If there’s one thing I talk about the most while traveling, it’s the food. Local food is undeniably the best kind of food you’ll get abroad, and there’s good reason for it. Think of it this way: street vendors get up every morning and cook the exact same thing day in and day out, whereas Western restaurants vary their menu and try a bunch of different types of food styles, most of which aren’t borne out of their local lifestyles. Local food is part of the pulse of a country, and trying it is an undeniably important part of authentic backpacking. However, we’ve all heard (and experienced) travel horror stories of Salmonella, food poisoning, and worse, that all started with one innocent meal. Now, obviously there’s no guaranteed formula for avoiding getting sick while abroad, but I have a simple checklist to minimize the chances of spending your night puking into a hostel toilet.
1) Follow the Crowd
I say this all the time — Locals know where the good food is. Don’t be ballsy and try a brand new and empty restaurant or street vendor. The locals know what’s good and they definitely know what’s bad, so follow the crowd to not only get food that’s far safer, but food that’s likely far tastier. This is no time to be a hero, so put the cape away.
2) Follow your eyes
Are flies buzzing around the raw meat? Are unidentified sauces being poured into your food from a repurposed water bottle? Are stray dogs licking the tofu that’s about to go in your pad thai? Don’t ignore these obvious red flags. Trust your eyes, and if something seems fishy, it’s a better bet to move onto the next food stand.
3) Follow your nose
More important than what you see is what you smell. Now, anyone who’s been to a night market knows that these places are an intoxicating aroma blend of food, sweat, mud, and somehow fish (even when there’s no fish). Use your schnoz to discern these smells from foul odors coming off the food you’re about to eat. Bad food smells bad. It always has and it always will. If you’re ambivalent of the scent coming off your food, it’s best to move on.
4) Follow your gut
It goes without saying that trying local food is a daring experience. Much of it will smell funny to begin with, and much of it will be entirely foreign to you. But at the end of your day, your gut will tell you what’s safe and what’s not. If you walk into a restaurant and get a funny feeling, whether it’s from the smell or the apathetic waitstaff, chances are your gut’s trying to tell you something. This one’s a bit of a balancing act between being adventurous and being street smart, however, so take it with a grain of salt. You don’t want to miss out on a fantastic meal because the food is unfamiliar.
5) Follow your prescription
Regardless of how strictly you follow your food safety rules, chances are your stomach’s going to feel topsy turvy at one point during your trip. It could be from food poisoning, it could be from motion sickness, or it could just be simple travelers sickness. Make sure to bring over the counter drugs like Pepto Bismol and Imodium, so that you’re not caught off guard when things take a nauseous turn. And don’t worry, most local pharmacies in your country will have some variation of these drugs, so if you forgot yours at home, you’re not out of luck.
Do you eat a lot of street food? Have any thoughts or things to add to the checklist?
Drop a comment down below! I’d love to hear about it!
Author Bio: Gilad Gamliel
I’m a 26-year-old backpacker with moderate anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Hypochondriasis. I spent most of my life thinking that travel wasn’t for people like me, and when I figured out that it was, my life was changed. I now travel multiple times a year and rough it with the best of them. I’m glad to say I’ve managed to turn what I thought were negatives about my mental health into positives, and want to show other aspiring travelers that they can too.