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Tips for smart street eating in Southeast Asia
Smoky chicken sate plucked from a grill and dipped in sweet-spicy peanut sauce in a Jakarta alley. Steamed ground rice and jaggery cakes eaten from a banana leaf on a street corner in Penang. A mound of sticky rice drizzled with coconut cream and topped with juicy mango slices spooned up at a stall in a Chiang Mai market. For the Asia-bound traveler keen to know the region’s diverse culinary cultures, these are essential experiences.

In this part of the world the term “street food” (or “hawker food,” as it’s referred to in Malaysia and Singapore) denotes not just a cheap and quick way to fill one’s belly. It also describes a repertoire of dishes prepared by experienced specialists, dishes rarely duplicated successfully in restaurant kitchens. Eating on the Asian street offers the opportunity to observe cooking techniques up close and to engage with strangers over a meal in a way that would be difficult in a proper brick and mortar eatery.

- By Robyn Eckhardt -

Tips for smart street eating
  • Use your eyes. Refrigeration, temperature control and good personal hygiene on the vendor’s part reduce the likelihood of your contracting a food-borne illness. Does the vendor keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold? Are raw foods kept separate from cooked foods? Does he keep his hands clean? Raw garnishes on cooked dishes aren’t necessarily worrisome, as long as the garnish is kept away from raw meats, for instance.
  • Locals get sick, too, and won’t return to stalls suspected of serving unsafe food. When surveying the street food scene in any location, look for crowds.
  • Be aware of local meal times. It’s common — and generally safe — to eat curries, stir-fried vegetables and other dishes at room temperature from buffet-style displays in many Asian countries, but you’re asking for trouble by showing up after what’s offered has been picked over. Arrive a bit before meal time, when foods are not long off the burner and before they’ve been attacked and even handled by other customers.
  • “There are traditional cooking and food preparation methods that eliminate microbes,” says Powell. Fermented foods, for instance, are generally thought to be safe. Acidic foods (made with vinegar, lime juice and other souring agents) are rarely associated with outbreaks. Dishes such as Indonesian/Malaysian rendang and northern Thai muu kem (salted “confit” pork) are made with techniques that allowed them to be kept for months before the advent of refrigeration. Don’t be taken aback to encounter them served at room temperature.
  • Become familiar with spices, such as chilies and turmeric, that are known to have anti-bacterial properties and seek out dishes that include them.
  • Exercise extra caution on the street if eating with children younger than 10 years of age who have yet to fully develop an adult’s natural immunities to harmful bacteria. Note that at age 55, adults begin to lose T cells (a group of white blood cells that play a role in immunity) and are thus less able to stave off the effects of ingesting harmful bacteria.
  • You needn’t shy completely away from peeled fresh fruit, but those with porous exteriors that grow on the ground (such as cantaloupe) are more prone to contamination prior to and during harvesting. Acidic fruits, such as citrus fruits and pineapple, are safer bets.
  • Ice is generally safer in countries where iced drinks are widely consumed and made on a large scale in central facilities. Few travelers get sick from consuming iced coffee, tea or beer in Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia for instance.