Wandering through the riotous, labyrinthine stalls of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market has given you an appetite. For hours, you’ve been pressing between crowds of local women haggling over mangoes, melons, and rank-smelling durian fruit; karaoke-CD hawkers wailing into staticky microphones; and bamboo cages full of fighting cocks and fluffy barking puppies. Suddenly, the aroma of sizzling sesame oil overtakes you—and dead ahead, you see a vendor scooping hot, crispy-looking snacks into paper bags. Funny, those crunchy piles look like…they couldn’t be, could they? Fried…water bugs?
They are indeed. And people are lining up for them.
Wild, wonderful street food: It’s what sustains native snackers all around the world. And more and more these days, it’s also satisfying intrepid travelers—visitors for whom eating like a local is both a genuine adventure and the purest expression of cultural respect. For street-food enthusiasts, it’s not possible to "do" Singapore without visiting one of the city’s infamous hawker centers; and the most quintessential Rajasthani meal is a steaming panipuri from a roadside chaat stand.
It’s largely thanks to chefs and food writers like Anthony Bourdain, Marcus Samuelsson, and Anissa Helou that embracing street food has gone mainstream. As they’ve made clear in their books (and on TV shows, like Bourdain’s No Reservations), the days of travelers "tasting" a destination only by dining at its best restaurants are on the wane. After all, they maintain, a place’s fine-dining venues tell only half its story.
Of course, since street food really and truly caters to local tastes, it can present some daunting challenges to our palates. Authenticity and adventure aside, fried water beetles—and other roadside delicacies—can wreak havoc on digestive systems that aren’t used to them. But before you judge an Ecuadorean favorite like roasted cuy, otherwise known as whole, spit-roasted guinea pig, remember the flip side: A good old North-American hot dog might easily nauseate a Buddhist vegetarian from rural Japan.
Some street dishes have names that sound more exotic than they are. Reindeer hot dogs? Yes, these Alaskan treats contain some of Santa’s fliers, but they’re also made from pork and beef (reindeer meat, it turns out, doesn’t have enough fat to make it truly hot doggish). Taiwan’s stinky tofu? It’s basically just fried tofu, though the way it’s prepared gives it a smell that may (okay, will) offend.
And since easy preparation is often more important to street cooks than rigorous hygiene, you should be cautious about choosing where to graze. When in doubt, follow these rules:
1. Go where the locals go. If they’re choosing one satay vendor over a dozen others, there’s likely a good reason.
2. Watch the vendors. Besides checking for covered ingredients and a tidy workstation, see if they’re cooking dishes to order (as opposed to letting them lie around for hours).
3. Don’t push the envelope. In developing countries especially, it’s best to avoid raw dairy products, raw fruits and vegetables, and shellfish. Oh, and keep in mind that "beef" may or may not be the real thing.
4. Beware of the water. Skip the vendors who spray their food to keep it looking fresh; nine out of ten times, the water’s not filtered or bottled.
5. Well-done is good. If it’s been cooked to within an inch of its life, no matter what it is, it’s probably fine.