Eating street food is one of the cheapest and best ways to immerse yourself in another culture while you are traveling. In our increasingly mysophobic culture in North America and other first world countries, we only see more and more reasons why eating something off the street is as bad as, well, eating something off the street. Many vacationers stay away, as the small gathering of people surrounding a street vendor seems to exude everything that their vacation is intended to keep them away from: crowds of lower-class people, cheap food, dirt and disease, lawless behavior, and stress. You’re on vacation; why should you exert energy fighting through a crowd of people, up to a cart where they probably cannot understand you, to get food that in 5 hours will leave you hugging the toilet? It’s not worth it.
Here’s why it’s worth it:
- Price – You cannot eat much more economically than when you eat street food. Sure, maybe you could go to the market and buy all the same ingredients and do it yourself, but do that when you are not traveling. Street food is always cheaper than eating the same thing in a restaurant, which is great for backpackers and others who are on a strict budget. In Southeast Asia, you can often grab your entire dinner for about $1 USD.
- Culture – You are eating what much of the local population eats. The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 2.5 billion people get at least one meal from a street stall every day. That’s almost half of the world’s population! This street food is the real deal, not a modified version that you would find at a restaurant back home; this is what real people eat every day.
- Cleanliness/Safety – Ok, so I cannot argue that eating street food will be safer than eating comparable foods in the restaurants; that’s a bit of a stretch. However, here are a few points to perhaps ease your mind. First, the ingredients that street vendors use tend to be very fresh. Also, they literally cook the food right in front of you; don’t look too hard, though, as you will surely find a reason to change your mind. If you are ordering souvlaki from a guy, and you still feel unsure, get it well-done. Finally, pick places with high turnover and let the free-market system be your guide. Ingredients will likely be fresher, and if a place is popular with the locals, there couldn’t have been too many problems with the place.
- Interaction With the Locals – Picking that street cart with the high turnover also allows you to interact with the population. These vendors, when compared with a more tourist-friendly restaurant, have had less practice speaking your language; you put yourself in a position where you somewhat force yourself to use what vocabulary you know so that you can get your meal. This is a great way to hone your knowledge of the local language.
- Give Back to Your Host Country – When you eat street food, you are supporting great people who work very hard to make ends meet. I am not very fond of giving money to a homeless person who just stands at the bottom of the stairs when entering the subway; I’d much rather give my money to someone who really needed it, but earned it. Selling food on the street is definitely not a scam or a get rich quick scheme. Many of these people that do it have little or nothing else to turn to. Whether you buy the bakso in Jakarta or just a dirty-water dog in New York, you are supporting an entire working-class family.
- The Experience and the Memories – Picture this: You go over to a man who has a shopping cart that he has converted into a portable grill. You look at the questionable things sizzling. Rubbery things. Slimy things. With a little trepidation, and a little more hesitation, you point to something. The man smiles as he shovels the food onto a plate and pulls out a stool from under the shopping cart for you to sit on. It ends up being some of the best chicken that you’ve ever tried. You will retain a memory like this, whereas you wouldn’t remember even the name of any standard restaurant 5, 10, or 15 years from now.
Eating street food can still make you sick. Even if you see a vendor with many customers, your host country’s locals have built up a bacterial tolerance and immunity, perhaps, that you just haven’t got. Be open to trying these new and different things without being naive and stupid. Eat like a local, but perhaps you don’t need to drink like a local. Stay away from ice in your drinks, and any kind of tap water. Bring some Pepto Bismol tablets, as the anti-diarrheal offerings in many third world countries often times just don’t do the trick. If you do get an upset stomach, drink something like Pedialyte, as the worst part of diarrhea and vomiting is the loss of electrolytes and fluids. And if you get sick once, don’t steer clear of all future street eats. Chalk it up as a bad experience, Yelp about it, but try a different one next time. In the end, trust your gut; your gut will try to give you the best judgment, because it definitely doesn’t want to be tied into a sailor’s knot a few hours later.