Food is one of the reasons as to why we travel. It’s one of life’s pleasures that all of us can relate to, provide a window into a local culture and has the power to connect us with new people when travelling. There’s a large part of us that wants to be adventurous and trial new cuisines, whether it be mystery meat on a stick, deep-fried crickets and spiders or something we’ve seen on Bizarre Foods on television.
In the past two years that I’ve been travelling now, I’ve been to 34 countries and over 120 cities. In that time I’ve stuck mainly to eating at markets and street side vendors, and despite eating from many questionable looking places, I’ve managed to avoid any situations where I’ve fallen ill (touch wood). However, I’ve met numerous travellers, especially in Central America where they’ve suffered from bouts of horrific food poisoning to the point where they looked like a shell of their former self.
I have to admit that there’s an element of luck involved, but I do believe there’s no need to travel around with a sense of fear and trepidation from getting sick. Here are some of my tips to avoid food poisoning and being the designated porcelain bus driver.
It starts before you travel
If you’re a meat and three veg kind of person, or if you consider Pad Thai as being foreign and exotic, then it’s likely that your body is going to find it difficult to adjust to overseas cuisine. A bowl of beef noodles in Vietnam can contain up to twenty ingredients and if your body isn’t used to being satisfied by a large number of complex flavours and spices, then it will most likely let you know fairly quickly.
In preparation, before leaving your shores, put your insides into training and try eating a medley of new meals each week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tripe and beef ball soup for breakfast anybody?
Make sure your hands and cutlery are squeaky clean
This is one occassion where you should really listen to your mother’s advice. At home, I wasn’t a shining example of somebody who would wash their hands before every meal. However, when you’re overseas and especially travelling through developing countries then your hands are going to be in contact with lots of things: hand rails, benches, door knobs to the largest culprit of all, money. From Honduras, to Halong Bay, chances are, it’s a cash economy and only God knows where the thousands of hands that have come into contact with those dirty notes have been.
I always make sure that I have a small bottle of antibacterial hand solution with me. It’s barely noticeable and lives in the bottom of my daypack and if there’s no wash basin nearby, a few drops will do the trick. Your hands don’t need to be squeaky clean all of the time, only when your fingers are about to handle food, such as when you’re wrestling the remaining flesh off that T-Bone steak in Argentina.
Your cutlery is probably going to be only given a quick rinse in soapy water, so for safety sake, give it a wipe either with some antibacterial wet wipes.
Being a little sick without being really sick is fine
You’re in a new place, so it’s fine for your stomach to feel a little out of place; as long as it’s not affecting your day-to-day activities too much. I remember arriving to San Pedro in Guatemala, where the water was so bad, I wouldn’t risk even washing my teeth it. It didn’t take too long for my stomach to start having disagreements with me, but it wasn’t bad enough for me to lock myself in my room. My solution was to do what any super spy would do and memorise where every single public restroom was located in town.
Choose places that are busy
This is a no brainer, but I’ll include it anyway because sometimes we just forget. No matter how nice some foods may look, if the place isn’t busy or if it doesn’t look like there have been many customers previously, then I’ll more often than not give it a miss. If you have to pick a place due to time constraints and they are all quiet, go for the place with the fewest menu options available. This means that they only focus on achieving the best quality on only a few items, and less chance of having an excess of ingredients that they may use the following day.
Go for places where you can see them cook the food
The reason why I like street food is because you can see them cooking it. My eating philosophy here in Vietnam is if you are sitting near where the food is prepared and cooked, it’s going to be good. Why? Because there’s no possibility to take short cuts. There’s also the added benefit of interaction with the owner and share the common passion for food. To be honest, I’ve only eaten in a few restaurants in Vietnam where the food is cooked in a kitchen out the back, and they have turned out to be the worst experiences, both in food quality and service.
Trust your senses
Use as many of your senses as possible, including smell. With the exception of food like fermented fish paste that smells revolting but tastes differently, if it smells bad, then it will most likely be spoiled. Food should look good, smell good and taste good. So if it tastes or feels weird in your mouth, there’s no shame in not eating it.
Observe food handling practices
So you’ve come to the conclusion that the food looks and smells good and is coming out piping hot all within a few feet of where you are standing. However, you may notice that the cook is also handling the money, and after they take your money, they dunk their hands into a tub of salad and plonk a handful onto a plate for you. If they’re serious about hygiene then they will either have a dedicated person handling the money or be using disposable gloves or utensils to avoid their hands coming into contact with both money and food.
Probiotic capsules are your friend
Probiotics are live bacteria that are good for the digestive system. I took these for the a month before leaving Australia and also the first four months of travelling, and I have to say that they probably set a solid foundation for my food adventures. With the constant travel, partying and the usual backpacker excessiveness, the body can become worn out at times and maintaining a healthy digestive system is important for your general well being. If you can’t find any while you are travelling, then grab a tub of unsweetened yoghurt from the supermarket or corner store.
Wash fruit with bottled water
Fresh fruit is abundance here in Asia and they are usually washed prior to arriving to the vendors. However, in large cities, there could be excessive amounts of pollution with some nasty chemicals floating about and finding a home on uncovered food such as fruit. Generally, fruit stalls are easily spotted from the road, meaning they’re even more susceptible to getting a dusting of heavy metals and pollutants, as well as possibly coming into contact with the domestic animals that roam the streets.
Always have a bottle of water, not just for hydration but also for washing your hands or fruit. If it’s a serious fruit vendor, then they should have a bottle of filtered water for purposes of washing fruit for customers who want to eat on the go.
Accept the fact that that you will get sick
We can take all of the necessary steps mentioned above, but sooner or later, it’s bound to happen. The sooner we can accept it and get over it, the sooner we can get back onto the horse and continue discovering new dishes. We shouldn’t let one stumble affect our sense of exploration of a cuisine and culture.
Packing tips and other resources
So what do you do in the event of getting sick? I will confess that I am probably the least prepared and it will eventually bite me in the arse eventually, but here are a few pointers on what you should have with you on any trip.
- Antibiotics such as Metronidazole and Ciprofloxacin for serious cases.
- Imodium but only if you’re about to embark on a long journey.
- Rehydration tablets to replenish your salt and vitamin levels. Also great for hangovers.
- Anti Bacterial wipes to clean wipe down cutlery and hand solution if you’re handling food with your hands.
- Probiotic capsules that don’t require refrigeration.