As my good friend Harriet is departing on a tour of Asia soon (jealous), I thought now might be an apt time to write the Street Food Rules article I promised you. You see, travelling in Asia is a wonderful, incredible, mind-blowing experience – if you don’t have food poisoning. Then it is a belly-blowing experience, which no-one wants. You do not want your lovely trip abroad tainted by three consecutive days of wearing a bucket for a hat and vomiting inside of it.
Sorry for the graphics – but it’s important to know what to do when you’re picking street food and who and where to buy from. In fact, it’s crucial to know this because frankly, you won’t be able to avoid buying street grub completely when you’re there as it smells so damn good. So due to the impossibility of avoiding it, you may as well know these handy tips (based on my experiences in Thailand, though translatable to elsewhere.)
- Go to a well-populated stall
This is pretty much a given. If you’re surrounded by food stalls and there are customers everywhere but not one of them is going to one particular vendor, there’s a reason. Don’t try and be the unique one. You’ll end up on a stretcher.
Saying that, you can safely make an exception from time to time, dependent on what you’re looking for. Fruit and candy – good. Vegetables and rice – good. But DON’T MAKE EXCEPTIONS FOR MEAT. NEVER EVER. MEAT IS DANGER.
Make exceptions for fried ice cream and pineapples and mochi, for sure. But not meat. Dear God please no.
There. I think I made myself clear.
- Pick weird looking things, from time to time
There is no room to be prudish with food in Thailand. If you’re a fussy eater, you’re going to struggle, particularly when it comes to street food. 95% of the time there won’t be any English translations on a menu so if you don’t recognize what something is, you’re probably not ever going to find out what the hell you just put in your mouth. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever try.
Myself and Ben (the guy who shared the same placement as me when I was abroad) had many lovely meals based upon the simple practice of pointing and saying “I’ll take that” towards random words and/or images. In fact, the only time that this was appallingly unsuccessful was when I went to a stall with loads of sweetcorn on (sweetcorn being my favourite thing, like, ever), and the vendor put it into a small cup, added loads of lard and cream and sugar, and mixed it up. It was vile. Ironically, literally sweet sweetcorn is the worst thing ever.
If you’re a bit worried about going totally gung ho with this food-choosing method, make sure to point at a random noodle dish. There’s not a lot of surprising things that can be done to noodles so that’s pretty much a failsafe.
- Try and find a market
One tip which can basically guarantee stomach-safety is trying to find a food market, as opposed to picking a random, isolated stall in the middle of nowhere. You obviously still have to be savvy about what you choose but it’s easier to see where people are flocking towards in a place like a market than it is in the middle of a desert with only a donkey for company (I’m not sure how “middle of nowhere” these stalls get.) More than this, in the rapidly cyclic nature of a market, the food you’re getting there is probably fairly fresh, which is always a plus.
- Mind out for scams
As a tourist, this is always something that you should keep an eye out for. Scams really annoyed me when I went abroad, though not because I am tight with money (in fact, I am dangerously loose with money.) It was more the principle that I was only being charged more just because I was a tourist, and therefore thought to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, you are more likely to be targeted because tourists are affiliated with wealth (ironic, really, as many tourists spend their “wealth” getting to the place in which they are now being scammed.)
So try and be a little savvy! Fruit is generally £3 or under and most other dishes are about £5 or under (usually around £3). Anything above that, if you’re buying street food, is a little bit fishy (unless you’re buying massive things, like whole squids or whatever.) Asian stalls are not like London ones, in which you are charged £5 to look at a cupcake.
- Definitely try these things from “da streetz”
Fresh pineapple (SO AMAZING from Thailand, their pineapple is like 200 times as good – hopefully this is something that is replicated throughout Asia), fruit smoothies, Pad Thai, fried ice cream, a fish noodle dish (fish specifically because Asia are the kings of fishing – the kingfishers, if you will, ho ho ho), apple pie bits.
- Watch your feet!
Make sure that you keep an eye out as to what’s around your feet when you’re buying from a stall. Not to gross you out, but there are a lot of vermin chilling out in towns and stuff like that. Make sure that where the food is being held is on a risen surface and looks, at least, clean. Luckily, one of the advantages of buying from a street vendor is that you can watch them prepare your meal (definitely a plus if it’s being cooked) so there’s no shady business there.
- Flee and hit a 7/11
If all else fails and you’re still not quite sure, go get yourself a nice toastie or onigiri from your nearest 7/11. You can’t go wrong.