Follow the locals. In a busy marketplace, you can often tell if a stall is reputable based on the line. But pay attention: Mexico City street-food guide Lesley Téllez avoids stalls that draw a primarily young—and less cautious—clientele.
Instead, she looks for “a mix of workers, policemen, and older customers.” And knowing local mealtimes means you can beat the crowds to get the freshest foods.
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Cleanliness counts. “Keep an eye out for signs of cross-contamination,” says Douglas Powell, professor of food safety at Kansas State University. Check that prep surfaces look clean, cold foods are kept on ice, and raw foods are stored separately from cooked. Téllez prefers stands where vendors who handle food don’t touch money.
Bring your own utensils. There’s no way to tell if chopsticks or forks have been given more than a quick rinse.
If possible, watch your food being cooked. And avoid precooked seafood in particular, advises Jeff Koehler, author of the forthcoming cookbook Morocco (Chronicle Books; $29.95). Dishes containing raw meat, and ice-based drinks or desserts such as ice cream that may have been made with unfiltered water, are off-limits. Reheated rice is also a breeding ground for bacteria.
Look for cooking methods that reduce microbes. Pickling vegetables and using citrus juices can reduce the levels of dangerous microorganisms, Powell points out, but they won’t remove your risk entirely. Some spices, such as chiles, turmeric, and epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, also have antibacterial properties.
What’s a trip to Ho Chi Minh City without a steaming bowl of pho eaten curbside, while perched on a tiny plastic stool? Or a stroll through Mexico City without a stop for tacos al pastor, dished up from a wheeled cart? For connoisseurs of local cuisine, streetside dining is a way to explore delicious foods, many of which are unavailable in restaurants, prepared by dedicated specialists. But it has its risks: of the 70 million Americans who travel abroad each year, it is approximated that 46 per cent report varying degrees of food- or water-borne illness. The U.S. centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, advises against consuming street food in developing countries. That’s why it’s as important as ever to be armed with some street-food savvy when you’re on the road.
T+L points out what to look for in a street-food stall before you place that order.
- Kitchens should have separate areas for cooked and raw foods to avoid contamination.
- Semi-permanent stalls, and carts that are clustered together, indicate shared access to clean water and utilities.
- Ingredients are stored in closed containers; cooked food isn’t piled into one big heap.
- Vendors should be neatly dressed and handle food and money separately.
- A long line signals quality and cleanliness, but arrive before the crowds for the freshest fare.
Risk Factor: low
The Scene: This Malaysian island is a street-food paradise: authorities require the 7,000 licensed hawkers to attend a food-safety seminar and random health inspections are conducted daily. There's even a municipal hotline for complaints about dodgy stalls.
Where to Go: Head for the ethnic enclaves of historic Georgetown, such as Little India (centered around Lebuh Pasar and the Kapitan Keling Mosque) and Chulia and Kimberley streets, in Chinatown.
What to Order: Assam laksa (sour fish curry); muar chee (sticky rice cakes with ground peanuts); cendol (pandan-scented rice noodles in coconut milk); mee rebus (egg noodles in thick gravy); murtarbak (crêpes with chicken or lamb); char kway teow (stir-fried wide rice noodles).
What to Avoid: Some stalls serve char kway teow made with cockles, whose freshness can be questionable.
Guide: Helen Ong organizes half-day street-food tours--on foot or by rickshaw or car.
Risk Factor: medium
The Scene: Though streetside eating is a way of life here, enforcement is rather lax and outbreaks of food poisoning occur from time to time. Be extra vigilant: choose popular, crowded stalls with high turnover.
Where to Go: Ben Thanh Market, in the central District 1, or less touristy Binh Tay Market, in Chinatown.
What to Order: Pho (beef-and--rice noodle soup); bánh mì (pâté-and-meat sandwiches); bánh bao (meat-stuffed buns); bun thit nuong (grilled pork with rice vermicelli); bo la lot (grilled beef in betel leaves).
