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Good news! Street food trucks and carts are as safe or safer than their brick-and-mortar restaurant counterparts, reports a recent study done from 260,000 food-safety inspections in seven US cities by the Institute for Justice, “Street Eats, Safe Eats.”

Excellent news for Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.!

But what about the rest of us? And what about eating street food when traveling abroad? Is that street food safe? Is it RISKY BUSINESS?

I’m not gonna mince words. There is risk involved eating at a street food vendor, a restaurant and even at home if food is mishandled. As a contributor to the award-winning book, “Street Food Around the World,” I am often asked how I stay free of gastrointestinal ills through my culinary adventuring. But I am also here to tell you:

Yes, you too can enjoy street food.

If you’re looking to channel your inner Anthony Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame, partake in foodways and traditions, make some new friends, and directly support local entrepreneurs, try these nine tips to keep your taste buds, tummy and the rest of your GI system happy.

1. Ask a local. Locals know where to get the best street food. They’re their streets, after all! They also often know what’s in season and what local or regional or holiday specialties are available right now.

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain

If language is a barrier, pantomine “I’m hungry” then hand your new local friend a paper map and a pen. (For more on language, skip to tip #8 below.) On my flight to Madrid in April, I was seated next to two lovely older gentlemen. One of them knew about food, but he didn’t speak any English nor I any Spanish, unfortunately. But by the number of times he circled Mercado de San Miguel in black ink, I knew I had to make time for that place in particular. I went three times. The market is filled with vendors specializing in all types of food like olives, seafood, desserts, jamón, wine…

2. Get in line. People vote with their feet. Yes, it is annoying to wait — especially if you’re hangry. But if droves of locals are willing to queue up at a particular food stall, vendor or cart, there’s probably a delicious, affordable, locally-grown reason for it. And, as Anthony Bourdain has said, street food vendors are not going to poison their neighbors. It may surprise you but much of the world’s population relies on street food to get them through their days. Take heart in that. It’s gonna be alright.

Food Truck Rally, US Cellular Field parking lot, Chicago, USA.

Food Truck Rally, US Cellular Field parking lot, Chicago, USA.

3. Watch how ingredients are prepared and stored. Take advantage of the fact that street food is often prepared right in front of the customers (unlike the kitchens tucked away in traditional restaurants)! Are meats cooked to order? Or, worse, are meats just sitting around? Are ingredients covered and stored in a cooler, away from flies, heat, feral cats? Are clean or gloved hands on food only, and not on money?

If you don’t know what to watch for, check out FoodSafety.gov — which will help you cook safely in your kitchen at home, too!

4. Sneak a peek at the final product. Before standing in line, observe a few finished dishes as they leave the truck/cart. Trust your gut, your nose and your eyes.

Isaw (barbecue) chicken intestine, pepper, onion and vinegar dipping sauce. Also pictured, center, Betamax (congealed pork's blood cubes). Banchetto, Manila, Philippines.

Isaw (barbecue) chicken intestine, pepper, onion and vinegar dipping sauce. Also pictured, center, Betamax (congealed pork’s blood cubes). Banchetto, Manila, Philippines.

5. Go online. Research travel blogs and local media. Google “street food [LOCATION NAME].” Ask friends and contacts on social media and other online forums. Here we’ve even got something called the Chicago Food Truck Finder. If you want to know where to get started, seek out travel reviewer sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. (Yelp is now in twenty-seven countries including Argentina, see sidebar.)

Food Truck Festival, Kendall College. Backdrop, Sears (Willis) Tower. Chicago, USA.

Food Truck Festival, Kendall College. Backdrop, Sears (Willis) Tower. Chicago, USA.

While you’ve got the browser open, find out from traveler sites like the US State Department’s Country Specific Information or Fodor’s or Frommers if the water is safe to drink or of any other reported food-borne concerns. If the water is questionable, steer clear of street foods with ice.

6. Look where locals congregate. If the map-and-pen method didn’t work and you don’t have Internet access, go to the popular local spots.

  • The open-air or covered markets.
  • Shopping malls.
  • The major plaza or square.
  • Near places of worship. I know I’m always hungriest during church…
  • By the university.
  • In or near major public transit hubs.
  • Lunchtime near offices

Lunchtime has a different meaning, depending on where you are. In Manila, Philippines, one night market, Banchetto, caters specifically to several call centers, where English speaking employees provide customer service to callers from the Western Hemisphere. Place opens up at 10 PM local time.

Logan Square Farmers Market every Sunday throughout the year. Chicago, USA.

