When you travel abroad, specifically Asian countries, you’ll run into a huge cultural staple in the culinary world: street market food. It’s a staple of flavor you can’t miss even if you tried.
When you travel to places such as Thailand or surrounding countries, street food offers foreigners a look into what the experience of the city really has to offer.
It offers a key experience unlike any other, something that can connect you to the locals and the history of the environment you’re in.
Many individuals are also struck with an overwhelming fear of the unknown when they are face to face with street food. This can be understandable, people aren’t exactly used to seeing food being prepared outdoors, with critters such as mice and cockroaches running about, or the stray cats and dogs that run the streets. It can be shocking, to say the least.
It might be weird to see one woman and her wok feed a small herd of people sitting on flimsy plastic chairs while crouched at the kiddy-sized table waiting for their food. It’s not normal to have to push your way through tight alleyways with aromas that attack your senses while having to watch your step for potholes, cats, small children, or a large pot of roasted animal bones in broth in the pathway.
This sensory overload is overwhelming and something many people are not used to, usually, they’ve only experienced the exact opposite of this scenario.
Eating Thai food from the street markets can be a bit intimidating, but trust me, it’s great.
I’ve been eating at these street markets every day for years and I wouldn’t change a thing.
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What’s So Great About Eating Thai Food? Particularly Thai Street Food.
1. Thai street food is cheap as hell
Probably the cheapest you will find anywhere in that area. Thai street food offers the best natural ingredients you can find, most likely more fresh than the restaurant by your hotel.
Thailand food prices can be pricey in some areas due to tourists, but if you muster up the courage to really explore what the culture has to offer, you’ll find everything you could ever want from the Thai street food stalls.
2. Eating Thai food is tasty
The unique individuals that put their love and care into the food prepared day after day, they aren’t just trying to get the money in your wallet, they’re doing this because it’s their history, their passion, and they’re damn good at it.
The Thai street food chef knows her cooking is a bomb, the people know it, and you need to go find out for yourself.
3. It’s convenient, quick, and worth it
Many times you can pick something up really quick and take it home. It’s the best fast food out there in my opinion. It’s so much better than stopping in at a McDonald’s.
When you’re eating Thai food from the markets, you’re eating organic, flavorful, and REAL food from the area you’re visiting.
How can it get any better than that?
4. It’s authentic
Period. Sometimes restaurants, especially when they see a foreigner, try to “westernize” their meal. I hate it when they do that. I want to eat the real thing. Not to mention “Westernizing” often means they leave out certain flavors and spices because sometimes “foreigners don’t like it.”
When you stop by the local food stall, you’ll receive real southeast Asian street food. No ifs, ands, or buts.
*With that said, when roaming about Thailand in particular, asking for your dish to be only a little spicy might be wise. They REALLY like the heat and a little bit is usually spicy enough. Personally, I’ve grown a tolerance and get it medium, I like a bit of fire!
5. Variety is the spice of life
If you’re anything like me, you often don’t know what you feel like eating. So I just roam the markets and see what calls out to me. Anything you can imagine, it will be there, especially classics that are local to the area you’re staying in. From hot meals, cold drinks, and desserts, when you discover southeast Asian street food, you’ll realize right away that you’re covered!
With how cheap it is too, I can get 3-4 small things and still only spend a few bucks.
6. Eating Thai Food at the markets is fresh AF
Hopefully, this post will put your fears at ease and make you realize that market food in Thailand is usually super fresh.
I know it’s shocking to see slabs of meat out in the open and bleeding on the floor and seeing the noodle lady grab your noodles with her hands and placing it in boiling water but it’s going to be OK. Breathe. Forget it. Enjoy eating it.
Besides, that boiling water will kill the bacteria anyway. 🙂
Thai street food is super fresh, we’re just not used to seeing it THIS fresh.
7. The locals are lining up here every day
So what does that tell you? If you eat where they eat, you should be golden.
Keep this in mind when looking for a quick meal, just look for the crowd and you’re bound to find something that will fill you up and give you energy for the day ahead.
So, you might be thinking: “Well I got sick last time I ate at the street market! Or “I hear all these horrible stories of getting sick”
Well, I won’t deny it.
Of course, people are bound to get a bug or two when they eat at new places under different sanitary conditions than back home. However, it’s not to say the restaurants are much better. At least at the market, you can SEE the majority of your food before purchasing/watch it be cooked in front of your face.
At many establishments, you end up putting your trust in the chef and you can’t even see how they prep the food! When you head to a new country with different customs and traditions, you have to realize that your chances of getting sick are pretty equal in my opinion, the restaurants just paint a façade of being cleaner in your mind mostly because you can’t see back there.
Keep this in mind when you search for new food places to enjoy, sometimes heading to the street market can be the safer choice!
Is Street Food Safe In Thailand? How Can I Avoid Getting Sick When I Eat Thai Food?
First of all, it’s important to remember that many areas that take part in the market culture, which exist broadly in Southeast Asian street food, these observances can be applied. While I may be expressing my experiences in Thailand, many of these street food customs are considered common practices in many of the neighboring countries.
I’ve traveled to a number of surrounding countries and while the traditional food may differ, the overall practice of Thai street food is much broader than just Thailand.
If you head to a market stall and you watch the chef freshly cook the meat and vegetables, it’s safe to say that it SHOULD be fine to eat. The heat will kill everything off.
Many places at the markets offer food that they cook to order.
