When Is Street Food Safe To Eat?

I love eating street food. Satay. Corn on the cob. Hot dogs. Takoyaki. Ramli burger. You name it.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who does. There are always endless queues for street food at food festivals that pop up every now and then around Melbourne.

Seafood paella inside a hot pan on the street. Dare eat it? | Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside.

Seafood paella inside a hot pan on the street. Dare eat it? | Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside.

Though we can find street food in restaurants, most of the time we think of it as cuisine cooked at a market. A bazaar. Chinatown. Pasar malams. Mamak stalls. In short, street food is food cooked and served outdoors.

Having eaten at countless outdoor food stalls and hawker centres in Asia, the undesirable atmospheric elements of the street-eating experience are now permanently etched in my head. For instance, along Malaysia’s Petaling Street and Hong Kong’s Mong Kok, it’s common to find street food prepared right beside damp, mosquito-infested gutters and congested roads. Good chances of dirty-legged flies and deadly motor fumes sticking to your food.

Secondly, food and utensil handling standards may not necessarily be up to scratch around street food vendors. Street side chefs handle ingredients with their bare hands. Sometimes only a tiny sink gets fitted with these vendors, barely big enough to fit more than a few dirty dishes. “Once-or-twice-rinse-and-its-clean buckets” filled with soapy water are often substitutes for kitchen sinks to wash cutlery.

Reusing oil and sauces is nothing new with many street food stalls. Once I ordered two different kinds of Cantonese kong foo chow noodles from a KL roadside stall. I watched the chef cook one ring of noodles in an oily wok and scoop it out…then cooked my next order in the same unwashed wok brimming with eggy sauce. Both dishes tasted great, though.

I’m sure sometimes we can’t help but wonder: when is street food safe to eat? Some have argued food cooked in a makeshift kitchen outdoors is safer to eat than KFC because we can actually see street food cooked in front of us over a hot, fiery flame.

Personally I reckon this argument is rubbish: the kitchen is almost always hidden from our eyes in so many restaurants. Dining in restaurants, whether our favourite dishes were cooked over a flame is the last thing on our minds as we gobble them down and walk away with painless, full stomachs. But choosing hot, well-cooked street food like piping hot dumplings might be a better option over something cold or raw like tau huay – heat kills germs in food.

Food stalls that look clean and appear to practice hygienic food handling techniques should serve decently-prepared street food. In Singapore, food outlets in hawker centres are advised to display graded hygiene certificates outside their stalls. I’ve never fallen ill eating at such stalls with “A” and “B” grades, even though there are “rinsing-buckets” in front of these stalls.

Naturally, if there are queues at a particular street food outlet for days or nights on end, it’s bound to be popular with locals and so chances are what it serves should go down well on the stomach. If someone did ate dodgy food from it, then word-of-mouth of this should go round fast.

Rarely have I eaten street food that didn’t agree with me. Two years ago in Malaysia, my mum bought some tau huay in Petaling Street and forced me to have a few bites of the sweet tofu-like Chinese dessert. I did and ten minutes later ran to the toilet. That didn’t put me off eating cold street food. I still eagerly fork out dollar coins for on-the-spot squeezed sugar cane juice and ice kacang when I’m back in Malaysia or Singapore.

Do you like eating street food? Do you avoid eating food cooked by the side of the road?

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59 thoughts on “When Is Street Food Safe To Eat?

  1. Street food is very normal food in Thailand. It’s so common for me that I was took by surprise when knowing its amusing aspect in other cultures like Western.

    I have no problem eating street food as I use the same standard as other restaurants when making decision for my meal. The decision is bases on taste and hygiene but to be honest, the good taste is sometimes the main winner 😉

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    • That’s very similar in Singapore and Malaysia – street food is normal food for everyone. If you eat it everyday in these places and I’m assuming Thailand, no one would laugh at you. If you eat at home seven days a week, some people will find you odd.

      Lol, “good taste is sometimes the main winner”. I like your words A LOT. This is what I do when I am making a decision buying food from a street food vendor. I will almost always buy roadside crispy noodles whenever I come across this dish 😉

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  2. Street food sounds lovely. I’ve never seen any around here (unfortunately) but I’ve eaten food that was cooked on site at fairs and carnivals. It’s delicious stuff! 🙂 Funnel cakes are wonderful. And so are corn dogs.

