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Is it safe to eat street food in south east Asia?

Is it safe to eat street food in south east Asia?

Dec 4th, 2015, 02:34 AM
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Is it safe to eat street food in south east Asia?

A question that is often asked and always seems to elicit as many diametrically opposed and strongly held opinions as the other oft asked question “how much should I tip?. Some love it, some wouldn't try it at any cost. There is of course no “right” answer. Each to their own.

Over many years of travelling around Asia and the rest of the world, as committed foodies, we have made a point of sampling cuisines at all levels from Michelin starred restaurants in London and Paris to street stalls and markets deep in the back streets everywhere from Hanoi, Vietnam to La Paz. in Bolivia.

For me, street food, or indeed small "hole in the wall" restaurants, do provide the best value and most "authentic" eating experience (whatever that actually means). - for me it means food which has not been dumbed down for foreigner palates. it is what the locals eat.

Much is made of the lack of hygiene at many street food stalls and local type eating places. Whilst this is certainly an issue at some places, it by no means applies to all. One of the benefits of eating at these places is that generally you can see the hygiene so standards for yourself. Not always the case for larger restaurants and, having looked into a few kitchens, the standards actually applied in many are no better or worse than street stalls.

I recently came across this article on travelling.org which considers the matter in some detail, albeit sitting on the fence somewhat!


Street food may not be for everyone, but for me, eating on the street, in markets and “local” restaurants has provided some of the best food we have ever eaten. The prices are ridiculously low prices and many places only offer one dish which they really excel at. I certainly would not dismiss it out of hand as an option. Over the last thirty or so years visiting Asia I have seen hygiene standards improve exponentially.

For any one wanting to try street food for the first time, there has been an explosion of street food tours in many locations across SE Asia. an expensive way of trying it certainly, but you can be pretty sure that the guide will only take clients to places that are both good and hygeinic. they will also provide a much better insight to the food than you would otherwise get.

There are risks involved in eating anywhere. One of my worst experiences involved eating in the restaurant of a five star hotel in Hue. Two days in the bathroom was not something I care to repeat (especially as it was my wife's birthday!).

A few tips stay safe I have found helpful over the years:
1. Eat only at busy places. Lots of locals is a great sign.
2. places serving just one or two dishes are usually a good bet.
3. Make sure hot food cooked in front of you and is piping hot.
4. Many vendors now use plastic gloves, a sign that they are at least attempting to take hygiene matters seriously
5. Peel fruit.
6. Noodles are much safer than rice.
7. Take hand sanitiser or wipes with you everywhere and use both on your hands and on your utensils.
8. We also carry our own plastic spoons, forks and chopsticks (but to be fair, we usually forget to use them!

Anyway, these were just a few of my thoughts sitting here on a cold, grey November day back in England desperately trying to resist the urge to go online and buy an air ticket to somewhere hot
crellston is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 03:49 AM
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Many thanks for the wonderful post, crellston! You outline excellent points about risk and safety. Many I'm familiar with, but #6 is new to me-- "Noodles are much safer than rice." I assume that's because rice absorbs more water?

I'm definitely in the hole-in- the wall and street food camp, though of course, am mindful of the risks. In India, we eventually tried some street food with our guide, and by the end of our trip, had enough confidence to sample a few things on our own. But understanding when and how to sample local places is key!

Thanks again!
progol is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 04:10 AM
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Note that the locals may have adjusted to some of the local bacteria that occurs in some foods while tourists have not and that can bea problem. So long linesof locals doesn't eliminate this potential issue. For me it just is not worth the risk. It's a dice roll and maybe it comes up seven or eleven a lot of times but if comes up craps well we all know where you will be spending the next few days.
MrsBillT is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 04:28 AM
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My questions regarding free standing street stands (not hole in the wall restaurants) is how do they sanitize dishes and how do they refrigerate food. Probably if one thinks too much about these issues they should not be eating street food, so I don't, although some of it looks really good.
shelleyk is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 04:31 AM
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Clive I still love you...
rhkkmk is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 04:34 AM
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I avoid street food in India, but not in China. In SEA it varies. However the only time I have gotten sick from food was in a Gateway hotel (part of the Taj chain).

I, too, had not heard that rice was more dangerous. Pity, as I am not fond of noodles.
thursdaysd is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 07:18 AM
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Progol - re rice. It is something I picked up when attending a food hygiene course (when we were flirting with running a B & B). There is a particular bacteria, bacillus cereus, which thrives in rice especially when reheated or kept warm ( which it is in most eating places). I think it is partly due to rice having a much larger surface area where bacteria thrive.


