I treat eating street food in Southeast Asia as an adventure sport. The payoff is that you can consume some truly incredible dishes that can’t be beat even at the top notched restaurants in Sydney, New York, or London and they only cost the equivalent of a dollar or two. On the flipside, you could also be spending your next 24-48 hours hovering over a third world toilet. No matter how good your stomach is, eating street food is always like playing Minesweeper (that game that we all played on our Window 98). You can never really win that game, but you can avoid losing.
Before heading to Bangkok for the first time, I was very torn on if I should try the street food. I had heard mix reviews and they were all extreme like “You HAVE to! It’s part of the culture” and “you’re dumb if you do”. Even in US cities like Chicago, food trucks are still trying overcome the “roach coach” connotation. After spending two months backpacking through Southeast Asia, here are my 5 tips for surviving Asian street food:
5. Don’t let bugs bother you. Easier said than done, I know. The fact is flies will be everywhere. They’ll land on you and your food. And that tickle on your big toe is probably a roach. Carry on. That’s part of the charm of Southeast Asia. Get used to it.
4. Price doesn’t correspond with safer food. Your best bet is to use your 5 senses. Do be mindful that preparation and preservation techniques for food vary by country from super laid back to that needs to be in the refrigerator!
3. Don’t be first in line. See what street vendors are popular. If lots of people are eating their food, it’s one, probably safe and delicious. Two, they are going through their food supplies quickly so they aren’t sitting dormant in the sun, which also means they are buying fresh food on a more regular basis.
2. Go vegetarian. Have you ever seen cows in Thailand? They look anorexic. I stayed clear of meats many times, especially if I questioned the freshness. However, fruits and vegetables are all locally sourced. The weather is hot, so it doesn’t take much to feel full. An egg or two, some rice, and a tropical fruit salad and you are good to go for hours.
1. Always bring anti-diarrhea tablets with you. Keep them in your pocket or a friend’s pocket. But they will be used at some point. It’s not if, but when. Take my advice. Street food aside, it’s still a Southeast Asia travel must.
The truth is unless you eat a well-known international restaurant that is using the same ingredients and refrigeration techniques that they do in all countries, the only difference between most local restaurants and street vendors is that the indoor restaurants have a roof, possibly air conditioning, and higher prices. How the food is prepared is much the same. I rather pay less for the same quality, plus everything is transparent with the street vendors. If the meat looks disgusting, then skip it.
Bonus advice: Have cash in small denominations on you. Street vendors in SE Asia aren't using Square or PayPal. So don't bother with a credit card. They also may not be able to break large bills (and you also don't want to look like your loaded) so have smaller bills ready to go.
Foot notes: I am a born and raised Chicagoan who now travels the world. I feel a nation’s food is an essential part of its culture. That’s where my perspective comes from. I think at least trying street food from a few popular vendors is essential to any Southeast Asia trip. True, I’m generalizing and grouping a region of the world together with Southeast Asia. Obviously, the food, cooking techniques, and the abundance of vendors is going to vary by country. I can also tell you when I was in SE Asia that I had at least one meal per day from street vendors and I overall felt healthy. I’d say my stomach was at a 90% on average as far as feeling good. But as Andrew Zimmern always says, “If it looks good, eat it.”