Eating Street Food while Traveling

- Paul Prudhomme

A traveler’s best delicacies are found on street corners. Some of my favourite foods from my travels were cheap, fast, and avoided by 3 out of every 5 travellers. They were cooked at greasy street-side stalls and inside sketchy trucks. From ceviche in the back of a van parked near a university in Arequipa, Peru, to midnight shaokao (Chinese barbecue) in Chongqing, China, street food is probably one of the best ways to truly experience the cuisine of another culture.

My cousin even took me to an Indian street food restaurant in Shanghai! This was a little strange, since street food is meant to…well, be on the street. So, although it was pretty good food, it was nothing like the authentic street food stalls of Delhi.

So many of the backpackers I’ve met have told me that they avoid street food. Why? One bad experience. One case of food poisoning and they are done. I say to them, “come on! You’re eating the same food inside the restaurant anyway — it’s probably the same supplier!” Even I had food poisoning from a cheap burger (half the price of the one next door) on my first day in Coron, Philippines. I felt a little woozy until the next morning, but by that afternoon, I was eating bicho-bicho, a Filipino sweet (for dinner, yup) off the street again.

The truth of the matter is: good street food experiences rely on luck. There are some sanitary things which one should consider, like watching who is not wearing gloves, scratching themselves, touching money, etc. You might even want to consider asking for no ice in your drink in places where you shouldn’t be drinking tap water. Of course, there are some places that might just serve weird food. This could be exhilarating for some people, of course!

I like to look at which places are the busiest — with local people. If I am in the same area for a few days, I might also look at which stalls are consistently open every day. The people who run these stalls work their butts off. I’ve seen how my favourite shaokao place near my university residence in Chongqing prepares for the evening, optimizing their times of operation. The entire family pitches in, with the daughter working on her weekends off from college.

Language may be a barrier at a lot of these street-side stalls when traveling — but barriers are meant to be broken. The shaokao couple memorized my order and smiled and waved at me every time I walked by, even if I was just going home. I had to take a selfie with them the last time I ate there! Sometimes it is nice to indulge in that top-rated locally-owed, organic restaurant. For me, it feels like the costs add up and the thrill reduces itself. I just want to keep on going. Maybe that’s why street food is so popular in more touristic places, where other wanderers like me find themselves.

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