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    • I’ve always considered food at carnivals and fairs to be a form of street food, I’m glad you brought this up. Candy floss, hot dogs, corn dogs, fried Mars Bars (I’ve never had one of these!)…mouth-watering stuff indeed! I just googled funnel cake. Oh my. I really need to try this at some point. Always nice hearing from you, Matt 🙂

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  4. I love street food. It’s not common in Norway, but we have markets and fairs where there is a lot of street food. Also, when I travel, I eat a lot of street food. I love it! 😀 The smell is fantastic from the stalls, and you dont have to wait a long time for the food. To me I also associate street food with travel 🙂

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    • Interesting to hear that in Norway. I always thought because Norway was a relatively cool, cold, country weather-wise, there weren’t a lot of markets and outdoor stalls selling food. Doesn’t seem to be the case!

      Yes! Street food definitely is associated with travel. A lot of the time street food is cooked by locals. So if you’re in a foreign country and buy food from roadside stalls, you’re bound to get a taste of the country’s authentic gastronomic flavours. It’s strange how we are all attracted to eating street food when we’re abroad 🙂

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    • It definitely would not, Philip. Street food brings people together in SEA. You get families here eagerly going out early for street food dinner – they go early to grab one of those large rounded tables and sit there and chat for hours on end.

      Locals tend to be behind the hot woks and street food stalls. So whenever you get a bit of street food in SEA, you know you’re getting some of the best authentic Asian cuisine 🙂

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  5. There are a lot of street food in Aceh. I am not sure about the hygiene because its taste made me forgot everything. Mie Aceh, sate matang, wow they are so yummy

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    • Sate matang, that’s something I never got to try in Indonesia. It must taste different from the satay I eat in Malaysia. When I was in Indonesia, I remember my dad telling me not to buy any street food here because you never know how they made it. I felt very sorry for a lot of street vendors who pushed food into my hands, begging me to buy some food and throw some money at them. It must be a tough life as a street food vendor in some parts of Asia. I had a great time in Indonesia, though. The locals were lovely.

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  7. I love the street food in my wife’s hometown, we buy our lunch or dinner there several times a week and thus far I never got problems. Of course there is also some common sense when chosing the food stalls, e.g. kitchen right next to a public toilet is not very inviting 🙂
    In Finland and Germany you barely see any kind of street food, due to licensing and a terrible amount of regulation (if you sell ice cream in Germany, they will test the level of bacteria once a week and so forth)

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    • Lol, that’s hilarious: never choose food stalls with kitchens right next to a public toilet. But yes, it is common sense. You wouldn’t want filthy water leaking out from the toilet all over the kitchen and contaminating the food cooked here. Who would want to set up a food stall right beside a toilet? Don’t think I’ve ever seen this in Malaysia and Singapore. Though I’ve seen restaurants here have tables and chairs right beside the toilet, no joke.

      Didn’t know there were all these stringent regulation issues in your part of the world. It must cost a lot for licenses. I suppose the closet you can get to eating some street food there is at a market, a fair or a carnival. And BBQ in your own backyard 🙂

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      • Oh BBQ in your own backyard…not always possible in Germany, first you need to ask the neighbors for permission and then sometimes you must fill out some paperwork with the city 😀 (Germany is top country when it comes to make normal life very complicated)

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        • What? I had absolutely no idea you couldn’t drag out the BBQ pit on a Saturday afternoon at your own leisure and sizzle up a stack of meat patties for dinner in Germany! And consult the neighbours first who might never want to speak to you…it seems like a lot of effort if you want to cook food outdoors.

          Lol, having a BBQ indoors sounds much easier. But of course dangerous 😀

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  8. I’ve always eaten street food everywhere I go. Never had a problem. Mexico, Philippines, London, Paris, and especially New York are a few that come to mind quickly. Eating on a corner is a favorite pass time! Fairs, street fairs, or any little shack with a nice aroma is always on my eating agenda.

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    • You have a very adventurous palate, Kongo. It’s always fun eating outdoors, even if there are no tables and chairs around and you’re meant to sit on concrete. Dirty fingers and dropping bits of your street food on the ground is always part of the experience. A lot street food comes in smaller-than-dinner servings, so you CAN spend a lot of time on the streets sampling all the street food you can eat 🙂

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  10. Depending on where you’re from, street food can be part of the normal diet or a novelty. Regardless, it is part of the culture of that region.
    I think you need to be sensible. I have never gotten sick eating street food, although I have at a sushi place. I usually observe at a street stall first and see what they do, who’s buying and how busy they are. Then I decide.

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    • That is so true. In Malaysia, eating breakfast outdoors in a market is literally part of the culture there. In Australia, many people seem to favour brunching in cafes in the mornings. I too have gotten sick from a sushi place, an up-class sushi restaurant in fact. I usually have issues eating from street vendors if there are long queues, even if the chefs handle some ingredients with bare hands. I trust the heat from the fire will kill the germs.

