To Eat or Not to Eat? The Great Street Food Debate

street food

The allure of a country’s cuisine drives many travel decisions. (It’s also the subject of many travel blogs posts.) Ask veteran travelers what their favorite meal was, and you may get an earful. But when it comes to food – particularly street food – there’s a great travel debate: is it safe to eat? Let’s take a look at both sides of this argument.

Opinion #1: Don’t Eat the Codzitos!

Many travelers avoid street food for fear of getting sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20%-50% of international travelers are affected by travelers’ diarrhea each year. It’s so common that it has a number of colorful, regional euphemisms: Montezuma’s Revenge, the Aztec Two Step, Pharaoh’s Revenge, Delhi Belly, and the Rome Run, to name a few.

The most common culprit for food-borne illness is bacteria. The source can often be found in raw and undercooked meats and seafood, unhygienic food preparation conditions, raw fruits, tap water and unpasteurized milk.

The food preparation protocols followed by street food vendors can be more lax than those followed in a restaurant, allowing for more exposure to bacteria. (Although you can still get sick eating in restaurants.) Many travelers who have had a bad bout of this unfortunate illness are likely to limit their exposure by avoiding street food altogether.

Opinion #2: Eat The Huitlacoche! (And the Bessara, the Tam Som, the Roti…)

Street food is an integral part of many cultures – and a requirement for some travelers. One of the perks of street food is that you can watch it being made, something you can’t do in a typical restaurant. It’s also great for travelers on a budget, as it is cheaper than restaurant fare. Finally, many restaurants, particularly in the tourist districts, cater to the tourists’ taste buds. For a truly authentic experience, you should venture away from these areas…or eat the street food.

Veteran travelers know how to find the best street – and safest – street food. They keep a few things in mind to limit their exposure to food-borne illnesses:

  1. Follow the crowd. Even at home, you probably don’t eat someplace that only has one or two customers. Vendors who make their customers ill don’t stay in business for long, and the locals know to avoid them. If a street vendor has a line, chances are the food is delicious – and safe!
  2. Wash your hands. A good rule of thumb, regardless of where you eat.
  3. Default to cooked food. Cooking helps destroy the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. If you don’t feel confident in eating raw foods (whether it’s meat, seafood, vegetable or fruit), then your best bet is to find a spot that cooks its food as it’s ordered.

Check out the RoamRight travel insurance blog for more tips on how to avoid food poisoning abroad, as well as plenty of yummy blog posts on food throughout the world.

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6 Responses
    1. Mary Jo Manzanares

      We’re so glad to have RoamRight back as a sponsor for another year. Thanks so much for your support of travel bloggers.

  1. The street food in the Yucatan is definitely worth trying! I highly recommend the salbutes and panuchos. A crisp fried tortilla topped with shredded turkey, lettuce, tomato and avocado. The shredded lettuce and tomato could be risky to eat. Panuchos have refried beans embedded in the tortilla before it is fried. You might find these things on the menu at the Moon Palace in a very elevated way.

    You will also see a lot of conchinita pibil – slow cooked pork in a banana leaf. Mayan origins. There will be stands that sell it by the kilo, or in tacos or tortas.

    Sopa de Lima is another regional specialty not to be missed.

    Tacos al pastor – which are really a central Mexican specialty – can be found in the area. Look for the tacos on a vertical spit like a gyro. Excellent!

    In Merida, many places use a vegetable wash and I’ve never had any problems eating the street food there. Parque de Palapas in downtown Cancun – some places are better than others and the cleaner ones are obvious.

    The chopped onion/cilantro condiment offered with tacos can also be a culprit, but I always take the risk at places that look really clean and have a lot of turnover.

  2. Paula Schuck

    I loved all the options on the taco tour in puerto Vallarta. I think it would have been slightly offensive if I had not tried all of the delicious cultural dishes. That said I ate cooked good only but that was what was offered on the tour. I wouldn’t miss it.

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