In my opinion, this is a safer option compared to going to a restaurant you know nothing about and they leave ingredients sitting out or precook items that you can’t even see.
Generally, if you’re being careful and smart, you’ll find that street food can be safe in Thailand.
Let’s Get Into The Specifics: Is Street Food Safe In Thailand?
What about raw food items?
Raw things such as fruits are generally safe too. I eat fruit every day, mostly from the market and pre-cut for my convenience. It’s fine. They wrap it up in a bag or cellophane after cutting it to shield it from the open air. Generally, anything you can see prepared will be fine in most cases.
If you see the stall you’re at prepare something that doesn’t look ideal, just say no and move on to the next.
Every once and awhile I want a fresh salad and the times I’ve ordered these kinds of fresh vegetables haven’t been a problem. They do wash the vegetables, however, with that said, it’s easy to see where something can contaminate a raw food item. You are not cooking it before eating it.
So keep in mind if the fresh lettuce and cabbage is sitting right next to raw meat, pass on the salad.
Also, they might be cleaning it with tap water which is not drinkable. So there could be a small risk involved here but I’d say a small one. Many vendors bring their own water to the market.
Precooked food items
Precooked items that are left sitting out even after being cooked simply are not the most appealing to me. There will always be a large number of vendors who sell their already prepared noodles for those in a rush, which while it may be convenient if I have the time I always spend the extra moments to ask if the cook can make it fresh. By doing this you’re making sure you’re doing everything you can to avoid any contamination. Plus, who doesn’t like fresh and hot noodles!
You will also come across many food stalls that have various food items precooked and packaged in small plastic bags. These bags tend to be left out for the majority of the day, you can tell right away because of the condensation developing from within the bag due to the heat.
Personally, I also stay away from these food items. I have no idea when the food within these bags was cooked or even how long it’s been sitting in the bag. They often have no regard for hot things going into plastic. The bag stays intact, but I just don’t think that can be a good thing. Why risk any toxins seeping from the plastic bags because the substance of the food was boiling hot, that is just asking for trouble.
Meats and such
The one item of food I tend to stay away from is meat. Just in case you didn’t know, I’m a veggie and with that said, don’t take my next statement as a “pretentious vegetarian who is trying to convert people,” because really, I couldn’t care any less what you eat.
But it is very important that you know, the majority of people who I’ve met who have experienced food poisoning have said they got it from eating the street meat.
The biggest reason that could lead to this problem is the fact that many food stalls pre-cook their meat and leave it sitting out all day because of the huge demand. Unfortunately, meat can take some time to cook so if you get unlucky and grab one that has been there for over an hour or two, you might get a stomach bug.
The same problem exists for fish. Fish is a common food staple in southeast Asian food culture. I see many vendors with fish precooked and sitting out in the sun. It can be very jarring, especially for someone who has never seen something like this before. In many cases, you can even pick the piece of fish you want the guy to cook for you, but even this is not a great option because the moment you walk up to a fish stall you’ll notice the flies constantly buzzing around the exposed fish.
It just makes sense to order the fresher and hotter food.
What I Look For When I Eat Thai Food At The Markets?
There are a number of vendors around many areas that offer southeast Asian street food that is perfectly fine to eat, and with the huge rise of popularity of street food across the world, safer practices are constantly being put into place for a healthy and overall better experience.
The things I do eat that are precooked are the items that don’t have that large of a risk of going bad in the heat and out in the open.
So for example, there’s often a donut guy at the market. I totally eat his donuts. Sugar palm cake lady? Hell yeah. You sell fried spring rolls? I’m eating that for sure. For some reason, these don’t pose as much of a risk to me compared to pork on a stick that has been sitting out for hours.
Don’t be afraid to be picky!
– With raw foods, you’re taking a slight risk. If it’s not being served in a clean environment, pass.
– Most pre-cooked stuff just doesn’t make sense to me if there is freshly cooked food down the way, and there usually is.
– Fresh foods. Cooked in front of you. All the way.
Have I Gotten Sick Before?
The answer is yes. I have had food poisoning twice in three years (updated! over six years abroad, 4 years in Southeast Asia, and haven’t got sick again). I consider myself very very lucky. Once in Thailand and once in Indonesia. Both times were horrendous. The second time was a doozy and it took me nearly a month to get 100% better! Find out how getting sick abroad totally fucking sucked for me and what did it.
PS- The first time I got sick was from street market food, the second time was at a decent restaurant! Which just goes to show you, it can happen anywhere!
Go Try Some Thai Street Food!
The point of all of this is to encourage those who are eating a hamburger at the restaurant across from the market to venture out and try something new.
Food is often one of the biggest ways to expose yourself to a new culture, so get out of your comfort zone and get out there.
You’re traveling, and in case you didn’t know, food is part of the experience! Don’t be afraid; go eat!
You are also supporting the local community by eating at the market, so be sure to eat local rather than helping out the big chain restaurants. This way you can help promote local culture and keep the tourist traps at bay, which usually wash out the traditions that have been around for hundreds of years.
Where will you go after Thailand?
Are you curious about Thai street food now?
What would you like to eat at the market? Is eating Thai food at a market still scary? What are your market food experiences?
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad and epically failing at the American Dream since 2011. Her sassy yet informative blog, Where in the World is Nina? is all about how to work abroad to live a more adventurous life. If you want to travel longer you have to work to wander.