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 the right crowd. 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 - it's right there in front of you. There's nowhere to hide with a street food stall, the vendor is preparing food in open view and this transparency actually makes it a more informed choice than eating at a restaurant with a hidden kitchen. If you don't like what you see, keep walking.

Head to the local market

Sometimes, good street food can be elusive. A fail-proof tip is to head to the local market in the mornings, where food vendors make delicious, authentic meals to cater to the hundreds of market vendors and local shoppers.

Vietnamese street food

Foreign tourists and locals having drinks and food as they sit at tables set up on the pavement in the old quarter of Hanoi. (Photograph Hoang Dinh Nam)

Eat with a side of common sense

I've read articles that suggest you stop eating sauces and condiments while travelling in Asia, and others that tell you to carry your own cutlery. I'm not prepared to do either. I'm also not prepared to avoid ice, but I might think twice about it if I was outside a major city and in a country with poor sanitation. Be particularly careful in such places during monsoon season when sewers tend to overflow - diseases like typhoid are most commonly spread by infected food and water, and your typhoid vaccine only covers 70 per cent of cases.

If in doubt, sit back and watch

A quiet food stall on the Vietnamese island of Con Dao appeared to be breaking every rule with roast pork sitting out in the hot afternoon sun. But sit back and watch, and you'd notice the vendor arrives at 2pm each day, the whole roast pig still hot, and shortly after, the crowds descend. Within the hour she's placed the last skerrick of succulent meat and crackling on a fresh bread roll with a lashing of chilli sauce, then she packs up and heads off. I'm glad I didn't die wondering about the best pork roll of my life.
* Moments like these are one of the many tourist secrets things to do in Asia

Thai street food

Street food entertains as it allows you to see all the foods being prepared and cooked right in front of you. (Photograph: Leisa Tyler)

Rachel Bartholomeusz

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