'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.
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.
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.
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!).
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 m?m tôm (fermented shrimp sauce) normally get the blame. The use of formaldehyde to preserve the country's most renowned noodle, ph?, 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.
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.
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.
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.
By Mark Lowerson
Last updated on 18th April, 2012.
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