you want to eat when you get where you are going. Websites boasting 'Eat The Streets' posts will tell you where to get your fix of local cuisine anywhere you want to go, but some locations are, no doubt, questioned more than others. While very few of us think twice about grabbing a hot-dog after the bar from a street stand in the States, so many travelers are warned time & time again to NEVER eat the street food in Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Bolivia .. you name it. But why? Is there any rhyme or reason to these warnings?
Personally, when I am out traveling the world I eat street food often & have never been sick from it. I long for my return to Bangkok & the duck soup from the hilarious old woman two blocks from Khao San Road, I dream of chicken sandwiches from the street stand in Vang Vieng, Laos & I tell everyone I meet about the Ceviche stand in Quito, Ecuador ... but I am also no dummy & have picked up a few street-eating tricks in my day that I will now pass over to you!
Busy Is Good!
Yes, I know that you don't want to have to wait in line behind ten other hungry travelers, and yes, I know that there is a very similar cart just across the road with no line at all, but ask yourself "Why?" If a food cart/ street vendor is popular then you not only have a better chance at the food tasting great, but you can also take solace in knowing that the food you get hasn't been sitting out for hours just waiting to purchased.
Cart & Storage
Go ahead, judge this book by its cover ... you should! While you are waiting in line for your popular local meal, take a peak at the cart itself & ask yourself a couple of questions about its appearance; "Is it clean?","Where are they storing their ingredients?","Is their ice brought in in sealed bags" (at a fruit stand for example.) As travelers, it is in our nature to want to be a little more adventurous with our choices, but cart cleanliness should still be a big factor in your decision making. Popular stand or not, if you think the stand looks filthy - move on.
Furthermore, even a clean cart is at risk of cross-contamination. Make sure that all of the food (especially if their is raw meats involved) is stored in separate containers/ compartments & that anything that needs to be kept cool is being kept on ice or inside a cooler.
Follow That Cloth!
One of my sneakiest tricks of the trade is to find the cloth that's being used for wiping down bowls, cleaning the counters etc. & follow it wherever it goes. A cart might be clean & your bowls may be clean, but if that bowl was wiped down with the same cloth used to wipe up a spill or dry hands after washing you could be in more trouble than you know. So find that cloth & follow it closely ... it could be the key to the biggest food cart question of them all; "Is it safe to eat here?"
Is It Safe? Eat it or Beat it?
Beat It! (Get The Heck Out Of There!)
Food is pre-made for purchase
Cooking station appears dirty & disorganized
Ingredients stored together/ cooked food touches uncooked food
Food cart is empty & ingredients look old or wilted
Crushed ice or stalls where food placed directly on ice
Eat It! (Sounds Yummy!)
Food is made to order
Cooking station appears to be clean & sanitary
All ingredients are stored in separate compartments
Food cart appears to be busy & popular
Ice used is from sealed bags (look for ice with holes)
At the end of the day, food carts are, in many countries, a staple for the local community. Any car that does not meet clean & safe standards is not likely to survive long as a business (people talk!), with that said though, you can never too safe & everyone reacts differently to new foods & bacteria's.
Do you have any street food tips or tricks? Share them in the comments section below. Safe travels!