…Or how to embrace street food and live to tell the tale. My absolute favorite part of traveling is all the incredible food! If you couldn’t tell, our family is a little bit in love totally obsessed with food. We’ll throw in a few tourist attractions, just for appearances sake. But really, it’s a calculated, cross-city hunt for the tastiest morsels the country has to offer. We probably ended up at that cathedral because of the delicious patisserie around the corner…

Temple of Literature and National University, Hanoi, Vietnam

But it’s more than just about the food itself. Food is such a beautiful (and delicious!) way to connect with the culture and the locals.

So, how do you go about finding the best eats in town and not succumb to the biological warfare that will keep you chained to the commode for days? Here are a few handy tips that I always follow:

  • Avoid restaurants that have a special “tourist” menu…you know the ones.  These are the restaurants that are just looking to rake in the cash from gullible tourists. They don’t care about food quality. Clearly.  They prominently feature pizza, hamburgers, and french fries. And always all three in combination. The professional tourist trap will throw in some nachos and spaghetti for that international reach. Just. Say. No.
  • Eat during peak meal times or just right before peak meal times. This ensures you’re not eating the leftovers from the meal rush that’s been sitting out for a while. If you go in before the rush, you’re probably getting food that’s just coming out of the kitchen.
  • Look for long lines. And not just any long line. Long lines of locals. The locals always know where to find the best food in town. On top of that, those are the establishments that are turning over food fast. That means you’re getting fresh, hot food. Remember, locals can get sick, too. And if they’re getting sick, they won’t be coming back.
  • Follow your nose. If it smells good, it will probably taste good. If you can smell it, that means there’s….
  • Smoke. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I love to see the food being made right before my eyes! First, because it’s cool!  Second, because it means food is being made fresh and hot, not sitting out in the hot sun for hours.

Now here’s the controversial stuff. The professional in me will tell you: Don’t eat leafy greens. Don’t eat fruits with porous skins that you do not peel before eating. Don’t drink anything with ice. Anything that’s washed or made with contaminated water could get you sick. Really sick. But where’s the fun in that? So be aware of the risks and make an informed decision. Here are a few tips I follow:

  • Make sure they’re practicing good hygiene. Separating meats from fruits/veggies. Keeping hot foods hot; cold foods cold. That’s the beauty of street food. The kitchen is right there in your face!
  • Order drinks chilled rather than iced. Many places will have a few bottles thrown in the refrigerator. They know your type and they’re ready for you.

    Ice block delivery in Vietnam. Use at your own risk.
  • But sometimes you can’t avoid iced drinks. Hello! Vietnamese iced coffee (café sua da) is a must try when you’re in Vietnam! In Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries, there are two types of ice. The round, cylindrical ice that looks like it came out of a machine and the  irregular chunks of ice that are chipped off a huge block. Go for the cafés that offer the cylindrical ice. As a general rule, I avoid drinking anything iced from street vendors. Go find yourself a cute little café. With free wifi.
  • Yogurt. Local yogurt. Or other cultured milk products. Because it’s delicious! And there’s the added perk of all the good, beneficial probiotic bacteria. If you’re eating in a different country, your intestinal microflora is probably freaking out a little anyway. I like to just make sure there’s a lovely little layer of good bacteria in there to balance everything out.  Is there any solid scientific evidence behind this? I don’t think so. I just know that it seems to work pretty well for me!

The surest way to get people to open up and strike up honest conversation is to ask them about their food, their culture. And the best resources? Taxi drivers. Hands down. They know where to find good food. Cheap. So next time you’re in a taxi, a rickshaw, or pedicab, ask:

“Hey, where’s your favorite place to get falafels? I hear Mamoun’s is the best in town.”

Mamoun’s?! Noooo!!! What idiot told you that? Sure, if you like eating fried cardboard on crap…No. I will tell you where you must eat.”

And now that you’re good buddies, feel free to discourse on politics, religion, and gender inequality. But not until you get past the falafels. The key to a people’s heart is through their stomach.  And really, I think this must be the secret to world peace.

G’s killer pic of Ben Thanh night market street food stalls (Saigon, Vietnam)