Who hasn’t heard of Delhi Belly? It’s often used in the generic sense when travellers fall ill even if they are in another country. I always eat street food and touch wood; I have not been adversely affected in about 25 years or more. I might just have a cast iron constitution but I thought that I would share some tips to help you enjoy street food in India.
This article is not about discouraging you, but rather giving you some basics that you can feel confident and make an informed choice. If you get ill while travelling it can ruin your entire holiday, apart from causing you a great deal of inconvenience and discomfort. Naturally, some people are more prepared to take risks while others remain far more cautious. At the end of the day, it is all really about your personal preferences.
When I travel I can’t bear the thought of missing some tasty local gem or delicious treat that I will not find anywhere else in the world. I spend time researching whatever I can find relating to the food of the area. I also do a quick search for any relevant TV shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Watching an episode on the place you plan to visit can teach you quite a few things before you go.
I don’t know about you but in some of the places that I have been to it’s definitely preferable to eat street food rather than eat in a dodgy restaurant with an unhygienic kitchen that you can’t see. On the street, you can watch your food being prepared and see the whole process. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Tips to help you enjoy street food in India
Look at the length of the queues
Look at where the locals are eating. Obviously, those with the longest queues are doing a great turnover, so the food is freshly prepared and has not been sitting in the sun. Have a quick glance at the demographics of the people in the line. If there are families you can be relatively sure that the food is safe, after all, what parent is going to feed their child bad food?
Have a look where the vendor is cleaning his utensils and if the food is covered. Look at the oil and see if it’s clean. See that there are no food scraps lying around. If there are flies buzzing around then my advice is head for the hills.
Many ice cubes and related products like shaved ice are homemade. There is no way of knowing if the water has been filtered or not, so avoid them just to be on the safe side. If the ice cubes have a hole in the centre then they have probably come from an industrial machine. If so, you’re good to go, but its still a risk.
Even in restaurants, there is no guarantee that the ice has been made using bottled water. No matter how hot you are one little ice cube can ruin your holiday.
Avoid dairy products
Many street vendors, especially throughout Asia and India, use condensed milk. This is not a problem as it has been treated at high temperatures to kill off harmful bacteria. Fresh dairy products, if they are not kept cool, can cause you a great number of problems, so steer clear of them.
Salads, fresh fruit and vegetables
Salads containing lettuce, cucumber and tomato should be avoided. The ingredients have probably been washed with tap water. Vegetables that have been pickled in any form are safe. In India, don’t eat fruit with skin on it, like an apple, and think that it is safe without washing it with bottled water. If you eat a banana check that the peel is intact and not damaged before you eat it.
Don’t be horrified if a vendor tosses a partially cooked item back into a wok of hot oil. Food that is heated to a high temperatures kills bacteria, so fried food is an excellent choice if you are in any doubt. The basic rule is to eat hot, cooked food and you should be safe.
One of the best tips I was given was by a fellow passenger on an Indian train. The train was filled with delicious aromas, but I was hesitant to order anything. He saw my dilemma and gave me some great advice. “If in doubt eat vegetarian food and when you are at the sea eat seafood. Don’t order seafood inland.” It took me about another 30 seconds to order a delicious thali (a selection of small dishes).
This is quite logical when you think about it. It’s a policy that I have now adopted in my travels around the world and it has really worked well for me.
If rice is precooked and is left around all day it has a tendency to ferment. This is probably not technically a correct word, but bacteria start to grow quite quickly. This often happens if large quantities are made and it is not quickly consumed. Always make sure that the rice is fresh before you order it.
Freshly squeezed juice
There are stands all over India and Asia serving wonderful concoctions of exotic juice. Just make sure that the vendor presses the fruit in front of you. Stay away from fruit that has not been peeled. Don’t buy anything that has been in a jug or is served in a glass. Once again you have no idea where or how they have been washed.
Always buy bottled water. Check that the seal in intact before you accept it. Some of the less unscrupulous vendors will refill bottles with tap water.
I almost never have breakfast in a hotel. The first thing I do is head for the local market to find something delicious. Not only are they a showcase for wonderful fresh seasonal produce there are almost always stalls set up to feed the hungry shoppers. You can be sure that they wouldn’t be there every day if their food was in any way suspect.
My essential packing list
I always carry a few basics with me just in case……
- Probiotics are always a good idea. If you are prone to a dodgy stomach start taking them a 7-10 days before you leave.
- Diarrhoea medication
- Hand sanitizers- this always gets used!
- Anti-bacterial wipes- you can even wipe cutlery with these at a push
- Something to ease cramping, like Buscopan
- An electrolyte solution like Rehydrate
If you are going to enjoy street food in India and you bite into something that doesn’t seem right don’t assume that it is supposed to taste that way. Don’t eat it! No matter what you do some foods may not agree with your stomach. If you don’t normally eat spicy food and decide to eat a chilli-laden treat it will affect you. I often think that it’s the dramatic change in diet that causes the problem when you travel rather than the local food that often gets the blame.