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Tips for eating street food in Thailand

24 Oct

It doesn’t take long for visitors to Thailand to realise that street food is practically a way of life there.

Considering that many houses aren’t equipped with full kitchens, and raw ingredients can cost more than prepared meals, it’s no surprise that eating out is more common than eating in.

If your priority when travelling is to experience the culture or enjoy the food (or to save money), the Thai street food scene will be a dream come true. Bangkok is indeed the country’s mecca of street food, but there are plenty of stalls, carts, and markets all across Thailand.

From noodles to curries, soups to salads, dumplings to spring rolls, and roti to sticky rice, you could spend weeks sampling Thai cuisine. Some of the top street food to eat in Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand includes pad thai, pad see ew, massaman curry, papaya salad, banana roti, and mango sticky rice.

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Of course, a street food cart on the side of the road in Thailand isn’t going to follow the same hygiene regulations as your favourite restaurant back home. Some travellers wonder whether they should eat street food at all, or if it’s a guaranteed way to get sick.

Contrary to popular belief, though, street food in Thailand (and many other countries) is no riskier than restaurants. When you eat on the street, you’re more likely to be served fresh food and to get to see it being prepared, both of which go a long way toward keeping you healthy.

In fact, I consider myself lucky to have gotten sick abroad only three times in years of travel, and the culprit every time was a “nice” restaurant that catered to foreigners – never a food cart.

While travelling in a developing country carries some inevitable risk, these tips have helped me enjoy the street food of Thailand without getting sick.

Watch your food being cooked

One big benefit of street food is that you can often see the food being cooked, so take advantage of it! Are there bugs near the ingredients or the pans? Did the vendor wipe their nose while they were preparing food? Does the cooking area seem generally dirty?

If so, look for another option. Some larger stalls in Thailand prepare food in the back and then bring it out to customers, so avoid those in favour of places where you can see what’s going on.

Watch the vendor serve other customers

In addition to seeing the food being cooked, watch the people in front of you being served. Is the same person handling both cash and food? Did they touch their face and then the food? Is the food being served in dirty containers?

Again, if the answer is yes, head elsewhere. There are so many street food options in Thailand; you won’t have any problem finding something else.

Look for food stalls with long lines – especially of locals

A cart or stall that’s unhygienic and regularly makes people sick probably won’t be teeming with customers, especially locals, who will know if certain places are unsafe to eat. If you notice an empty food stall, there may well be a reason it’s empty – and that’s a good reason for you to avoid it.

Beyond that, one of the biggest risks of street food comes from food that isn’t fresh. If a dish has been sitting out in the sun for hours, it’s much more likely to make you sick. But long lines usually mean quick turnover; unless you can see an enormous stockpile of food sitting there; the vendor has to keep preparing new food to serve up to all the customers.

If you get in the back of a line, you’ll probably get food that’s fresh, and that means it’s safer.

Eat at regular local meal times

Of course, there might not be lines anywhere if you’re there at the wrong time. Going out for street food in the mid-afternoon may mean getting a dish that’s been sitting out since the end of the lunch rush, which is plenty of time for bacteria to form. Instead, eat at local meal times, since that’s when food will be the freshest.

Be careful with drinks made with water or ice

Juices and smoothies are common street foods, but they’re made with tap water (or ice made from tap water) in most places, meaning they should be avoided. There’s an exception in Thailand, though: factory-produced ice made from purified water is quite common, even at street food stalls.

But it’s not everywhere, so check what’s being used before you order a drink with ice. The purified ice is usually cylindrical and has a hole in it, so look for that; if you see ice chips or shaved ice instead, steer clear of it.

Skip raw fruit and vegetables unless they can be peeled

The bad news is that fruits and vegetables can easily carry bacteria, making them unsafe to eat raw. Two top foods to avoid in Thailand are fresh leafy greens and berries, which are especially likely to be contaminated.

But the good news is that fruit with a peel is safe, because the skin protects the edible inside, even in unclean environments. And with all the Thai fruits that have a peel – dragonfruit, mangosteen, rambutan, not to mention bananas, mangos, and pineapple – you won’t be missing too much.

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