When you’re tired and hungry from a long day of travel, there’s no time to wait for room service. Street food is nearly always readily available, and it’s often a great way to jump into a new culture. Whether you decide to chat up the cooks or just hang out nearby observing the scene, eating street food around the world is a good way to overcome that feeling of being “just another tourist.” Plus, you can usually count on it being a cheap meal.
The Rules for Eating Street Food around the World
As satisfying and delicious as street food around the world can be, however, not all street food is as healthy as you might hope—and I’m not talking about calories. Finding the best street food also means knowing which street foods to avoid.
If it’s your first time venturing into a food market abroad, or if you’ve had a bad experience with street food that you’re looking to learn from, here are some universal tips for finding and enjoying the best street food around the world.
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Look for Heat
Searching for good street food around the world might be one of the only scenarios in which if you see a fire, you should head towards it. An open fire, steam, or smoke are all signs that whatever you order will be fresh off the grill or out of the fryer. Be wary of any food that looks like it has been sitting around.
If possible, always purchase from a stand where the food is made-to-order, since cold food is more likely to have been exposed to bacteria from being out in the open air or by sitting in proximity to raw uncooked ingredients. If you’re getting your dinner on the street, make sure’s hot.
Look at the Ingredients
When possible, take a look behind the counter and observe how the ingredients are being stored. Are they covered up or out in the open? Is the food pre-cut or cut to order? Ideally, the food will be kept in a cool area, preferably refrigerated, with something—a lid, plastic wrap, etc.—protecting it.
If the food stand’s fruits and vegetables are pre-cut, that’s also a sign that they have been sitting around for a bit. However, you might make an exception for a stand that is exceptionally busy and frequently running through ingredients.
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Be Wary of Water
Unsafe drinking water is one of the biggest causes of traveler illnesses abroad. Whenever you travel to any country with a dubious tap water situation, you probably know to avoid drinking the tap water and to order all your drinks without ice. But you should also avoid eating fruits and vegetables that might have been washed in unsafe water. This means you finally have an excuse to skip the salad and opt for something grilled, fried, or boiled.
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Get in a Long Line
Finding street food that won’t make you sick doesn’t mean you’ve found the best and most tasty street food on the block. To determine which vendors have the best street food, trust the power of popularity. If you see a long line for food, get in it—especially if you see locals doing the same. And if the stand has multiple people working behind the counter, that’s a sign the food is moving fast and likely to be fresh throughout the day.
When in Doubt, Take a Tour
Between language barriers and a lack of knowledge about local cuisine, navigating any new food market can be a daunting task. If you really want to learn about the best food available, sign up for a tour on your first day in your destination and have a local guide show you the ropes. Not only will your guide point out the best street food, he or she will also be able to show you the ropes of what makes a good food stand in that particular place, as well as let you know if you’re overpaying or underpaying for your food.
[viator_tour destination=”76″ type=”3-mod” tours=”34253P1,30791P275,5511FOODST”]
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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.