It’s 8AM and you’ve just touched down in Asia for the very first time. As you meander your way off the metro rail, you’re assaulted by a sea of people, reverberating horn honks, and wafts of barbecuing meats mixed with spices and air pollution.
The street is absolutely packed with vendors, selling everything from smoothies to rice dishes, and hungry customers wait for their fresh meal or snack to be served up right in front of them. Hoping to see what all the hype is about, you order from a particularly busy stand and hope for the best.
The small plastic tray features a fried egg, rice and some kind of Thai chicken mixed with peas and peppers – all for approximately $1 – and upon diving in, there’s no doubt it’s one of the most flavorful bites you’ve ever swallowed.
Behold the magic of street food.
But the sad reality is that many travelers never get to experience this thoroughly iconic moment. They’re too caught up in the horror stories, afraid of Delhi Belly, and convinced that ALL food from the road must be bad.
If that’s you, and you’re wondering how to eat street food safely, you’ve come to the right place. After years of munching on street eats all around the world, I’ve put all my top tips together in this guide that will hopefully ensure many happy meals that are at the core of the broke backpacker experience.
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What IS Street Food?
Simply put, street food is food that’s quite literally food made out on the streets. In dozens of countries all over the world, it’s a lifeline: folks are able to find cheap and often delicious meals out on the road, usually made within a few minutes at most.
From snacks to smoothies to sandwiches to outright delicacies like grilled octopus legs, the world of street food is wide, and as a self-proclaimed foodie, it has always been a highlight of my travels.
I’ve been lucky enough to sample truly incredible dishes in a variety of places: crispy samosa on the narrow streets of Amritsar in India, a truly surreal honey and walnut-topped mango smoothie in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan and of course: the infinite amount of masterpieces that you can only find in the street food Mecca that is Thailand.
And while I’ve had my fair share of mishaps, the vast majority of my experiences have been tasty AF and overwhelmingly positive. Street food has also been crucial in my success with traveling on $10/day. If you’re looking to do the same, just know that it’s truly a tool you just can’t backpack without.
Why You Shouldn’t Stay Away From it…
I know a lot of newbie travelers think that they need to stay far, far away from the street carts they’ll inevitably encounter, but not only will that hurt your budget, but it also means you’ll be missing out on a seriously CORE travel experience!
Contrary to popular belief, it IS possible to eat street food safely, and boy is it WORTH it. I’m absolutely not lying when I say some of my best meals ever have been had while sitting on a stool aside a random Asian street stall.
The developing world lives and breathes street food – so whether you’re having a go at the classic Southeast Asia backpacker route or exploring the likes of Mexico City, street eats will be there to greet you. Even Westernized countries occasionally kick ass at the street food game – I had an absolutely iconic Kielbasa roll in Krakow, Poland that was better than anything I found in its restaurants.
And that seems to be the resounding theme of GOOD street eating: it often tends to taste better than even the fanciest of indoor dining options.
…all while setting you back $1-$3 at most.
What’s not to love?
How to Eat Street Food Safely
Instead of avoiding the magic that is street food altogether, how about learning HOW to do it right before you hit the road?
Settle in, young backpacker, as we’re about to get right into the core lessons of this edition of Street Food 101.
By following these tips (gained from years of culinary wins and woes all over the globe), I can *almost* guarantee you’ll be in for a damn good and damn cheap time.
So without further ado, here’s exactly how to stay safe while enjoying street eats:
1. Go where the locals go
This. All of this, every time. I follow this tip religiously and it has rarely steered me wrong – except when considering haleem in Karachi while backpacking in Pakistan – absolutely avoid that.
But generally, places that are busy are busy for a reason: obviously, locals wouldn’t go to a place that made them sick. Packed places tend to have their hygiene on point – double points for stalls with lots of other foreigners or high reviews.
2. Make probiotics a part of your routine
Haven’t heard of probiotics? Well as a full-time backpacker, you should definitely get ready to add them to your travel essentials.
Essentially the opposite of antibiotics, these bad boys add a ton of GOOD bacteria to your gut, and in doing so help to keep you safe from food-borne viruses. I like to start taking them BEFORE I head out on a trip where I know I’ll be eating a lot of street eats to build up that protection in advance.
While there are a lot of brands out there and anything is better than nothing, I personally find Florastor (also sold as Enflor) to be fan-freaking-tastic.
3. Stick to bottled or filtered water
Personally, I don’t even like tap water in Western countries, but while backpacking? It’s a HELL NO.
The ONLY exception to this rule is when you find yourself trekking in truly remote, untouched regions with pure spring water. Now that will taste better than any piece of plastic.
