Deceptively simple and quick, often fiery and unpredictable, street food is the truest expression of a country’s cuisine. After you’ve sat down on a plastic bench and braved car fumes to enjoy an eye-wateringly spicy noodle soup, eating in a five-star hotel restaurant will feel as relevant to visiting a country as staring at postcards. Plus, it’s the most delicious, cheapest thing you’ll find.
But for many of us raised on the West’s overzealous hygiene standards, taking the first bite into a street dish can be a daunting experience. Here are five tips that will help ensure your meal is a positive experience.
Note: By street food, I designate both street kitchens, where the food is prepared and served literally on the street or the sidewalk, as well as tiny, no-frills restaurants where the decor is nonexistent and the seating capacity is limited.
Look for Packed Places
Your one and absolute rule when choosing a place to eat is whether the place is packed with locals, especially workers or employees on break. Avoid places packed with teenagers – if it’s not a KFC, it’s probably not much better. (In my experience, teens choose hangout places on a lot of other factors besides the quality of the food – I’ve got a few horror stories to back this up.)
At all costs, avoid street stalls packed with tourists. Whereas stalls in non-touristy areas depend on word of mouth and return business, tourist-oriented stalls can attract foreigners based on criteria that have little to do with food quality, such as the ability to speak English, an attractive menu, or even happy hour specials. The difference in quality between the two types of street food is usually staggering.
Trust Your Nose
Whatever place you end up choosing, don’t be afraid to leave if you have a bad feeling. Your nose and eyes can spot a lot of things that may not register in your conscious mind. Trust your instincts! You want to go somewhere where you can relax enough to enjoy a good meal.
On the other hand, keep in mind that your own definition of hygiene may be challenged here. Observe, instead, how the cook keeps things clean or not. Yeah, those eggs are sitting on the sidewalk unrefrigerated, but chances are they’re fresh from the market, and will be gone by evening. Even in perfectly clean places, non-refrigerated meat, flies, stray cats, and even the rare cockroach on the ground are par for the course. Also, some ingredients might smell offensive if you’re unaccustomed to them, such as fish sauce, shrimp paste, stinky tofu, or cheese. Try not to let unfamiliar smells deter you.
Order by Any Means Necessary
Smile. Laugh at yourself. Gesture. Point to things (but don’t touch food you’re not gonna eat, that’s disgusting!) Point to the neighbor’s food. If you don’t get what you want, accept what you get. The point here isn’t to ask for the fanciest item on the menu. You want what everyone else is having, because that’s probably this stall’s specialty.
As far as alcohol and tobacco go, try and respect the way the locals drink and smoke, if they do at all. If they’re drinking modestly and smoking very rarely, you’ll make a very bad impression by getting drunk and chain-smoking. If you really must, do it back at the expat bar.
Oh and, in the name of all of us who enjoy our dishes spicy when the local cuisine requires it: please stop asking for non-spicy food. For the real spicy dishes, the pepper will be on the side, as not all locals like their meals mouth-melting hot. The sheer number of foreigners asking for non-spicy food, though, means it’s hard for spice lovers to convince the cook, sometimes.
Soak Up the Atmosphere
Rub shoulders with the locals, accept the stares and the laughter. Sometimes you may even cause gatherings around your table, and you’ll feel like you’re a new specimen at the zoo. You know what? That just means you’re one of the first foreigners to try this food. Enjoy feeling like Marco Polo for a little while.
Part of the appeal of street food is the direct, uncensored connection you’ll make with people outside the tourist trade. This is a great opportunity to chat with people you wouldn’t usually interact with, and food is a great conversation starter. Just mention you like someone’s favorite dish, and they’ll swell with pride and affection. Soon enough, you’ll be leaving the street corner waving goodbye to new friends!
Smile and Say Thank You
Be polite! You’re representing all of us out there. If you really liked the meal, say it to the cook. He or she might not understand your words, but they’ll get the enthusiasm. Better yet, say it in the local language.
If you’ve just eaten somewhere off the beaten path, chances are you’ll be stunned by the low price. If you feel like tipping, don’t do it out of charity for the stall owner; do so only if you genuinely feel they deserve the tip. Giving money out of pity is condescending to a business owner, and you’ll do a lot more for them by being polite, thanking them, and giving them your return business. Engage them on a human level, as businesspeople worthy of your respect; that’s worth a lot more than a few extra bucks at the end of the day.
Follow these tips, and you’ll be rewarded with a unique insight into your host country’s cuisine and culture, as well as many memorable encounters and some new friends. Be warned: street food grows on you! The next time you eat in a sanitized, expensive place, you might just walk away dissatisfied, longing for your next meal at street level.