Street food safety
First published 18th April, 2012
'Eating the streets' of Southeast Asia is regularly described in the mainstream media as an experience that is exotic or adventurous, sometimes tacked on to the food pages of guidebooks as a kind of appendix after the list of travellers' restaurants, bars and cafes. Tales of suspect food handling, scary ingredients and remedies for upset stomachs are usually part of this discourse. But surely traversing the footpaths, alleys and, indeed, the gutters of countries in this region in search of authentic food experiences should be championed rather than marginalised?
Or should it? That's a serious topic for debate, and much more academic in scope than these few words here. "Is street food safe to eat?" is an FAQ, too; one which, in spite of all the conflicting views, whether they be based on empirical or anecdotal evidence, is impossible to which give a definitive answer.
"Pork tastes good"
Some people eat street food and some people don't. Some people get sick and some people don't. Some people who eat street food get sick. Some people who don't eat street food get sick. Other physical and psychological variables in the equation add to the possible combinations and permutations. Even after 10 years living in Vietnam, all of them spent chop-sticking the cuisine from street to mouth, six of them documenting the experience, I am not prepared to make a pronouncement one way or the other.
Pickle my chillies!
Let it be said, however, that eating street food is not for everyone. What I eat in Hanoi may very well make the traveller from Auckland or Boston heave all night into porcelain. A gastro-enterologist would most likely be able to explain the reasons. Medical science would surely come down harshly on the street food of Southeast Asia. Local tour guides for high-end travel companies openly discourage their guests from consuming anything of the sort.
So what are the chances of getting sick?
The probability of a loose bowel movement is an even-money bet. Admittedly, this is due in part to hygiene and food handling standards that would give a Western health inspector reason to run screaming. Impervious surfaces, shatter-proof light bulbs, temperature danger zones and hands-free wash basins are hardly part of the lexicon among restaurateurs in Vietnam, let alone street food vendors.
Madame Tuyet holds court.
In fact, the reality of the matter is that these food inspectors and what they enforce are also partly to blame for the stomach ailments inflicted on travellers. It could be argued that the sanitised kitchens of the first world, the polystyrene-packaged food and gloved hands of the kitchen hands there, have stolen away our natural immunity. One speck of impurity now has us reaching for the Imodium, allowing us never to stray too far from a toilet, providing us with an "I got the shits from the food story" for the folks back home.
Seriously though, for those with sensitive stomachs and in the rare exceptional circumstances where something truly nasty may be lurking, it pays to be fairly vigilant. To guard against the risk of contracting stomach bugs, a few simple pointers are worth considering. Use of gloves and tongs is a pretty good sign that the vendor has a degree of awareness of food handling practices. A vendor who is well-groomed and scrupulously clean gets points, too. Look around the stall for clean glasses, crockery and chopsticks, tables and condiment vessels that are wiped clean. The less smears and fingerprints, the better. Carry a pad of hand wipes to clean your hands and chopsticks before you eat. Or, if in Vietnam, do as the locals do – ineffectually rub each stick and your spoon with a dry paper napkin. In reality this action cannot be doing anything remotely cleansing but it will help you to fit in and feel like a local (ed: Oh no, this is what I do!).
Team street food.
Crowded places where food turnover is high are normally a good indicator of quality. As refrigeration may be limited or non-existent in many local eateries, the quicker the food is going out the door, the less time it is spending in temperature danger zones. One-dish specialty vendors and stalls, where management of stock is restricted to a few ingredients that are generally bought fresh in the morning or as needed during the service period, are a good bet. In general, these vendors serve until they run out and start afresh again the following day. Wastage is minimal and there is less chance of cross contamination between old and new stock.
Keep abreast of health alerts but do not be put off too much by them; they do tend to err too far on the side of caution. Food scandals surface fairly frequently in this region. Each summer in Hanoi, a season of intense heat and humidity, there is an outbreak of diarrhaea, the cause of which is rarely pinpointed accurately. Poorly washed salad greens or a bad batch of Vietnam's notorious mắm tôm (fermented shrimp sauce) normally get the blame. The use of formaldehyde to preserve the country's most renowned noodle, phở, hit the front pages in 2007. There was outrage for a while but what are the locals going to do: stop eating their go-to comfort food? Whether it be through more intense scrutiny by health authorities or self-regulation by the vendors and consumers themselves, these scandals seem to get resolved just as quickly as they emerge. It pays to remember that food scandals do occur in the more developed parts of the world, too. Those who are intrigued at whatever level by street food in this region should experience it.
Duck + anything = yummo.
But there could be psychological barriers to overcome, too.
All too often I watch travellers to Vietnam, even seemingly intrepid backpackers, linger around the periphery of a street food stall. They are desperate to try it. There is a few minutes of apprehension, a 'let's do it' decision followed a split second later by a cowardly retreat which invariably ends in the safe environs of a travellers' café, a plate of packet spring rolls and a knife and fork in front of them.
Sticky rice streetside.
A range of perfectly legitimate reasons can provoke the cowardly retreat. I have internalised and rationalised many of them during my time in Hanoi. I stubbornly hold on to some, though it is not so much philosophical or critical reasoning as it is pure and utter fear; of the unknown and the known. My 'gag activator' has been on red alert on several occasions. Certain textures and tastes in my mouth remain terribly unsettling. I'm still a big fraidy cat when confronted with my three culinary nemeses: too fatty, too chewy and too fishy. While they are largely properties that are eschewed in food in the West, all three are prominent – even sought after – in the Hanoi foodscape. Where else in the world would you see 14 year-old girls ravenously devouring a plastic plate full of tubes and blood sausages, served with a potent fermented shrimp dipping sauce. In the west, 14 year-old girls are rarely seen eating at all.
A cart with your name on it.
Individual food fears are universal. And people want to know what they are putting into their mouths, some more obsessively than others.
Common sense should be the guiding principle. Do not do as I do! My immunity has been established over six years of gutter crawling from one smeared table to the next. If it feels right, if there is not too much grot about and many of the above-mentioned pointers have been addressed, sit down and be brave.
About the author
Mark Lowerson is an Australian who has been living and working in Vietnam since 2002. Mark started his food blog Stickyrice as a creative outlet in 2005, focusing his posts on street food in Hanoi and the culture around food in his adopted home.
Mark's alter-ego, Sticky, is a "gutter crawling streetfood eater and drinker." Stickyrice was featured on Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie in 2008 and was selected in TimesOnline's Best 50 Food Blogs in 2009. Mark also collaborates in a business offering street food tours of Hanoi.
Story by Mark Lowerson
Related readingBeing fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
One day in Hanoi
Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
Read 4 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (73)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.