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

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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 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 :-)

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