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  11. I miss the street food culture in Asia! In Belgium, the closest (and probably, also the only) equivalent would be french fries. I miss eating well for a good price in a casual communal-type of atmosphere.

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    • Me too! In Singapore you can get street food pretty much until the wee hours of the morning and I believe I’ve seen a few kopitiams running 24/7. It is very communal eating street food in Asia, what with all those round tables in bigger, sheltered street food stalls. Maybe it’s an Asian thing – togetherness in very much valued, especially within the family. French fries as street food in Belgium…you seem to be really deprived of street food over there in your town 😛

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      • Ah yes, you bring up a good point – kopitiams that are open in the middle of the night! It’s hard to find eateries that are open late at night here. Often the options are greasy doner kebabs and fries. I would rather go to bed hungry than eat such junk food! And yes, it’s still rather uncommon to see communal tables in restaurants in Europe.

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        • I think eating 24/7 is strongly embedded in Asian cultures, not so much in Western cultures. In Australia, some people still shut ship and eateries at 5pm – there’s this mentality that night time is reserved for unwinding, resting and relaxing. I guess one of the few places where you can find communal tables in Europe – and here in Melbourne – is in Chinatown 🙂

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  12. Mmmm I miss Korean street food! Except the bundaegii (silkworm larva). That’s a smell I definitely don’t miss! I never thought too much about how safe the food was. I guess I’d say avoid dirty looking vendors, cross your fingers, and hope you don’t get sick!

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    • That’s what I do most of the time when buying food from street vendors – just look at the food being cooked and don’t look anywhere else! Though I must say I do get a shiver or two when I see the chefs scooping up ingredients with their bare hands and I can’t do anything about it. Korean street food sounds delicious. I’ve never had Korean street food before but I hear that there are lot of BBQ-ed food 🙂

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  13. I think if you keep your eyes open and see how they work and who’s buying and eating – it’s OK. I love street food myself and at concerts, markets and fairs in Sweden we have it too. Abroad I always try their speciaities and I think it’s important to get a feeling of the country’s culture as well. Thank you for bringing up interesting questions!

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Leya. Always great to hear from you 🙂 So nice to hear that you get street food in Sweden. I suppose it’s very different from the street food I’ve tried in Asia. I’m sure the street food over there is just as delicious as the ones I’ve tried do far! Food is a good way about getting to know other cultures. When we go to a foreign country and eat street food, a lot of the time we have the chance to look at the food being cooked in front of us – how it’s cooked, what goes in the dishes. And we might get inspired to whip them up at home 😛

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  14. That dish in the pan looks really good but you’ve got me thinking about the safety aspects.

    In my coordinates on the the atlas, there are regulated requirements for serving food in the public. It would be difficult to get away with serving without meeting those hygiene standards but not impossible. There is a TV show called “The Illegal Eater” hosted by former Barenaked Ladies front man Steven Page in which he investigates places that serve really good food outside of the restrictions on food service.

    You’ve given me an idea to look into, and photograph the food truck and other cultural food serving industry in my city.

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    • It was a huge pan of paella, probably almost a metre wide. It might be a bit of a challenge to scrub it clean and squeaky. We can always question hygiene standards in the context of cooking and serving food outdoors. Street food stall kitchens tend to be small in size, surely a lot of ingredients and cutlery are crammed in that small space and this might be a concern for contamination. As previous commenter CrazyChineseFamily has said, there can be restrictions on cooking food outdoors.

      I do hope you look and photograph food trucks and street food vendors (if any) in your city. In Melbourne, we do have a lot of mobile food tucks selling burgers and fries ($10++ for a burger!) and their trucks always look very clean and uncluttered. I wonder how they do it.

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  15. I enjoy the street food in Taiwan. My husband said that they are more strict with the health regulations. When he was a child, not so much.As somebody who has a family of chefs,I know “high-end” restaurants doesn’t mean it’s always better. My family told me some horrible stories. My brother’s ex-girlfriend used to be a chef at a very high end restaurant but got fired due to lack of hygene. She would blow her nose and throw her tissue on the floor like it’s normal. It’s all about the person’s personal hygene.

