eat all the foods and avoid all the illnesses

June 15th, 2014 / by / in: travel / No responses

Boat noodles in Thailand

I came across this Budget Travel article about travellers’ diarrhea awhile ago, and read it with a certain amount of skepticism. Pretty much every article I read on HOW TO NOT GET SICK WHEN TRAVELLING reads exactly the same.

From the article:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that TD [travellers’ diarrhea] hits up to 50 percent of international travelers and up to 70 percent of those visiting high-risk regions, including most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America.

Considering that I have so far been lucky enough to avoid TD or any gastrointestinal problems while travelling, I should probably buy a lottery ticket.


The article then recommends:

In high-risk regions, packaged foods — especially those that you bring with you from home — are going to be your safest eating option.

Um, no way. How uninteresting would it be to travel to another country just to eat the food you brought from home? Packaged food is generally safe everywhere so at least pick up some wacky snacks in the country you’re visiting and try them instead of the granola bars you brought. Especially since the article defines “high-risk regions” as most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America which is most of the world!

Pick a cart with a long line and quick turnover, which means food is hot and fresh. Certain vendors are popular because their food is tastier and safer — it’s worth the extra minutes in line.

This is probably sound advice. (Although sometimes you see food that looks temptingly appetizing and there’s no one around so you just have to go for it.)

Bring your own bowl and utensils. It may sound impractical, but in developing regions, improper washing of serving dishes may transmit microorganisms that can make you sick.

Yeah, good luck communicating to people in a language you don’t know that you want them to put your food in the bowl you brought. If you’re THAT paranoid, just wipe your bowl/cutlery with a wet wipe. Or, you could do like they do in Hong Kong and dunk everything in boiling hot tea.

Make sure food is served piping hot. If it’s been left out to cool, it could be harboring a growing colony of bacteria.

I wouldn’t personally avoid less-than-hot food (I’d miss out on raw seafood and freshly made kimbap), but sure, why not.


Fly from flies. Never eat food that isn’t protected from insects, which can contaminate even freshly cooked dishes.

I don’t think I’ve seen too many street foods that were actively protected from insects. Usually the ingredients are sitting out in the open. Sometimes they have flies on them. But if the food gets cooked anyway does it really matter?

Go with your instincts. If surfaces don’t look clean and you don’t see a place where workers can wash their hands, pass.

Shrug, your loss. I say GO WITH THE DELICIOUS FOOD. Some of the best things I’ve eaten have come from situations where I’m like, “Ehhhhh, I don’t know if I should eat this.” But then I do and it’s super tasty and I have yet to regret it.

Return to a cart you’ve enjoyed. Finding a vendor serving safe, delicious food can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship — he may even share recipes if you ask.

This is boring. TRY NEW PLACES! Unless you’re visiting somewhere for an extended period of time, it’s better to try as many places as possible.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say all of this because I’ve never suffered from any gastrointestinal illnesses while travelling. But Mike often has and he’s just as willing to eat fly-covered iffy food as me. Mike had particularly bad food poisoning from a nice restaurant in Paris, which just goes to show you that fancy restaurants aren’t necessarily any safer than the food cart down the street.

And well, YOLO.

Hotteok in Seoul

Now here are MY tips:

  • If you want to eat street food but are particularly worried about cleanliness, try a food tour. A lot of companies have a “street food tour” you can take, so you know the food has been consumed by thousands of other tourists, all of whom have lived. It takes the effort (and language barrier) out of trying to figure out which stalls to try so you can just enjoy the food. Some of my favourites are O’ngo in Seoul and UnTour in Shanghai. I’ve also had decent experiences with food tours in Beijing and Bangkok.
  • Eat in a mall food court. This might sound stupid, but in a lot of countries (especially in Asia), mall or department store food courts are a veritable wonderland of authentic food choices, including whatever the local specialties are. And since you’re in a mall, you’ll probably feel safer about the food quality. (Alternatively, try a hawker centre in Singapore, Malaysia, or Hong Kong.)
  • Bring hand sanitizer and/or antibacterial wipes. Okay, my only proof that hand sanitizer is beneficial is anecdotal. But I always carry it around and use it before I eat, since I’ve probably been touching grimy subways and random who-knows-what when travelling.
  • Avoid the tourist food traps. Don’t feel like you have to try the weirdest street food. Do locals really eat scorpions on a stick? No, they do not.
  • Check out local restaurant review sites. Like Yelp in North America, there are review sites all over the world. For example, Tabelog in Japan and OpenRice in Hong Kong. If the site isn’t in English, run it through Google Translate and hope for the best. Even without knowing the language, you should be able to get an idea which restaurants are popular. (Since popular = safer, according to Budget Travel.)
  • Stop worrying. If you worry enough, the stress alone will make you sick. Find food that looks delicious and eat it. The end!


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