Noodles are nearly always freshly made that day and are usually cooked in boiling water or stock and served immediately - imho along with BBQ stuff, one of the safest options.

Shelleyk - a good point and one which applies to most restaurants. No one can guarantee that dishes are ”sanitised" many street stalls will have access to water and you will quite often see stall holders washing dishes, admittedly probably in lukewarm grey water. The same is largely true of small local places too and no one really knows what goes on behind the scenes of some of the bigger upmarket places. Clearly it is likely to be cleaner off the street than on. There is risk everywhere. BBQ is your best bet if concerned.

MrsBillT - I am not trying to convert anyone if you don't want to try street food fine, stick with the mainstream restaurants. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, I disagree with your comment re adjusting to local bacteria. I believe it is essential that travellers adjust to local bacteria albeit gradually in order to prevent potential problems. It is possible to be too clean, one bodie needs to adjust to bacteria to remain healthy

Bob - I love you too

Thursdaysd - even I would avoid street food in India! Bizarrely, I too got sick in 5 star Taj place. I insisted on having look into the kitchen - it was disgusting. I do so love Indian food though.
crellston is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 10:18 AM
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We're big fans of street food -- for us, one of the major draws of Asia. Better than the cultural high of shopping in markets. My boys and husband will never forget the tiger penis whiskey they tried in Laos or the crispy crickets in Cambodia (Mr. Crosscheck is now a vegan, but has been known to cheat with Pad See Ew).

According to my super-scientific anecdotal research, I think the chances of getting sick at a well-frequented stall in SEA are no greater than at a restaurant. We follow the 'choose a busy place' rule, prefer disposable plates and chopsticks, and always check out the refrigeration or lack thereof...a habit picked up while living in Latin America. We've done a few food tours and cooking classes w/ market shopping -- a great way to test the waters with offerings deemed safe by guides.

Like the rest of you we resisted (mostly) in India because of other travelers' horror stories, but stayed in one hotel (Devi Garh near Udaipur) where the bar chef re-created the street food that we photographed.

In other parts of Asia (HK, Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo), we recently went on a dumpling taste test binge while on a work trip. And here in the US, we love the food carts in Portland and are looking forward to Anthony Bourdain's Asian night market in NYC.


After 60+ countries, my only significant gastro incident (knock wood) was in Vegas at a fancy private BBQ at a convention. I ended up staying two extra days because I was too sick to travel home. Still hate going back.
crosscheck is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 11:32 AM
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I will add just a little bit to crellston's great post.

To those who say that the locals are used to the bacteria present in water, while tourists are not, this is not always the case. In most SE Asian countries (and most developing countries in general), the bacteria that is concerning to tourists would also be concerning to all as they are pathogenic - one cannot get used to them unless in minute quantities... stuff like hepatitis, typhoid, tetanus, etc... These bacteria are present in most SE Asian (and most developing countries') water supplies, which is why it is usually not safe for anyone, including locals, to drink the tap water unless it has been specially treated either by heat, filter, RO (reverse osmosis) or chemical (chlorine as an example). Also a good reason to have your vaccines up to date. These bacteria are different than the normal pathogenic bacteria which cause food poisoning - like B. Cereus., Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli, etc. Food poisoning bacteria is typically present in all foods, no matter the country of origin. What is important is safe handling - minimizing cross contamination of raw/cooked foods, safe holding temperatures/times and proper cooking temperatures/times.

What's the point of all this? If you see a stall with lots of local customers, you can be sure that they are washing their dishes/utensils with water that is either so hot that bacteria are killed (I once saw a pho shop in Hanoi wash their chopsticks/spoons using boiling water) or use some anti-bacterial agent (not so likely). No matter who eats from these plates and utensils, everyone would get sick if they were washing their plates with typhoid laden water - locals and tourists alike.

Plus, a busy stall is good because it means the ingredients are fresh - they aren't sitting around long enough for concentrations of food poisoning bacteria to multiply to dangerous levels. Some tourists get nervous because many street stalls do not have refrigeration - this is true, but they get around this by purchasing their ingredients from the market just before use, some even getting deliveries throughout the day, so refrigeration is not necessary. I once read an interesting statistic that said that the meats used in some of the most popular shop type restaurants are typically no longer than 6 hours from SLAUGHTER! That is ridiculously fast - a concept that we in the west cannot imagine as most farms can be potentially a full day's drive (at least) to the market.