Logan Square Farmers Market every Sunday throughout the year. Chicago, USA.

7. Pace yourself, don’t overeat. Belly aches are the bane of too-zealous gustatory explorers, and will put you down as easily as overexposed ingredients or buggy water. Get a small portion or split one order among several companions. Some vendors may even offer a free sample! If you only have a short amount of time in a city or country, you may be tempted to eat as much as possible. Maybe wear looser-fitting pants or a maxi dress.

8. Learn some key phrases in the local language. Useful example, “I am allergic to shrimp.” Or, “One, please?” How about “Where did you buy that?” or “How much does that cost?” Learning a little of the local language always, always, always leads to richer travel experiences because you can talk to more locals than with just English. A simple please or thank you shows hosts courtesy and respect.

Or just try body language: smiling, pointing (at things, not at people!) and pantomine. Perhaps my favorite pantomine conversation I had while walking the Camino de Santiago (yes, that’s where I was for so long). I was eating with a group of pilgrims from all over the world at a communal dinner at an albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) in a small town in Spain. The Spanish lady seated next to me was from Burgos, a large city a few day’s walk ahead. In my broken Spanish I asked her what we should eat when we arrive in her city. Unfortunately her blister situation was sidelining her and her husband from continuing. Morcilla, she said, taking her index finger to pretend-stab her jugular vein, spraying forth the word in question.

Though our resulting meal in Burgos was not a street food experience, it was DELICIOUS.

Morcilla (blood sausage), Casa Ojeda Restaurante, Burgos, Spain.

Morcilla (blood sausage), Casa Ojeda Restaurante, Burgos, Spain.

9. Bring medicine from home. All the preparation and caution in the world may not prevent you from getting ill. The reality is there’s always some risk whether at home or away so you may as well prepare yourself for that scenario. And almost nothing is less fun than trying to explain GI symptoms in a pharmacy where you can’t speak the local language.

What are your tips for street food indulgence?

Don’t be scared to eat street food. Nine tips to stay ill free. Good news! Street food trucks and carts are as safe or safer than their brick-and-mortar restaurant counterparts…

Happy hour, happy oyster, happy me! Usually I’m a purist but these were nice! Plus a nice little gin fizz… @eatatunion #latergram

Many international airports have tourist and visitor information desk on its premises. I honestly never thought about stopping there until my recent trip to Puerto Rico showed me how helpful they can be. All for free.

1. Tourist Information desks know local news.

Uncharacteristically, I had not booked our bioluminescent bay tickets before we arrived in Puerto Rico. Bioluminescent bays are bodies of inland, brackish water where the native plankton, in a chemical reaction similar to that of fireflies, emit light when agitated. There are a handful of bioluminescent bays in the world. It was the one must-do activity that the three of us traveling together wanted to do.

At the San Juan Airport, we stopped at their tourist desk right off of the baggage claim area. That’s where we met Maria. Sadly, we learned that the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, on the western shore of Puerto Rico, had gone dark. Scientists had not figured out why it happened or how to fix it.

Thanks to Maria, we booked a visit to the perfectly unspoilt bioluminescent bay in Vieques, a small island southwest of the main island via an hour’s ferry ride.

Sun Bay and not another soul in sight, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Sun Bay and not another soul in sight, Vieques, Puerto Rico

2. Tourist information desks know local holidays.

As we talked with Maria about our bio bay tour, she realized that we should probably book the tour right then because tomorrow was Discovery Day, and many schools were out of session and some businesses were closed.

Discovery Day commemorates the island’s ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus. (Disambiguation: ‘Discovery’ implies some idea or land was newly found, and since there were native people of the island now known as Puerto Rico, I feel it appropriate to add the quotes.) Let’s continue.

Plaza de Colon, Christopher Columbus Plaza, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Plaza de Colon, Christopher Columbus Plaza, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

This knowledge put a very interesting initial frame on our time in Puerto Rico, as we both are Filipino. The Philippines and Puerto Rico share some similarities – islands located in the tropics with a common history of colonizers, both Spain and the United States. As we walked through Old San Juan, both of us imagined what Manila’s Intramuros might have been, had the Japanese not bombed it in World War II. (See the photo collages below.) We wondered what different fate may have been for the Philippines and Filipinos had it stayed a Commonwealth. What if, what if, what if…

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Intramuros (The Walled City), Manila, Philippines.