What to Avoid: Nem chua, or fermented, pickled pork sausage, often served raw. Also be wary of foods made with ice.
Guide: Back of the Bike Tours arranges street-food tours by scooter.
T+L Pick: Head to Nguyen Thi Thanh, a.k.a. the Lunch Lady (near 23 Hoang Sa St., District 1), for hu tieu,noodles with sliced pork, prawns, and quail eggs.
Risk Factor: medium
The Scene: Hong Kong's classic dai pai dongs, or outdoor food stalls, are a dying breed: only 27 remain after regulators clamped down in the 1980's. The tradition lives on at food centres, markets, noodle joints, and barbecue shops. While strict hygiene rules are enforced, food poisoning does occur, particularly in the sultry summer months.
Where to Go: Jardine's Crescent market, in Causeway Bay, and Yiu Tung Street, in Kowloon, which has the highest concentration of dai pai dongs.
What to Order: Wonton noodles; roast goose; barbecued pork; gai dan jai (egg-shaped waffles); beef-brisket noodles.
What to Avoid: Steer clear of shellfish dishes if you want to play it safe.
Guide: Jason Wordie leads market tours in Kowloon's Sham Shui Po neighbourhood.
Risk Factor: low
The Scene: Food safety is a point of pride at the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh's iconic central square, where there are frequent inspections and leftover food is routinely disposed of nightly. In the surrounding streets of the mazelike medina, the rules are more difficult to enforce.
Where to Go: Djemaa el-Fna, in the medina; Rue El Kassabin, off the Djemaa, known for mechoui (slow-roasted lamb or mutton).
What to Order: Brochettes (kebabs of lamb, beef, or offal); harira (a hearty bean soup); stewed escargot; merguez(sausage) sandwiches; thin, Moroccan-style macarons filled with vanilla or coconut.
What to Avoid: Fish and seafood, which must be transported across the desert into land-locked Marrakesh.
Fabrizio Ruspoli, owner of the culinary institute Hotel La Maison Arabe, offers his insider tips on a hidden street food haven.
This tiny street, right off Djemaa el-Fna, has some of the best vendors. There's plenty of offal for sale here, but the draw is mechoui (the street is also known as Mechoui Alley). Mutton is baked underground for five hours and served from a tandoor-like pit. Order by weight: one serving is about 500 grams and comes with bread for sopping up the goods. The best stalls? Numbers 26 and 28.
Risk Factor: very high
The Scene: Street food is an institution in Mumbai, although a largely unregulated one, and food-borne illness poses a big risk for travellers here. You're a lot less likely to get sick by sampling similar dishes at the city's many fast-food joints.
Where to Go: Soam (Sadguru Sadan, ground fl., Chowpatty; 91-22/2369-8080);Swati (248 Karai Estate, Tardeo Rd.; 91-22/6580-8405); Elco Restaurant & Catering Services (46 Hill Rd.; 91-22/2645-7677).
What to Order: Bhel puri (puffed rice with vegetables and tamarind); sev puri (fried crackers with potatoes and onions); vada pav (a spicy potato-veggie patty on a toasted bun).
What to Avoid: Skip yogurt-based lassi drinks--you can't always trust the milk--and avoid uncooked chutneys.
Guide: Rashida Anees leads eating tours throughout the city.
T+L Pick: Bademiya, a kebab stand behind the Taj Mahal Palace, in Colaba (nights only).
The Scene: By and large, it's safe to eat street food in EU countries: vendors must comply with rigorous health regulations. In non-EU states, vendors tend to be less scrutinized, but they maintain similar standards. T+L highlights our favourite street foods across Europe, starting with Reykjavík.
Risk Factor: very low
Look for lamb hot dogs smothered in rémoulade, crunchy fried onions, and sweet mustard at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur(corner of Tryggvagata and Póstustræti), a popular cart in the city centre.
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