Culinary Travel – Street Food
Eating street food is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in an exotic culture. Traditional dishes represent local history and often feature ingredients that are indicative to a particular region. However, purchasing unknown foods can be scary and intimidating, especially if you don’t speak the language. These are our tips for embarking on a street food culinary adventure.
How to eat street food
One of the best places to try street food is a local market at peak busy time. Street vendors at markets tend to use fresh ingredients from the markets, and because these stalls are set up to feed the hungry shoppers, there is quick turnover. Pay attention to which vendors have a high traffic of locals, and choose a stand based on it’s cleanliness. Take these things into consideration before ordering from a street vendor:
Choosing local foods
- How is the food being stored – are ingredients stored in separate bags or bins with proper refrigeration when applicable?
- Is there a clean prep station?
- Is the area around the stove and cook station clean?
- Who is handling the money – are they washing their hands after touching money or wearing gloves when cooking the foods?
- Avoid meats, seafood and dairy that have been left in the sun.
- Steer clear of water and ice in places with water contamination.
How to find local dishes
What is the best way to find can’t be missed local favorites? Simply ask! Food is a powerful communication tool, use it to connect with the natives. Ask taxi drivers, hotel concierge, tour guides, not where to eat, but what to eat. Get their opinion on the best foods in the area and then ask where they go to find their favorite foods.
Don’t be afraid to follow the crowds. If you see a line of locals in front of a busy street vendor, this could be an indication that you found a place that sells a popular regional dish. For example, imagine if you were in Texas and you stumbled upon a BBQ joint that had a line around the block. In many cases the people standing in line are there because the BBQ is outstanding, otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time standing in line. The same concept applies to traveling and trying street foods….do as the locals do.
Shopping at the market
Foreign markets are great places to find deals on local necessities and hand crafted trinkets. Since markets are geared more towards locals, the price of items is generally cheaper than when you shop in ‘touristy’ areas. Bring a backpack and stock up on souvenirs and mementos.
We are big fans of the Osprey Fairmont Travel Backpack. The Fairmont pack comes with a detachable daypack for a hike in the hills or an excursion to the local market.
What to eat at a local market
Foreign markets are a similar concept to American farmer’s markets. Food growers from the region bring their harvest to a market and display their products for shoppers. Generally each vendor specializes in fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, grains and spices. The food vendors selling at a market come in many different forms. They can include permanent structures, mobile push carts, food trucks, freestanding stoves, and hand carried pre-made foods.
In regards to food safety and avoiding sickness, some of these choices are generally safer than others. Here is each vendor option with what to look for and what to avoid:
Think of permanent structures as small versions of restaurants. These vendors typically source their supplies from the market and specialize in regional or specialized exotic cuisine. Look for the vendors with the most traffic, cleanest kitchens/cook space, freshest ingredients and overall cleanliness. Generally these structures are open, feel free to peek in and make sure everything meets your standards.
Be careful of sauces! If a permanent structure has a seating area with sauces in bottles or a sauce stand, use with caution! Sauces are often left in direct sunlight without proper refrigeration and can become a bacteria breeding ground.
Mobile push carts & food trucks
Mobile carts can be large, small, attached to a car or scooter, or whatever means it takes to move the structure (trust us, you will be surprised how creative some vendors get!). Just as with permanent structures, look for the mobile carts with the most local traffic and the overall cleanest appearance. Ensure that meats, dairy, seafood and sauces are stored with proper refrigeration. Also look for clean cook and prep areas and make sure cook and fry oils are not cloudy or dark.
Use the same judgement when ordering from a food truck as you would back home. Many countries don’t have rigorous sanitation requirements for food trucks, so often these establishments can be a gamble. Use your judgement, if the food doesn’t look right or the truck is unsanitary, hold off and order from somewhere else.
Freestanding stoves & hand carried pre-made foods
This refers to small vendors with non-permaninet structures with a very specialized menu. These type of food stands are found in or just outside of markets, on the side of the road, and anywhere there is a lot of foot traffic. This is the most ambitious type of food for a foreigner to try, as it is difficult to know where the ingredients were sourced from, how the food was prepared and what was used for storage. Think of a crepe station, or someone selling homemade baked goods.
Use experience and good judgement to make an educated decision. If you see a line of locals, the stand appears sanitary, you can clearly see how the food is made, and the ingredients look fresh….might be worth a shot if you feel comfortable.
Why do people try foods that are not from a legitimate establishment? Simply because homemade street foods can be phenomenal. This is the quintessential local, authentic version of a recipe that is often handed down through generations…and it could taste unlike anything else you have or will ever encounter!
Pick up spices at the local market and create artisanal cocktails at home!