Speaking of plastic, the best way to avoid waterborne pathogens while on the road is with a Grayl Filtered Water Bottle. I’ve been rocking one of these on the road for years and it can purify everything from New Delhi tap water to freshwater lakes that a herd of yaks just bathed in. It’s that good and should undoubtedly be on your backpacking packing list.
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4. ALWAYS use hand sanitizer
A lot of issues with street food aren’t exactly from the food itself but rather from hand-mouth contamination. Yup – especially in cheap countries, (i.e. India) handwashing ain’t exactly up to par.
And while you certainly CAN find hand sanitizer while out on the road, I’ve found they often come in annoying bottles with top screws instead of squeezables – meaning this is yet another item that’s best to stock up on before heading out.
Whether I’m going out on a remote hike or just grabbing lunch, I won’t be caught out in the world without it.
5. Be cautious with ice!
This one is a little bit of a hit or miss, but most guides on how to eat street food safely mention it, so I figured I had to as well! We all know that tap water is a NO GO in most of the world, and naturally that would include the ice too.
BUT… sometimes stalls do in fact use bags of ice that are safe to consume. The problem is it’s hard to know who is using what.
I’d say this rule is a bit challenging because let’s be real, smoothies are so damn GOOD in so many of the countries you’ll inevitably be backpacking in.
You can try using a translating app to ask – and take a good look around the stall to see what seems to be up.
6. Avoid eating raw peeled fruits and vegetables
…yup, this is where tap water comes into play yet again.
Many street sellers wash their fruits and veggies with it, and obviously, that’s a bit risky as far as street food safety is concerned. You can request that they wash yours with mineral water, but to be extra cautious, stick to varieties that have skins.
7. Stay far away from Western chains in small cities/towns!
Now this is a lesson I truly learned the hard way. While you’re likely to be okay in big capital cities, I STRONGLY implore you to NEVER eat at Western chain restaurants in obscure areas. I experienced some of the most concerning food poisoning EVER (which literally had me running off a night bus in a random Afghan tunnel days later) from a Dominos in Peshawar, Pakistan.
While it tasted absolutely fine, there was something sinister in the sauce… I shudder just thinking about it. Even though I was a veteran backpacker when this occurred, I really wasn’t aware that Western chains often hit travelers hard. Another nomad I know was “assaulted” by Subway!
I’d say really big chains like McDonald’s are still okay (in larger locales), but seriously – even if you arrive somewhere at 2 AM and NOTHING is open, a few bags of chips and cookies are way better than being poisoned by an unsanitary Western fave…
Where to Find the Best Street Food
Not all street eats are made equal – while you can find stalls virtually all over Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, some countries reign supreme. Perhaps I’m a bit biased toward Asia, but I think a lot of long-term travelers would agree that it absolutely kills the street food game.
Here’s where to get started – and coincidentally, most of these tend to be perfect choices for a backpacking adventure anyways!
Thailand is truly the Mecca of street food. It was my first real experience with it, and I admit that everything that came after has been a bit disappointing. The sheer variety, quality, and accessibility of is simply unmatched.
From absolutely delectable night markets in Koh Phangan to the famous walking streets of Pai and Bangkok, it’s been over 6 years and many more countries, yet Thailand remains unbeaten in my eyes. Prices are cheap as can be, and you’ll truly find something for every type of tastebud.
If you’re looking to dive into the street food game, book that ticket. Traveling to Thailand is perhaps the best introduction to the backpacking world anyways.
Another much-loved street food destination is none other than Vietnam. Cities are filled with delicious stalls, serving everything from Vietnamese foodie favorites like banh mi and pho to unique concoctions made by individual chefs. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, and you’ll find plenty of items that are very unique to the country.
Considering Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries in the world to travel in, your backpacker budget WILL thank you for choosing to eat outside compared to inside too!
While the cuisine isn’t quite as delicious as Thai food, I absolutely loved the options I found while traveling in Laos, which is a true gem of Southeast Asia travel as it is. From khao jee sandwiches on the streets of Luang Prabang to the best pork I’ve ever had in my life elsewhere, it’s an easy add on to any SEA trip.
Hygiene may be slightly lacking, but just follow the golden rule of eating at stalls that are busy, and you should be A-OK.
I don’t think I’ll EVER forget my first day backpacking India. Though a truly chaotic mess, it still led to some delicious moments, that only continued as I moved about this massive universe of a country. India may be the most polarizing place in the world, and that also rings true when talking about street food.
