How to play it smart with your street food

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The usual logic in guidebooks when travelling in Asia is to boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it. Peel all fruit and cook all vegetables, only eat hot, freshly prepared food, skip the ice in your drink, don't eat salad but do consider going vegetarian, be wary of shellfish and bathe in hand disinfectant at every opportunity.

It's all completely manageable if you see food as fuel, or an inconvenient interruption to your holiday.

But if you love food, and you travel to eat, this all becomes harder to swallow, and many fantastic street food options are ruled out. What's the point of visiting Vietnam if you have to pass up the wonderful herbs that come with every dish? What sort of sadist could travel through Thailand avoiding papaya salads? To never know the delights of those excellent (room temperature) curries in Myanmar, Sri Lankan and Indonesia would be a life half-lived. Worst of all, when that lovely old lady excitedly offers you a samosa, you're going to have to somehow explain that you haven't seen it freshly prepared, so forget it, grandma.

I love food too much to travel like that. I won't drink tap water when it's advised not to, but that's where my strict adherence to the rules end. It's not foolproof, and it's definitely not the best advice for every traveller, but it's a risk I willingly take. And after eating street food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for an entire year in Asia, more than 1000 meals eaten on footpaths, I haven't found that it's any more likely to make you sick, but there are definitely things to look out for.

Thai street food

Traffic rolls by as a family tucks into dinner at a street food area in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photograph: Jerry Redfern)

Join a queue

Eating at busy places with a high turnover is a common mantra for travellers, but make sure you're following therightcrowd. A place crowded with tourists lured in by a large, laminated menu is not necessarily the best sign. Language barriers can make eating when travelling trickier than usual, and the simplest option usually won't be the most satisfying or even the safest.

With a bustling street food stall, you know that everyone is eating the one or two dishes they make, and it's turning over quickly. Look for local customers: they're the ones that the stallholder has to impress time and again to keep loyal, and they simply won't come back if the food is bad or it makes them sick.

Rise early

Pay heed to when locals are eating. To combat the heat, Asia rises early and in most cities breakfast stalls are already underway in the pre-dawn hours. If you sleep in you miss out, and then you're out of synch with local meal times for the rest of the day. Get up early, reset your body clock and eat meals at meal times: you want to be eating that rendang soon after it's been prepared. In some Asian cities, be mindful that street food options can also be less plentiful at night, when many people are eating at home.

I'll have what she's having

Dietary requirements and intolerances aside, it really is a whole lot simpler if you can simply point to the thing that everyone else is eating at a stall, and eat it. It's likely to be freshly prepared, delicious, and you'll probably make a new friend or two in the process. This way you're less likely to end up ordering the overlooked menu item that's been sitting around for some time, or being forced to eat at a dodgy-looking stall because you're hungry and you've ruled out other options.

Thai street food

A little food preparation on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. (Photograph: Leisa Tyler)

Better the devil you know

The beauty of street food is that you can very easily inspect the kitchen