Dear Travel IQ: I love to watch shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and I enjoy eating new foods when I travel. I’ve always been afraid to try street food, however. It’s tempting, but I’m worried about sanitation and catching some type of bug that will ruin my trip. How can I safely join Andrew and the others who seem to eat from the street vendors’ carts with impunity?
Signed: Hungry in Chiang Mai
Dear Hungry in Chiang Mai: Sampling local cuisine can be a wonderful way of experiencing a culture, and the food at roadside stands and cafés can be particularly tempting. Unfortunately, many items may not be cooked or cleaned properly, and travelers later regret their desire to eat authentic.
My personal philosophy is to follow the locals – the busier the stand, the more often the food is made fresh and not sitting out to accrue bacteria.
Often, illness is not caused by the food but instead by the water. Avoid any foods that are made or preserved with tap water. This also includes beverages: fruit juices, smoothies, and, most importantly, ice. Be sure to check for sealed and untampered caps on your bottled water. Additionally, check if dairy items and bottled juices are pasteurized. I recommend only eating fruits and vegetables that have a thick peel, including oranges, squash, peppers, mangoes, and bananas. Be cautious about salad since the lettuce is often washed in tap water!
As a precaution, some travelers pack an OTC digestive relief or grapefruit seed extract, which is a natural defense to unfamiliar bacteria. If you are particularly concerned, you can always ask your physician for an antibiotic before you travel.
Enjoy your gastronomical adventures!