HOW TO AVOID FOOD POISONING
Adapted from Legalnomads.com
Eating, for some people is one of the main reasons they travel. Food can bridge cultures, allowing you into kitchens and bakeries, butcher shops and market stalls. One problem is how to eat cheap food without getting sick.
Food Poisoning. There are many causes of food poisoning, but almost always it is from improperly stored or refrigerated food, and food that is old.
1. Eat Street Food.
Most people believe that eating in restaurants is safer and avoid street food. But I believe the opposite. Street food is not usually the culprit and it is frustrating to see travellers who prefer restaurants. On the street, you can see the food being prepared. There is usually a high turnover and food is fresher. In restaurants, you have no idea how the food has been stored or how long it has been around, don’t know what the kitchen looks like, and certainly don’t get to see the base ingredients being used. Better the kitchen you know.
In fact the only time I have gotten food poisoning, it has been in restaurants, and that is most other traveller’s experience. I drove from Canada to Cancun Mexico and over almost 4 months, ate street food every day with no problems. I crossed into the US at Del Rio Texas and decided to “treat” myself at a Pizza Hut. Four hours later, I vomited 18 times and then had diarrhea for 2 days. I had a similar incident eating pizza at a restaurant in Mexico. I believe improperly stored chicken is the usual culprit in the garden variety “food poisoning” due to Staph exotoxin.
With some caveats, once you know what to look for, pay attention to what locals eat and when, then you are on your way to successful, delicious meals that serve as experiences as well as dinner.
No advice is a fail-proof method, but this is what has worked for me.
2. Besides eating at the stalls with the longest line of locals, an important addition to that is to opt for the stalls with women and children in line, too. More variety in the customer base usually means the stall has been vetted enough that it’s safe for everyone.
3. Morning Markets
A good place to start with street food, are the busy local produce markets. Everywhere has a produce market and they usually have some freshly cooked food. Because these stalls are set up to feed the hungry shoppers, there is quick turnover. It’s a good way to experience a daunting new food spectrum and try the foods one by one.
Hotels often have breakfasts included, or others opt for a more Western breakfast of yoghurt and fruit, but try the markets instead. It’s a great way to kickstart your taste buds and all your other senses.
4. For a cheap lunch, go to the local university and find a place nearby. Students are a hungry bunch without much to spend on food, and throughout the world cheap stalls pop up around universities. It won’t be the best meal of your life, but it will be local, fast, cheap, and usually delicious. Not recommended for dinnertime, however, as the meals will have sat out for the afternoon.
5. When choosing a stall, try to make sure the people running it don’t touch both the money and the food with their bare hands. Either pick a two-person stall where someone’s handling the cash and someone else the food, or a place where the chef is wearing plastic gloves while making the food, and touching the money without them. This is often difficult to arrange though.
6. Pay attention to local mealtimes especially in developing countries with no refrigeration. Be it tiny stalls or restaurants or street eats, consume food when turnover is high and it is still hot. 6pm dinners or 11am lunches may not fit the usual meal patterns for some, but it can be very helpful if that’s when locals eat.
This is especially important for buffet style food, to eat them when they are fresh and before bacteria can form as the food cools.
7. Aim for food that has been fully cooked. If your dish is cold in the center, you want to order something else or ask for it to be put back in the oven or wok for another few minutes.
8. Cutlery is often the culprit for bacteria while the food is safe and fresh, since the water used to wash the utensils or bowls might be contaminated. This can be an issue in places like India or where river water is used to wash the cutlery instead of fresh water. One tip is to take portable chopsticks, useful in the rare cases where food is fresh but where the utensils might not be washed as thoroughly as you might like. A second best: baby wipes to wipe down the utensils you receive.
9. Some of the advice for street food or food in developing countries is quite aggressive and means you would miss out on one of the best parts of travel. Never tell someone “Avoid all fruit!” or “Avoid anything with ice!” As with any place, research is needed. Does the city have a subsidized drinking water scheme, such as Bangkok or Saigon? In those cases the ice might be filtered water.
It is wise to avoid fruit that cannot be peeled when you do not know the place well, especially those from countries with heavy pollution. Bananas, longan, lychees, mangoes, rambutan, and mangosteen are all incredibly delicious and have an outer skin to peel away.
Avoid lettuce, or fruit with skin you eat (like apples). Strawberries, while tempting, ought to be avoided in countries with high pollution and a questionable water system.
10. Beware of ice or fruit shakes where water is contaminated
Drinks with ice in Saigon or Bangkok have filtered water that is subsidized and available cheaply for the general population. Traveling outside the cities, try to avoid ice or fruit shakes with ice as you do not know how the ice was made. If there’s an easy thing to cut out where the water isn’t safe, ice is the first to go. Many have gotten sick from fruit shakes in Laos.
11. Vegetarian for a spell?
In some destinations, avoid meat if really concerned about food poisoning especially in places where water is extremely contaminated. 12. Sauces can be a problem.
Table condiments and sauces are kept at room temperature, meaning they can breed bacteria over time. Gauge you sauce usage on the amount of consumption from other diners: if it’s a food where condiments are used liberally (e.g. bun rieu soup in Vietnam, where it would be blasphemous to skip adding wet chili paste), go for it. Watch if there is crust on the side of the sauce, or a few drops are used at a time.
12. Translation help. Bring a Point It Dictionary if you’re concerned about eating food you can’t place. For those with iPhones, there’s an app for that: ICOON. Both can be useful when you have questions about what is being served, but no language in common.
By eating on the street, you can modify the meal as it is cooked, instead of relying on pre-made sauces that might get you sick. Build your own specific translation cards with highly detailed notes to indicate what you can and can’t eat in the local language. Besides celiacs, those with peanut allergies can do the same on their travels through Asia. Of course due diligence is needed to know what ingredients have to be avoided. (for celiacs, soy sauce contains wheat flour.)
Two options for printable cards are Select Wisely or Allergy Translation. They go a long way toward getting your point across and Select Wisely has a strongly worded option for those with more life-threatening allergies. It is also fun for trading words in your respective language when on a long train ride.
12. For those with allergies or celiac disease and need gluten-free food, there are many web sites that can tell you how to deal with this (legalnomads.com has good information as she has celiac disease). Besides saying “I can’t eat wheat”, one needs lists of what foods should be avoided that have wheat in them. Many countries do not realize what has wheat in their dishes, since there is no reason to be vigilant. Two options for printable cards are selectwisely.com and allergytranslation.com.
13. “How to Shit Around the World” demystifies street food and helps you stay healthy
WHAT to DO if YOU GET FOOD POISONING
The tips above are not guarantees and anyone can have a food misadventure. It is part and parcel of the risk inherent in traveling.
1. Rehydration. Trioral rehydration salts or a version of this are recommended. A reasonable alternative is Pepsi, Coke or sport rehydration drinks as they have sodium and potassium that needs to be replaced, but are a little high in sugar. Rice and banana are reasonable when things are improving.
Drink lots to keep up with losses.
2. Probiotics that don’t need refrigerating may be of value. Ultimate Flora 90 billion capsules are one choice. n
3. If you are not improving or getting dry and not able to keep up with losses then a visit to a local doctor might be in order. Many of them are familiar with traveler’s diarrhea but also with any lingering viruses circulating in the region.
4. Tend to avoid Imodium unless you have a long bus ride plus food poisoning.