3. Tourist information desks know neighborhoods.

After Maria from the San Juan Airport Tourist Office had booked our bio bay tour in Vieques, she asked where we were staying in San Juan. We told her the name of the hostel (which I will withhold here). She furrowed her brow and told us she wasn’t familiar because she only works with the larger hotels. I showed her the printed email with the address of the hostel and driving directions by landmark. We should have known that it was a bad idea when she said we should probably not go out at night and never alone in that neighborhood.

We decided to go check it out anyway in the light of full day, since we’d already made reservations. I called the hostel several times, with no answer. Our taxi driver had a hard time getting us there, even with the landmarked directions which were in English only unfortunately. We should have listened to Maria.

No one who worked at the hostel was there to meet us. The common room was dark and dingy. Feral cats with bald patches on their bodies from fighting skulked the property and hissed at us. A woman came over to beg for spare change. But most disturbing were the barred metal doors. They were padlocked on the outside. Feasibly someone could padlock us in the room. Thoughts of Taken and any prison movie I’ve seen flashed before me.

Quickly Natalia and I exchanged let’s-get-out-of-here-right-now-honey looks, found a new hotel in Old San Juan (thanks to her iPad — still US cellular carriers!), and took the fifty cent municipal bus out of there.

At the bus stop we saw this cool piece of street art. Took it as a good omen we were finally headed in the right direction.

Hipster gnome street art, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy of NBR.

Hipster gnome street art, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy of NBR.

Why stop at the Airport Tourist Information Desk (even if everything’s already planned)? #travel Many international airports have tourist and visitor information desk on its premises. I honestly never thought about stopping there until my recent trip to Puerto Rico showed me how helpful they can be.

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Palawan, Philippines. Wish You Were Here Wednesday.

IMG_7335

On the way to the ferry, we stopped at a snorkel shop where we rented water shoes, fins, goggles, breathing tube thingy. Everything bright orange. At the shop, I still wasn’t sure if I actually would snorkel, but I figured, if I decided to do it, I’d…

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What I will remember about the town my mom lives in

1. The stars.

2. The oaks full of memory, haunted by grey Spanish moss. 

3. The horses on sprawling estates of white picket fences.

4. Backroads that have no names, only numbers.

5. Dollar stores everywhere.

Axe Cop: Night Mission: Stealing Friends Back

Trying to avoid calling the front desk a second time on the stomping children in the room directly above me by watching ridiculous cartoons. But — good news, the Boy Scouts has lifted its ban on gay youth, according to al Jazeera America.

Chicago’s Millennium Park with Flat Stanlina

Chicago’s Millennium Park #kids #travel #architecture

Flat Stanlina was so surprised at all the people playing outside, even if it was so cold. My friend Jenny took Flat Stanlina and me to Millennium Park.

When we arrived there was a man polishing the ice rink with a special machine called a Zamboni. The…

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What is Chicago Street Art

What is Chicago Street Art #travel #art #kids #graffiti

While we were visiting different places around Chicago, Flat Stanlina noticed that some buildings and street signs had interesting and colorful designs placed on them, either with paint or stickers. Some were like giant paintings or murals. Some looked…

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Puppet Bike, Chicago’s one and only! #kids #arts #smilesView Post

Puppet Bike, Chicago’s one and only! #kids #arts #smiles

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Chicago History Museum with Flat Stanlina

Chicago History Museum with Flat Stanlina #kids #travel

One day, we took Flat Stanlina to the Chicago History Museum.

At the Chicago History Museum we learned many things about the city’s history. It is believed the name of the city, Chicago, came from a leek (a type of onion) that grows wild in this area that…

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Chicago’s Holiday Train

Chicago’s Holiday Train #travel #kids #holiday

“How do you get to work, Ate Sarah?” asked Flat Stanlina. (The word ‘ate’ in Filipino means ‘older sister.’ It’s pronounced like AH-tay.)

“I usually take public transportation — a bus and then a train.” I showed Flat Stanlina this video of my train ride…

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Chicago’s Christkindlmarket

Chicago’s Christkindlmarket #holiday #kids #religion #travel

Flat Stanlina and I headed to the very middle of downtown. Daley Plaza is a large open space in the middle of downtown, named for one of Chicago’s long time mayors, Richard J. Daley. A statue by the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picassostands in the middle.…

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Bundle up for the Cold Chicago Chill! #kids #weather #travelView Post

Bundle up for the Cold Chicago Chill! #kids #weather #travel

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Flat Stanlina Visits Chicago in December #travel #kidsView Post

Flat Stanlina Visits Chicago in December #travel #kids

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#instapoetry #challenge : five lines for “wander”

#instapoetry #challenge : five lines for “wander”