It has some absolutely incredible cheap street eats, but I do believe you need to be a bit more cautious than in, say, Thailand. Some of the best items to try on India’s surreal roads include: samosas, dosa, lassi, and idli sambar.
On the other hand, there are a few dishes I highly encourage you to avoid, and that comes from months of experience in the country: gol gappa/pani puri (these often use tap water as a sort of filling), chaat, and egg bhurji. Ick.
But as always: trust your gut, and get a feel for what the locals and your fellow backpackers are getting up to. Famous, old places are sure safe bets, especially in particularly unhygienic locales like the streets of Old Delhi.
Do not think twice about booking a ticket to Kuala Lumpur, and don’t be ashamed if all you do there is EAT. This much-loved metro is teeming with truly legendary street eats, all thanks to its unique mix of cultures. You’ll find influences from just about everywhere here: think Indian, Thai, Chinese, and more.
There are so many delicacies to try that it would take a while to get to know them all, but Koon Kee Wantan Mee, Hong Lai Hokkien Mee, and Kam Heong Braised Duck are three fab places to start your gastronomic journey.
If you’re looking for the best tacos you’ve ever had that will truly put Tex-Mex to shame, you’ll have a seemingly infinite variety to choose from on the streets of Mexico. Aside from this being a super cheap and backpacker-friendly country to begin with, the $1-$2 street carts put up a strong competitor to reigning food champ Thailand as far as I see it.
Anyone who even remotely likes Mexican food will be in foodie heaven here, with some of the best eats unsurprisingly being in CDMX. Feast to your hearts content on elote, tamales, gorditas, quesadillas, tostadas and beyond. While the tacos are fab, you’ll soon learn that Mexican cuisine is so much more than your classic Western fave.
Where to (Mostly) Avoid Street Food
Now, I don’t mean to say that these places don’t have ANY safe or good street food. Of course, they do. BUT, compared to the aforementioned picks, you’re more likely to have a problem for a variety of reasons…
For the most part, I’d avoid *most* street food while traveling in Africa. Bushmeat is eaten in many countries in this part of the continent, and needless to say, these types of animals really should NOT be consumed. There have been many reports of diseases such as Ebola spreading this way, and that’s just not something you want to touch with a 10-foot pole.
Tap water is also super unsafe to drink in this region, so avoiding smoothies/drinks/fruits/veggies is key. On the flip side, you can definitely indulge in cheap restaurants, of which there are plenty.
The USA is all about restaurants, and it does them well. These days even food trucks are pretty fantastic (though overpriced, of course.) But street food is simply not in American culture, and you’ll see this as you move about the country.
With the glaring exception of perhaps California which does serve up some delicious Mexican food at a few well-known street stalls, anything passed off as street food in the US is typically not that hygienic and often in unsafe areas.
While living in Miami, I came across numerous stalls that seemed questionable at best, and some were even illegal. As mentioned, food trucks are a great alternative, and there are often parks and fairs that host them, either on a daily or weekly basis.
Okay, okay, there are definitely plenty of safe places to eat street food in the Philippines. But the reason it’s been brought up in this section is because of a unique and defining feature that’s only found here: pagpag.
While not everywhere, it’s definitely out and about in Manila and other cities and is essentially leftover food found in the trash that’s then refried. While primarily eaten in slums, travelers often report getting sick from street food generally while traveling here.
So perhaps learn how to eat street food safely in other regions before giving the Philippines street carts a go.
Getting Insured BEFORE Eating Street Food
Another way to ensure you’re eating street food as safely as possible is to be insured while doing it!
ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.
They offer month-to-month payments, no lock-in contracts, and require absolutely no itineraries: that’s the exact kind of insurance long-term travellers and digital nomads need.
SafetyWing is cheap, easy, and admin-free: just sign up lickety-split so you can get back to it!
Click the button below to learn more about SafetyWing’s setup or read our insider review for the full tasty scoop.
Final Thoughts on How to Eat Street Food Safely
And so there we have it: perhaps the most comprehensive guide to the how, what, and where of street food on the internet.
I hope you now feel somewhat more empowered to take to the wide world of street carts, and feel a bit more confident in being able to do it successfully. Because as previously mentioned, street food is truly a HUGE part of backpacking, and it’s an aspect you really do not want to miss out on.
Aside from saving you precious dollars on the road, the culinary delights you’re about to come into contact with are worth their weight in gold. Full stop.
So, now that you’re armed with the very best tips and tricks on how to eat street food safely, you’re ready to hit the road on your own.
Get hungry, and don’t forget what we’ve discussed. Do come back and let me know what YOUR favorite street food location ended up being!
And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!