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Buying food from street vendors

13 September 2016

Tucking into food from dubious street vendors can result in gut-wrenching calamity. Here’s our tip to avoid the dreaded ‘traveller’s tummy’…

Plate of food bought from a street vendor.
Buying food from street vendors while on holiday can result in a bad experience. Make sure you're prepared.

Whether it’s devouring steaming pad Thai in a Bangkok side-street or scoffing deep-fried papri chaat in a Mumbai market, street food is one of the joys of travelling – offering an earthy and unique dining experience few Michelin-starred restaurants could muster.

But sauntering into a food market is like playing a game of Russian roulette with your innards. Get it right and you’ve got an authentic culinary experience you can brag about at home.

Get it wrong and you could be clutching a toilet for the next few hours.  

Follow advice!

Travellers have every right to be apprehensive – the hygiene at many street vendors’ stalls can be variable at best.

For Vietnam, the Foreign Office advises travellers to “beware of food from street-side vendors which might be contaminated.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, the Indian food safety authority held food hygiene seminars teaching Delhi’s pavement chefs how to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet, not to sneeze into the food or pick their nose.

It isn’t just developing nations where travellers should be wary of street vendors.  A 2011 report by the New York Post found thousands of hygiene violations from street vendors across the city, including “mystery meats” and poor personal hygiene.

As delicious as that hot dog or pau bhaji might be, it’s hardly worth blighting your holiday by catching diarrhoea or food poisoning through contaminated food.

But armed with a smattering of street-market savvy, here’s how you can enjoy that Peruvian frog smoothie or scorpion kebab with gusto…   

Related: A guide to healthy holiday eating.

Before travelling

If you are concerned about succumbing to an upset stomach while abroad, try taking a prebiotic supplement a week before your trip to help your gut bacteria adjust.

By reinforcing the growth of health-promoting microbes in our large intestines, it helps attack the bacteria which triggers infections such as traveller’s diarrhoea.

Meanwhile, bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-bismal) tablets can be purchased at pharmacies such as Boots, boasting an efficacy of about 60 per cent.

Antibiotics can also be prescribed, usually for those with pre-existing bowel problems, but their side-effects are often more severe than the stomach upsets first.

Consult your doctor first. It’s also an idea to get comprehensive health insurance before you go too.

If you do have a stomach sensitive to spicy foods, it’s best to give yourself a few days to adapt to the local cuisine before diving into the street food.

Trust the locals – and your instinct  

If you’re looking for signs of how reputable a roadside chef might be, placing your faith in the collective wisdom of crowds is not a bad place to start.

Conduct a reconnaissance mission of the market, looking out for the stall with the most customers milling around. If it’s a mangy shack selling sweaty-looking ingredients whose only patrons are a buzzing swarm of flies, it’s best to avoid.

But if the kiosk has queues snaking around the block – families are always a good sign – then the food it offers could be your stomach saviour.

Some street vendors are legendary family businesses, going back decades. Thanks to their usually strict methods of preparing food, these locally-famous joints are usually safe bets. If in doubt, consult a guidebook or local advice.

Related: Quality you can trust - discover Saga's special holiday ratings and why they mean better holiday for you.

Warning signs of bad food hygiene  

If a street vendor does have poor food hygiene, he/she is usually betrayed by a number of giveaway signs. Always look out for the following:

  • Where is the food kept? Is it refrigerated or does it look as if it’s been perspiring under a baking sun all day?
  • Is the person preparing food wearing gloves? If he/she is using the same bare hands to cook food and handle cash, then make a hasty retreat. 
  • How and where does the vendor clean the utensils? Check for filthy pots and surfaces. Hint: swarms of flies or insects buzzing around is never a good sign.
  • If you have any doubts that the food has been unsafely prepared, don’t buy it.

Related: What to do if you get ill abroad.

What to order (and not to order)

  • The safest food is that which is always cooked and served hot, which should have killed any harmful bacteria. Any food that isn’t piping hot is probably best left alone.
  • One exception to the ‘hot is safe’ rule is tropical reef fish such as barracuda and moray eel. Ciguatera fish poisoning is caused by a toxin present in these reef fish, which isn’t killed by cooking or freezing. In particular, avoid parts of the fish such as liver, intestines, roe and head (which contain the ciguatera toxin). Symptoms occur around one-six hours after eating the contaminated fish and may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, numbness, tingling and leg weakness.
  • Cooking and freezing doesn’t always kill toxins in shellfish either. Seek local advice on seafood and if you’re still hesitant, have something else for your dinner instead. 
  • ‘If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it’. There’s some science behind this oft-repeated mantra. Never eat fruit or vegetables (that includes tomatoes) that hasn’t been peeled or cooked, or look as if they could have been contaminated by flies and insects. Be especially suspicious of glistening slices of watermelon, which have probably been doused in dubious tap-water. Never opt for any fruit juice that’s stored in a jug either.
  • The NHS Fit For Travel website advises caution about dairy products too. “Cheese and ice cream are often made from unpasteurised milk and when in doubt, these should only be bought from larger, well established retailers where quality can usually be assured.”
  • The NHS also urges travellers to avoid green salads as these are “easily contaminated by soil or flies and are difficult to clean”.
  • Lastly, don’t drink any wine without recognised brand names. There have been a number of deaths caused by fatal levels of methanol in wine/spirits, such as 23-year-old backpacker Cheznye Emmons who was killed after drinking methanol that she assumed was gin.

And if illness does strike…

Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, the dreaded ‘Thai-dal wave’: whatever you like to call it, traveller’s diarrhoea can be deeply unpleasant.

It’s one of the most common ailments to afflict holidaymakers, affecting between 30-50 per cent of travellers to tropical destinations.

It sounds disgusting, but put simply, you get traveller’s diarrhoea by eating other people’s faeces through contaminated food, water or eating utensils.

You should know within a few hours whether your shish kebab was tummy-friendly or not (although symptoms for some food poisoning can take days to surface).

Caused by bacteria transmitted in food such as E coli or salmonella, it is usually marked by the passage of three or more loose/watery stools within 24 hours.

Other symptoms could include fever, abdominal cramps and nausea.

When to consult a doctor

Although most cases settle themselves within three-five days, the most important treatment is preventing dehydration by replacing lots fluids (that’ll be plenty of water and not alcohol or coffee) and salts (oral rehydration salts are easy to find in most destinations).

You shouldn’t need to consult medical advice unless you start displaying any of the following symptoms:

  • Blood in your diarrhoea (this could indicate dysentery, which is often accompanied by flu-like symptoms).
  • Vomiting (this could suggest food poisoning), especially if it doesn’t resolve itself within 24 hours.
  • You have diarrhoea more than six times in 24 hours.
  • Your temperature is higher than 38°C.
  • Any numbness/tingling of face, lips, tongue, arms and legs – this could be paralytic shellfish poisoning, the symptoms of which usually appear 30-60 minutes after eating the offending seafood.

Related: What cover does the EHIC offer?


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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