Personally, I am a big fan of eating local food - whether from shophouse type 'restaurants' or stalls that only serve a single dish. I find the flavors to be the most vibrant, and to be the most indicative of what that cuisine is - not filtered through the gauze of what the tourist may or may not like. To me, eating in these establishments are the best windows into a culture and how people live on a daily basis.

In my wife's and my adventures, I have only gotten food poisoning once, and that was traced to a well known, high end restaurant in Bangkok. I know that it came from this place since it was the only time my wife and I did not eat identical meals, and she did not get sick at all that night. Plus, the fact that we had dinner around 7PM, and I became symptomatic around 3AM that evening is too coincidental - even though, theoretically, food poisoning can take up to 36 hours for symptoms to show. But again, the true test is whether other people got sick eating the same thing... and the only time my wife and I ate different things was that meal...
khtodd is offline  
Dec 4th, 2015, 10:06 PM
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I don't think it's a question of safety but really a matter of choice. Sure I eat street food every time I'm in N.Y. Or Japan but shy away inBangkok and SE Asia, my choice. Just as its my choice to stay in 4 and 5 star hotels although I didn't always travel that way. traveling the way I do does not make me miss out on the real local experiences it just makes me miss out on street food as street food eaters miss out on 5 star cuisine. Just the travelers choice which is the travelers rights. Parasites not bacteria are to me more harmful but again, that's your choice not mine. I would elaborate more but I hate tapping long responses on my iPad but I can't emphasize enough that it's ok to eat street food and it's also ok to not eat street food. Different strokes for different folks.

hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Dec 5th, 2015, 12:21 AM
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Excellent thread [I would say that - lol!], and it's also a thread which will be copied and pasted quite regularly I expect.

I started my foreign travel in 1973, with a 6 month flag flying Royal Naval deployment to the Far East, and my love of Street Food started then.

I've never had any trouble with Street Food of any description. But I'm safety conscious, and will suss out a place first to make sure the hygiene looks up-to-scratch, and will only order if I can see the food being cooked fresh in front of me.

On the other hand I've had adverse bodily reaction quite often from stand-alone restaurants or hotel food. I avoid salmon and chicken, and anything that's likely to be smothered in sauces [France comes to mind]. At a minimum I have a quick look at the toilet facilities before ordering, as the hygiene standards of a toilet are often mirrored in the kitchen.

I was unaware of rice v noodles. But I suppose rice is also a lot easier to make looked 'refreshed' than noodles are, and cooked noodles soon look 'tired'.

I follow most of the points listed in Crellston's excellent opening posting. Food poisoning is often nothing of the sort, but usually gets the blame. Poor personal hygiene can easily be the cause. Taking and regularly using hand sanitiser regularly is a must. Ingesting 'whatever' from a swim in the sea or hotel swimming pool can be the cause. Who keeps a regular check of exactly how often pool water is changed, or what might go into it!

I avoid buffet restaurants, you don't know how long food has been left standing, and the habits used by customers can be cringeworthy, and these awful habits happen right in front of your eyes!
LancasterLad is offline  
Dec 5th, 2015, 06:37 AM
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Agree about buffets - yuck! But the elaborate breakfast food stations at upscale Asian hotels are fine and quite something to behold.

Respectfully disagree with this. We ate at four 3-star and 2-star Michelin places on our last trip to Asia, and also at many amazing stalls in markets and alleys. I think nowadays most foodies are also street food fanatics seeking authentic experiences. This could be thanks to Bourdain, but mostly because of improved 21st century hygiene and infrastructure. (Example: Mexico has cleaned up its act dramatically -- street tacos are now standard, non-edgy fare for backpackers and upscale travelers alike.)
crosscheck is offline  
Dec 5th, 2015, 06:45 AM
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Another buffet hater here! The food is rarely if ever as good. In the US, with all-you-can-eat pricing, I never eat enough to justify the cost. In Rio they priced by weight, which seems a much better idea.

"Street eaters miss out on 5 star cuisine"

Another respectful disagreement. Why would it have to be one or the other? Just because I tend to sleep cheap, doesn't mean I'm always going to eat cheap. In fact one reason I sleep cheap is so I can eat well (as well as travel longer, of course). And expensive food isn't always good food.
thursdaysd is offline  
Dec 5th, 2015, 12:23 PM
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Expensive food and those that advocate it, and won't listen to a word against it, are more often than not fat, practically immobile, and can't be bothered mixing with the people they've travelled thousands of miles to be hosted by.
LancasterLad is offline  
Dec 5th, 2015, 02:04 PM
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I've eaten street food in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, hawker stalls in Penang and Singapore, at yatai in Japan and never had a problem.

