Dodgy stomach? Must have been the street food. The easy culprit for blame. With people far more likely to share bad experiences than good – there is an obvious and unjust bad rap for street food. This and people’s love for hilarious poop stories. “Ate Bangkok street food. Bathroom looks like a Jackson Pollock #lol”. So is street food safe to eat? Research shows ‘despite theoretical risk the incidence of street food contamination is low – not higher than in restaurant foods‘. Yes street food is safe to eat. Most cases of ‘Traveller’s Diarrhoea’ is from water – ice-cubes, brushing teeth and water washed fruits and salads. With cooked foods you’re fine. In fact I prefer seeing food prepared and cooked in front of me. Behind closed doors anything can happen. For the past 2 years I have eaten street food on a daily basis in Bangkok and have NEVER had a problem.
Sitting at a Georgetown street food hawker, a white Bentley pulls up, the car empties to join a 30 minute queue for 6RM ($1.80) crispy pork belly (pictured below). No-one looks twice. This happens at ‘Sky Restaurant’ a roadside hawker on Chulia street in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. At the time even I was a little shocked. Affording Bentleys means fancy restaurants and luxury cuisines. Not cheap hawker food with long queues and no air-conditioning. Obviously there is more to Street Food than its Western reputation. Street food is “food for poor people?”… Truth is some of the best foods I’ve eaten were at Street Food stalls and cost me next to nothing.
Food sold in a street or public place generally from a portable stall. Recently this term has become increasingly contested. Specifically during the World Street Food Congress 2013 in Singapore – a country which has no actual ‘street food’. Back in the 1980’s all Singapore street vendors were relocated indoors to the now famous Singapore ‘hawker centres’. A trend replicated worldwide as promise of better working conditions brings locals off the street. Here in Bangkok I have seen my local street food street relocating to an indoor food court. The food doesn’t change only the location. The more this happens the more ambiguous the term ‘street food’ becomes. Maybe hawker food, shop house cooking or cheap eats being better terms. Either way ‘street food’ will always be around and there are some foods which are almost exclusively to the streets. Meat barbecues for example are almost exclusively found outside and on streets due to excessive smoke. In Thailand; moo ping (grilled pork), isaan sausages, pla pao (grilled fish) and kai yang (grilled chicken) rarely cooked indoors.
Singapore (again) the first in Southeast Asia to have hygiene grades on their Street Food. A, B, C or D. Many of the more popular hawkers found in the lower letters. This is because popular restaurants are too busy cooking they have no time to be pristine clean. Cleanliness is not a major factor in local’s eating. That being said it is still best to use instinct with street food. Follow the queues of locals. Avoid pre-prepared foods with lingering flies. Stick with cooked and heated foods where possible. The world of street food is infinitely worth visiting.