Call it what you like depending on where you are, from Delhi belly to Montezuma's revenge, you may literally be taking your life into your hands when you consume food at one of the many "curb de cuisine" operations in Asia. Food poisoning can happen to any traveller anywhere, and when afflicted it will definitely ruin your holiday for a few days at least.
Bugs can run rampant in that scrummy looking meal clutched in your hands, from viruses (rotavirus) to bacteria (Escherichia coli and Campylobacter) plus nasty parasites and fungus. It's an Asian world of living organisms wishing to invade your gastro tract resulting in agonizing cramping bouts of vomiting and diarrhea leading to dehydration. Take note that it isn't always street food that will have you exploding from both ends, as some five-star restaurants in under-developed countries can be culprits as well.
Street food is a part of the local culture in Asia and not one to be missed. Below are a few tips to follow if you don't want to end up living 24/7 in your hotel room or in a strange hospital with a saline drip in your arm:
Research before you go what the food specialties are of where you will be. Check out what is commonly devoured and what it should look like. India is the land of curries, if you are perched on an Asian coastline known for its seafood tuck in, when in Bali go for the sate, in Sri Lanka try the string hoppers, Malaysia is the place to ooh and ahh over some fried bee hoon, and if in Thailand, take the time to chow down on some Pad Thai. If a street food tour is on offer, then take advantage of it and gain a local's perspective.
Go fresh produce market gawking even if you have to get up when the rooster crows. Food stalls at the markets will have the freshest produce that is sourced straight from the market. Usually, these stalls are buzzing with local hungry shopping hordes or shop keepers, so head to the busiest one, even if you don't know what is on offer.
Frequent the street vendors that specialize in one or two items and only eat what is cooked in front of you. Politely refuse already cooked items that have been sitting on display and ask for a fresh one to be cooked on the spot for you.
Become a pseudo-local when on the food hunt and make a beeline for where the locals eat and at the times of the day when they eat, because this is when food will be freshly prepared to cater to the turnover. The long lines with women and children patiently waiting in them are a good indicator that the dished up food is not just tolerated by male cast-iron stomachs.
Watch the action before ordering to determine how the food isprepared. If it's a lone operator, check that hands are cleaned after handling cash. Two-person operations where one handles the money and the other the ingredients are a safer option. Take note of how the ingredients are stored: open to the elements or covered and maybe on ice.
Don't be afraid to spit it out, discretely of course. If the texture, the smell or the taste of something seems off, then it probably is.
Disinfect the eating utensils that may be given to you with sanitizer or disinfectant wipes before diving into the meal. Alternatively, forget about the niceties of table manners that were drilled into you as a child and dive right in with your hands—only if your hands are clean of course.
Don't eat the salad, if you can't drink the water. Salads are generally not traditional foods in poor countries, as raw fruit and vegetables can be affected by contaminated water. The only way to get your daily fruit dosage is to buy fruit that has to be peeled and peel it yourself, such as bananas, pineapples, pawpaws and mangoes.
Forget about being a carnivore and join the veggie souls for while you are away. Some Asian countries excel in their vegetarian cuisine that is often referred to as "monks food". Once you have seen how meat for sale is treated in poor countries, you will understand why many travellers choose to forgo their favourite protein source and dine luxuriously on beans, nuts, cheeses, plus whatever else is on offer.
Stick to bottled water and check that the seal of the bottle has not been broken when purchasing it.
Don't suck the ice, in fact always have your drinks without ice, as there is every chance it's made from the water that you shouldn't be drinking.
Eat local produce, then you don't have to worry about long transportation routes that could spoil the food. You will know what is local fare if you got up at the crack of dawn and went to the markets.
Above all, trust your gut instincts!
Gail Palethorpe, a self proclaimed Australian gypsy, is a freelance writer, photographer and eternal traveller. Check out her website Gail Palethorpe Photography and her Shutterstock profile.