Street food - is it safe to eat? An example from Krabi, Thailand

You can find food vendors on just about any street in Thailand – or so it seems. Some travelers love it. They swear by it. While others will not eat it under any circumstances. What is it about street food that people either love or hate?

Those who love it say it’s tasty, cheap and it’s quick and easy to obtain. It also seems pretty trendy right now. On the other hand, those who are opposed to it say they aren't sure if it's safe to eat. They don't want to get sick.

Most of the research that I’ve done on the subject of safe food eating is that it’s not what you eat that you should be concerned about. It’s the preparation and handling process that can be the issue.

There are certain foods to be careful of. Foods that come from animals are naturally contaminated with bacteria. This is true whether you eat it at home, in a restaurant or from a street vendor. It’s important to eat meat that is fully cooked and served hot.

You should also be careful of eating raw (uncooked) fruits and vegetables. In fact, all raw food is subject to contamination. Many fruits and vegetables are grown in the soil which can be contaminated with manure or sewage that runs through the area. To be on the safe side, only eat fruits and vegetables that are washed in clean water and then peeled, preferably by you.

Some people feel more comfortable eating in a restaurant than from a street food vendor. Somehow, they think that food in a restaurant will be ok to eat but not from the vendor. One thing about street food is that you can see the preparation process. You can see whether the “kitchen” is clean or not. You can tell if the food that’s already prepared is separated from the food that’s unprepared. Cooked meat, ready for sale, should never be combined, or on the same plate, as uncooked meats. Most of the time, you cannot see any of this in a restaurant. You form an opinion by looking at the front of the house and not the kitchen.

There are a number of vendors lined up one after the other. The place is busy which gives the impression that food is moving and will not sit around

Earlier today, I was walking in Aonang Beach, which is near Krabi in southern Thailand. I came upon a row of street food vendors packed closely together. After surveying the scene, I purchased some chicken from one of them. It turned out to be really good.

The items for sale are in a separate area from the uncooked products. The food appears to be thoroughly and recently cooked. The area looks clean and well-organized.

Before I purchase street food, I go through a quick evaluation that tells me whether I feel comfortable eating there or not. Here’s how I evaluated the street food vendor that I purchased chicken from today.

  1. There were a number of street food vendors and all were very busy with a lot of customers. When vendors are busy, food is moving. Hot food is probably not sitting around for a while getting to room temperature.

  2. The vendor that I selected was barbecuing chicken, fish and a few other things while I was there. I formed the opinion that the finished product that was laid out for sale probably hadn’t been there very long. If I was really concerned, I could have asked, and waited for, one that was currently on the grill.

  3. The cooked items that were available for sale were not combined with uncooked products. In addition, the area appeared clean and well-organized.

  4. After I purchased two leg/wing combos, I checked to see if it was completely cooked. It was.

  5. In addition, I’ve had my Hep A shots and got my Typhoid Fever vaccination prior to traveling.

  6. In the end, the chicken turned out to be really good. For two legs and two wings, I paid 100 Thai baht (about $3 USD).

For more information about "eating dos and don'ts" for travelers, check out these articles:

CDC: What's Safer and What's Not

CDC: Food and Water Safety - What to Know Before You Go

CDC: Food and Water Precautions

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