Just once I've balked at a night market in Kowloon. I passed a stall with three cooks working feverishly over intense woks, churning out piping hot dishes of great smelling, delicious looking food. There wasn't a seat to be had so I figured I would walk around a bit and come back.

I turned the corner and saw workers piling dirty dishes to be washed by an old woman. She was using a cold water spigot and just her bare fingers with no soap to clean the dishes, piling them on the roadway when finished. Workers picked them up and they went back into rotation. I decided to eat elsewhere.

Now the dishes at the other places I'd eaten at may have been cleaned exactly like that, but at least I didn't see it.
curiousgeo is online now  
Dec 5th, 2015, 04:43 PM
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Great post and replies.

One tip given to me by a pharmacist friend - if you buy a can of drink, use a straw or wipe the top carefully.
sartoric is offline  
Dec 5th, 2015, 11:16 PM
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Some excellent points being made here. I entirely agree with HT's assertion that "it's ok to eat street food and it's also ok to not eat street food" but also with Thursdaysd that it doesn't have to be one or the other. (Thursday's, you and I are on the same page re sleeping cheap and travelling for longer!)

It's also OK to eat @ Michellin starred places like Nahm and Gaggan (if indeed they have Michelin stars?) although I do find that that level of cooking is somewhat wasted on oriental style food just my subjective opinion. In the end it is all down to personal choice. No point in trying street food if one is going to be constantly worried about getting sick.

The food in upmarket restaurants and upmarket hotels does seem to be becoming more "authentic" for many years, especially in Thailand, it was very bland and underspiced for western tastes. This does seem to have changed in recent years.

Khtod make a very good point regarding the refrigeration of meat etc. In the western world we rely heavily on refrigeration for keeping food "fresh" . This is a total alien concept to many countries in the east where animals are usually slaughtered and eaten the same day - hence so many trucks jammed with chickens and pigs on the roads of Vietnam. If I call correctly from food hygiene courses one of the most efficient ways of getting bacteria to multiply is to take food in an out of the refrigerator. It is changes in temperature that aid their breeding.

Likewise the many comments re buffets. I do still try them occasionally but more in hope than experience. LL's point re the habits of some customers being cringeworthy is well made and their activities provide as much cause for concern as food being left around all day. Maybe it is a cultural thing to pick up food with finger, sniff it and put it back on the place as I saw at one of our last breakfasts in Bangkok recently - yuk!

It does seem strange to me that in the west, food allergies and intolerances are becoming epidemic, yet are almost unheard of in the "developing world" and Asia especially - maybe we are too focused on clean food? Their are many food scientists that would argue that exposing our guts to different types of bacteria (excluding the dangerous ones of course) is a good thing and increases our chance of not getting sick. Then again, every article I read about what is good or bad for you in terms of food seems to change weekly!

curiousgeo - good point re checking out the washing facilities. At least you could see what was going on. Difficult to check what is going on in traditional restaurants. I have been into a number of kitchens in Asia in many types of restaurants and from what I saw, standards vary as much in the traditional type restaurants as they do on the stalls.

Sartoric - excellent tip. Although I draw the line at drinking beer through a straw

Likewise the many comments re buffets. I do still try them occasionally but more in hope than experience. LL's point re the habits of some customers being cringeworthy is well made and their activities give as much cause for concern as food being left around all day.

Sartoric - excellent tip re use of straws and wiping cans.
crellston is offline  
Dec 6th, 2015, 12:26 AM
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Try drinking beer through a straw, it's not as bad as you think !
sartoric is offline  
Dec 6th, 2015, 01:08 AM
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That's a very good point. Although it's fairly rare, you can catch 'Leptospirosis' from the rat wee of a diseased rat, and it's fatal. As soon as I heard about it I stopped drinking direct from cans or the neck of a bottle.
LancasterLad is offline  
Dec 6th, 2015, 01:11 AM
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I've been served beer in a tea-pot, and expected to drink it from a cup and saucer.

It's happened to me, more than once, in hotels in Bahrain. Although it's easy enough to get a beer in Bahrain, from time to time the authorities 'ban' it from being on open display. Hence the tea-pot and cups and saucers. Weird!
LancasterLad is offline  

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