While going for Thai food yesterday, my friends and I were reminiscing on what we miss in Asia. The organized chaos, the diversity, the smiles and most importantly, the street food! I still remember my first visit to a street food market in Thailand like it was yesterday. It is overwhelming and hectic, but is there anything better than sitting down on one of those plastic stools and enjoying this amazing street food that is both delicious and super cheap? I knew immediately this was going to be my next blog post. Especially after seeing this photo this morning of my personal hero Anthony Bourdain and the American president in a little Hanoi street food diner. Hey, if it’s good enough for the president, it’s good enough for you.
Not everyone is as excited about street food as I am, it can be quite scary when you arrive in Asia and it seems like everyone is making something on the corner of the street. Which food is safe and isn’t going to sentence you to the loo for most of the evening (food poisoning is violent!). Which food will taste the best? What if all the street stalls are making more of the same? What does it even say on the menu? How do I figure out how much it costs?
The best pad thai I’ve had? On a corner in Koh tao. The best and most deliciously soft squid? On a beach in Cambodia. Tom yum goon I will always remember? Next to the road on the motorbike loop of Pakse, Laos. Eating so much we lost the ability to walk? Definitely all around Malaysia: Penang or Kuala Lumpur, take your pick!! There is nothing that breaks my heart more than hearing somebody went to Singapore, where eating is the national hobby, and was afraid to eat in the hawker stalls. Therefore, I wanted to give you my 20 tips for eating street food in Asia without getting sick. I’ve tried and tested all of them and hope they will help you scope out your awesome next meal:
1. The first and most important tip, street food is best when not rushed. Take your time, observe the street food stalls, walk back and forth and then make a decision. Forget about where all the tourist are going, what do they know? Look at where are the locals are ordering their food. Locals do not forgive, if your food is bad, nobody will order from you. If your food is good, they will line up for a long time to have your food. Moreover, with a lot of customers, the food will rotate very quickly and you’re almost certain of a fresh meal.
2. This brings me to the second tip, always order your food where the longest line is. Don’t have a clue what it is they are serving? Doesn’t matter, locals know best and it will be delicious. Just make sure it’s not something really weird like baby ducks in their eggs or dog. If you are in a country where the locals speak English, like Singapore, ask them where their favorite food is. Go there!
3. Not being rushed is good for another reason, you have a chance to find out what they are eating. Go out of your comfort zone by ordering food of which you are not sure what it is. That’s why we’re doing this after all! Different combinations of ingredients is why we started this food adventure to begin with. Don’t be afraid to stare at other people food and point to what they’re having. Only five more minutes to culinary heaven!
4. Are you a vegetarian like me? Google the words of what you don’t eat and save a print screen of it on your phone or alternatively write it out/figure out how to pronounce it. In this way, they will nod their heads “no” if their stock contains pork bones or pieces of mince. Remember that in a lot of countries chicken is not regarded at meat, so you’re best off writing something like “no meat, no chicken”.
5. In learning the local language, knowing how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” goes a long way. I like to think that if they like you (as much as they will like a backpacker), they will feed you better food. Learning the correct pronunciation of your favorite food is also a handy thing to know!
6. When it comes to ordering the bill, make sure that you look how much the local in front of you is paying. Don’t fret if the shopkeeper makes you pay a little bit more, but don’t overpay. Street food is supposed to be cheap. If completely unsure, show a couple of small coins and notes and they will grab the -hopefully- right amount from your hand. Never, I repeat never, show all your money or more than you think it is worth.
7. Observing the locals will also be your way to figure out how to eat this contraption you’ve just bought. Add a little fish sauce, a little chili and pour soup of rice, not the other way around. Unless you like dunking your rice in the soup like I always do. Street food is not the place for etiquette.
8. Look at the ice cubes. Ice cubes are notorious for most of us westerners. Most restaurants or street vendors however will work with industrialized ice. So when you see big ice cubes with a hole in the middle, it comes from a factory and you’re good to go.
9. Look at surfaces and the washing of dishes. Is everything festering on the counter and the plates are being soaked in a dirty bowl of water. Maybe it’s better to go the neighbour.
10. A little bit of research with the help of local or international food blogs goes a long way. Most places will be known for certain dishes and most likely there will be one person on a particular corner in town that serves a particularly good bowl of noodles in broth or something else. Most street food vendors don’t change location much because people want to be able to find them. They perfect one dish and one dish alone, this is not because they can’t cook anything else. They just want to make that one dish exceptionally well. And that’s the guy you need to find.
11. Not to come mention Anthony Bourdain again, but watching an episode on No Reservations or Parts Unknown on the place you are going to will teach you a few things. He will tell you which dishes are famous in that area and maybe (or most likely) even where to eat them. Unknowingly we ended up in the Banh Mi place he visited in Hoi An (I found it via Foursquare) and I have to say, I haven’t eating another Bahn Mhi quite as good in the whole of Vietnam.
12. Use Foursquare. Huh? That app that is only used to show people that you are eating out a lot? Well, yes! I have found many cool little street food stores and good local restaurants using this app. Most Asians love technology and will use this app to highlight their favorite cafe. Don’t use all the tips though, most touristy places will definitely also show up in the app. Other local apps can also be useful, in Australia, the locals with use an app called Zomato more often than Foursquare. If you know of other local food apps in English, feel free to comment below!
13. What about Tripadvisor and the Lonely Planet? I tend to not use these sources for finding street food. Both Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet are geared towards a very mainstream public which makes it much better suited for finding actual restaurants and touristy places with clean kitchens. I’m not saying all of their advise is bad, but you’re better than Tripadvisor, be better than Tripadvisor.
14. Don’t over plan. In places like Penang, Malaysia, it’s good to have a couple of places mapped out but leave room for surprise. Keep your eyes open and if something looks good and fresh, go for it.
15. Do take some medication with you so if all fails, you can hydrate yourself properly and don’t end up being too sick. Drink lots of water too.
16. Since I don’t eat meat, I’m not the best advise giver on that part. However I do know this, if the meat starts smelling or turns a grey color, leave it. Go for food that is fried at a really high heat or deep fried.
17. Take hand sanitizer with you (a great travel companion in all situation btw). If you’re not 100% sure, you can always sanitize the cutlery and your hands. Just try not to do it too obviously to not offend the restaurant owner.
18. If you end up going to India, here a couple of additional tips: Only drink hot drinks, wash all fruits and vegetables with bottled water, don’t eat raw vegetables or fruit with skin on, fruits like watermelon should be fine as they didn’t get in touch with the tap water and avoid ice cubes in this country full stop.
19. In Thailand and Singapore the food standard is quite high, chances of you getting sick are very small. Therefore the above rules can be put in place to simply find the best laksa or red curry soup.
20. Last but not least, if you see a rat (or non-sanitary animals) in the restaurant, run! Even if there is a lovely local offering you rice wine shots. It is not worth being sick on a night train, trust me.
That’s it for me. Hopefully you will go out and enjoy some amazing street food! Do you have any awesome tips yourself? I’d love to hear about them, leave a comment below.