Traveling without any compromise on food safety is like traveling without any compromise on veganism. It’s certainly possible, but you might spend a lot of nights with a bowl of plain white rice as your only friend. If you really want to experience the local cuisine, you’re going to have to take on at least some moderate level of risk. Certain precautions like getting the right travel vaccines, are unquestionably a good idea, but there are real tradeoffs between safety and freedom of choice. At home it can feel like you have a lot more control. You can get rid of your wood-handled knives, clean your sponges, and avoid cross-contamination with meat on your cutting surfaces, etc. When traveling though, the choice is more often to either take a risk, or miss out entirely on a potentially rewarding food experience.
It’s 7:30, the place is Chiang Mai’s Saturday Market. We’re meeting Dustin, Dan, and some other digital nomads for the first time for a bite from the dizzying array of food stalls. My stomach’s a’rumbling and it’s time to decide how much food risk I’m willing to take on. I have my typhoid and hep A shots so my biggest concern is simple food poisoning. A quick look around reveals a terrible dilemma. There are the piles of grilled meat of every description that have been cooling off in the open elements for who-knows-how-long. If I want something fresh cooked, there is plenty of raw, uncovered seafood available for preparation. Or, who needs cooking at all? Room temperature raw fish is mine for the taking at the either one of the sushi stalls. Dan wanders over with some nigiri. He’s been taking his life into his hands for years without suffering from any fishy poison. I would love some five baht sushi, but this is where I draw the line. I’m fine with no hairnets, food that’s been sitting out for hours, unwashed hands, and the proximate coughing and breathing that remains unimpeded, but combined with raw fish? No thanks. And that’s the choice you have to make as well. Do you only eat cooked food? Does it have to be cooked to order? Or do you miss out on some incredible, cheap-as-free pad thai and a cool experience to show your friends pictures of? The choice is between you and your stomach.
- When dealing with street meats (not a euphemism), I try to stick with food that has just been removed from the heat. The longer a food sits around, the more chance bacteria have to set up camp. Rachel avoids street meat entirely.
- If something uses an ingredient that spoils especially easily such as raw fish, cream, or oysters be extra wary of it.
- If you eat something that tastes off, stop eating it.
- If the restaurant or food item is popular compared to other nearby options, trust it more. The wisdom of the crowd is usually reliable.
- Go to street food areas at popular times. You might have to wait a little longer, but the food won’t have been sitting out for too long due to the high turnover rate.
- Similar to the previous tip, favor going to street stalls closer to when they open.
- Get your travel vaccines. They won’t give your children autism or something.
- If you’re already not feeling well, take fewer risks.
WARNING: I don’t have all the answers. These are just my observations and personal choices, I am not qualified to determine whether any substance is safe for human consumption.