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    • I think it’s the clean facade that many high-restaurants exude that gives the impression they serve safer food. Which really is not the case in some instances. For example, some chefs cooking in restaurants wear gloves in the kitchen, but some don’t. I recently saw on another blog pictures of street food stalls in Taiwan; the stall vendors actually wore masks as they prepared the food. So I guess you’re right, they are more strict with hygiene regulations out on the street 🙂

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    • It seems that many Indonesians are okay with eating street food in their country. My dad has always warned me not to eat Indo street food when I was there visiting as there might be unclean water from the well used in cooking the food. I’ve eaten street food cooked in Jakarta’s shopping centres, though, and felt okay 🙂

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  16. I love the food stalls in Asia and I love eating food which is cooked in front of me in the streets. So far I never got sick anywhere in Asia except of India where I bought an ice cream from a street vendour, apparently not a good idea. Also my parents enjoy eating in the streets in South East Asia. On their most recent trip they got sick after having lunch or dinner in an expensive restaurant not from their many visits to the food stalls.

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    • Oh dear, so sorry to hear that you feel ill eating an ice cream from a street vendor. Usually I don’t hesitate to buy ice cream from them if it’s a packaged ice cream, think Cornetto, Magnum etc.. If it’s home-made ice cream or fruity ice-pops, I tend to have second thoughts. Also sorry to hear about your parents getting food poisoning too. Just goes to show that we can get sick anywhere from eating pretty much anything. But it doesn’t sound like you guys aren’t going to stop eating street food 😀

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  17. Nothing is better than street food…in fact, I am a bit of a street food junkie. Usually, the vendors are really craftsmen and they put so much attention to their food (ingredients and quality) that the dish often exceeds anything you could get in a restaurant.

    However, that said, I have stumbled onto a couple bad places that left my stomach in tatters…but that can happen almost anywhere I suppose 🙂

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    • I so agree. I really miss Malaysia and Singapore street food. We don’t often have street food vendors beside the roads here in Melbourne. Love how you say the vendors are craftsmen – so many of them deftly throw noodles, prawns, vegetables, you name it, high up into the air and catch them with their woks. Not only are they frying up a storm, a lot of the time they are putting on culinary shows for us. They really should be photographed more in their element 🙂

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      • Very happy you selected Singapore, as that is where I truly fell in love with street food. China was OK, tasty and cheap, but Singapore was just incredible. I think it was in variety of foods & spices, and of course so delicious. I still remember clearly my first experience in Singapore… couldn’t wait until dinner the following day! I like the idea of photographing the scene/lifestyle of these people ~ would be an incredible experience.

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        • My parents are adamant Malaysian street food tastes better than Singapore’s. They reckon Malaysia’s street food has a much stronger flavour and spices. I like both street food, but if I had to choose one or the other I would go for Singapore’s as the country serves mouth-smacking Hainanese chicky rice. But I do agree with my parents about Malaysian street food such as char kuay teow, satay and nasi lemak being more flavour-some and spice-filled – according to my palate this cuisine is saltier and contains more MSG.

          It sounds like you ate a lot in Singapore. You must’ve tried almost every kind of street food and restaurant dishes that you laid your eyes on 🙂

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          • Ha, ha! The Hainan Chicken Rice was my absolute favorite, and to finish it off there was nothing better than mango & sticky rice (my sweet tooth needs…). When I first arrived in China/Asia, I ate very few spicy dishes (just not use to them)…but now love them all. 🙂

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  18. Street food is everywhere in Mexico, but unfortunately it’s a food I tend to stay away from wherever possible. Mainly this is because it’s often (always) very meaty, and utensils are recycled. Seeing itty bitty bits of meat in my quesadillas or seeing them warming up on top of meat doesn’t make for a happy veggie. I also have a really sensitive stomach and too many times, I’ve felt quiffy after braving the street food. There is one exception though, corn! I always eat street corn and I love it! No meaty bits involved and it’s never made me ill! 🙂

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    • I love street corn too. It always tastes sweet and full of corn juice! Ah, never knew that they recycled utensils in Mexico. If they were plastic ones, I would be completely grossed out. About a decade ago in Singapore, many street stalls recycled their transparent drinking straws. The street vendors would pick up used straws from cups, wash them and basically hand them out to patrons. Very dirty of them and sometimes you’d spot bugs in the reused straws!

      I’m sure Mexico sells tasty quesadillas that your stomach can agree with. A lot of restaurants all over the world these days do serve street food, street food cooked in an enclosed kitchen. So I don’t think you can’t or you’re missing out on eating street food, Gina 🙂

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    • Not only is street food fun to try, it is really delicious to try. Indeed, what goes into street food is questionable. And you can’t be certain the ingredients are washed properly beside the road. So we should be careful about dining out, eating street food, not eat it too often! There are always healthier food options around.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very true, it is fun element and also taste component that we cherish in the street foods. Life is not always safe and quality is not the line we can always draw between home food and street food…exploring the flavours of street food is fine if it once a while…

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