When you travel abroad, particularly in Asian countries, you will undoubtedly run into street market food. They are unavoidable when trying to really experience what the city or town has to offer, and to experience and taste something just as the locals do.
Many people are simply scared of street market food. They are fearful of getting sick from the food which is understandable. They are not used to seeing food being cooked in the outdoors, perhaps with mice and cockroaches running around the gutter two feet away and stray cats and dogs roaming about. 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. It’s just not something people are used to, in fact, they are used to the exact opposite of this situation.
While markets can at first look super daunting, they are great. I have been eating at markets pretty much everyday for the last three years.
So what is so great about eating street market food?
1. The food is cheap as hell. Probably the cheapest you will find anywhere in that town.
2. It’s tasty. Homegirl doesn’t have a line in front of her food stall for nothing. She knows her cooking is bomb, the people know it, and you need to go find out for yourself.
3. It’s convenient. Many times you can pick something up really quick and take it home. It’s the best fast food out there in my opinion.
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.”
*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.
5. Variety. 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. Either that, or I get tons of small snacks and make that my meal.
6. Street markets aren’t only for food. Markets often have other random little shops selling knickknacks, clothes, and other things that you can pick up to bring home. It’s often cheaper than buying it at the store, so if you’re on a budget, get that new dress from the market!
7. The locals are lining up here every night. So what does that tell you? If you eat where they eat, you should be golden.
So, you might be thinking, “Well I got sick last time I was ate at the street market! I hear all these horrible stories of getting sick” …Blah Blah…
Well, I won’t deny it. Of course people are bound to get a bug or two when they eat at a 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 or your food before purchasing/ watch it be cooked in front of your face. 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. I understand this is what you are used to. So it’s simply your choice.
So what can you do to avoid being sick?
It’s hard to say, but these are some of my personal opinions….
If it’s freshly cooked, you SHOULD be good. The heat will kill everything off. Many places at the markets offer food that they cook to order.
What about raw food items? Raw things such as fruits are generally safe too. I eat fruit everyday, 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.
I have also ate salads from the market many times and have been fine. They do wash they vegetables from what I have seen over the years/ have spoken to people about. With that said, it’s easy to see where something can contaminate a raw food item. You are not cooking it before eating it. Also, they might be cleaning it with tap water which is not drinkable. So there could be a small risk involved here.
Precooked food items. Sometimes things that are pre-cooked and sitting out, are simply not appealing to me. There are many vendors that sell their already prepared noodles and things for those in a rush. I always spend the extra time and go to the woman making it fresh. It’s just what I do in order to avoid any contamination. Plus, for the obvious reason that I actually prefer my food, like noodles, HOT!
On that same note, you might find many different food items precooked and packaged in a little plastic bag with condensation developing from within the bag due to the heat. Personally, I also stay away from these food items. I don’t know when it was cooked and how long it’s been sitting in that bag. They often have no regard for hot things going into plastic. The bag stays in tact, but I just don’t think that can be a good thing.
Meats and such….The one thing I don’t eat is meat. I’m a veggie in case you didn’t know. 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. It’s my choice…BUT…. The majority of people who I have met who have experienced food poising have said they got it from eating the street meat. It’s just a general consensus from what I have heard over the years out here. The obvious reason probably being that they love their meats on a stick out here. Unfortunately, meat can take some time to cook so they pre-cook their meats and leave them out in the open until purchased. If you get unlucky and grab one that has been there for over and hour or two, you might get a stomach bug.
The same goes for fish. I see many vendors with fish precooked and sitting out in the sun. I would not buy a fish from them. There are plenty of street market food stalls offering fresh cooked fish. You can even pick the fresh fish you want for the guy to cook for you. It just makes sense to order the fresher and hotter food.
Now 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 is sometimes a donut guy at the market. I totally eat his donuts. Sugar palm cake lady? Hell yea. 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.
The point to take away is you got to be a bit choosy and use common sense.
– With raw foods, you’re taking a slight risk.
– Most precooked stuff just doesn’t make sense to me if there is fresh cooked food down the way, and there usually is.
– Fresh foods. Cooked in front of you. All the way.
Get down with the sickness
With all that said, you might be wondering if I have gotten sick before? The answer is yes. I have had food poising twice in three years. 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 restaurant!
So really…Getting sick abroad can literally happen anywhere and be from anything.
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. 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.
Oh yea, and maybe you want to see some more of my street market food? I only have like a million pictures of my awesome food and the prices I paid for it. Check it out.
What do you like to eat at the market? Are you still scared to eat there? What are your market food experiences?