Travel SOS: How can you tell if street food is safe?

Stuart is travelling to China and wonders whether he should risk eating the street food.

Street food warning signs

Stuart is travelling to China and wonders whether he should risk eating the street food.


Q. Stuart

My wife and I are travelling to China in August. I have heard both good and bad things about some of the street food that is available in Asia. Is there any way to tell the good from the bad?

A. I may be the worst person to answer this question as I have always been known among my travelling companions for having a cast-iron stomach. That said, my strong stomach means that I have always tried street food wherever I go, including in China, where I have eaten everything from snake to all manner of bugs cooked and served on sticks.

There are some things to look out for, regardless of your constitution. The most important thing to know is that hot foods must be kept hot and cold foods must be kept cold.

If your street food vendor doesn’t have a fridge or a cooling apparatus to keep cold foods cold, they have probably dropped outside the safe eating temperature and could be a fertile ground for bad bacteria to fester.

The same goes if you see a big pot of something being heated over a tiny flame. This is probably not being maintained at a healthy temperature and should be avoided.

Another really good thing to keep an eye on is the people cooking the food. If they are wearing gloves you can feel a lot more comfortable than those not wearing gloves. Even if they don’t wear gloves if you see them washing their hands regularly that can be a better sign than a vendor that has no access to clean water at his or her stall.

One of the great things about buying street food is watching the way that it is cooked. If you are able to get a clear view of the kitchen, this can also tell you a lot about the relative safety of the food preparation.

For what it’s worth I wouldn’t recommend the snake or the insects in China. Not for any health reasons, but they did taste just about as bad as you would expect. There are, however, some great options for getting duck off street vendors, which you may find a lot more scrumptious.

Have you ever had a bad experience with street food when you travelled? What happened?

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    13th Jul 2019
    We have eaten street food in China for many years and have never been sick. Street food is really no different from eating in restaurants or 5 star hotels, as the cooking, storage and serving conditions are not what we are used to in Australia. Just follow an unrefrigerated truck of uncovered chicken pieces and you may see it go to the 5 star hotel that you are staying in! If you abide by normal Australian food standards (gloves, danger temperature zone etc) you will not be eating in many places.
    We only eat where there are a large number of locals eating, as this means that there is a quick turnover of food.
    Most food is bought (or killed daily) so not all vendors will have fridges. Even if a fridge is evident, often the fridges are turned off overnight to save power- I would never eat icecream, for example, from a street vendor.
    Try everything and then ask what it is. We have a preconceived idea of what should be eaten. Silk worm pupae and dog were not to my liking but I did try them.
    Saying this, it is difficult to experience a culture without eating the local foods. Chinese cuisine is amazing as every province that you will visit has very different food and the local people are very proud of their dishes and local specialities. Enjoy your experience
    Karl Marx
    13th Jul 2019
    Eaten street food all over the world with no issues. Most is cooked fresh before your eyes which sometimes is a show of its own.
    Best to eat street food at the right times as well. don't have breakfast around 11am or lunch at 3pm as most likely the food has been sitting there for a number of hours.
    Another thing to watch is the locals, if a street vendor has only a few customers but the one 50 meters away has many customers you know who to buy from.
    I also have a cast iron stomach as they say & will often try things once at least.
    Part of the adventure of travelling is trying different foods especially street food & the added upside is that it's very cheap compared to eating in a flashy restaurant with the kitchen behind closed doors

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