Joel Putnam is a world traveller in his early 20’s.  He recently reached Africa, his seventh continent in his travels around the world.  As is typical of  his generation (he is, in the interests of full disclosure, a friend of my son), he is blogging about it.  His blog is very well-written, and the captions on his photographs are always witty and often downright hilarious. 

Joel has apparently been reflecting more broadly on his experiences, and he penned an entry entitled "Travel Tip:  Street Food Primer" that includes some excellent advice on how to select a place to eat anywhere in the world. 

Here are some excerpts:

  • Lesson number one: In the developing world, street food is often safer than restaurant food. Yes, you read that correctly. Street food. The food that has made me the most sick while traveling has almost all come from restaurants. The reason why, is that with street food, you see it get cooked right in front of you, and you see who is cooking it. In restaurants, you see neither.

This is an important insight, although as readers of this blog know, you can get sick at the most sanitary of street stalls, or in the best restaurant on earth

  • Lesson number two: usually, if the tap water isn’t safe, neither is the ice. This is seems obvious when written, but it’s one a lot of of people forget in practice. There are a few countries, mostly in Asia, where ice is actually factory made from safe water. But please take the extra step and check that that’s the kind of ice floating in your drink.
  • Lesson number three: what’s safe for the locals isn’t necessarily safe for you, yet. . . . We all have  little local beneficial bacteria running around our digestive tracts that helps us handle the local food. This differs from place to place. So take it easy for the first few days in a new place to develop your own. Legend has it local yogurt helps with this (though beware, yogurt that hasn’t been refrigerated properly or that has expired is a fast way to making you sick). After you’ve been eating tame food (like vegetarian dishes) in a place for a bit, then try moving on to the more interesting stuff.
  • Lesson number four (this one is important): if the place is crowded, the food is probably good, and it’s almost definitely being cooked fresh. This is an excellent way to pick street food vendors and restaurants. We’ll call it the sheep method. The reason is that deserted restaurants and vendors are much more likely to leave things like meat lying around in temperatures that let nasty things start growing in it. Then when you order it, it’ll get quickly reheated and served. Popular vendors, on the other hand, are having to constantly cook fresh batches to meet demand. And if it’s in that much demand from the locals, it’s probably because the food is especially good.

From the introduction to his blog entry, I might add a lesson number five:  avoid hubris.  He recounts the tale where he bragged to some fellow travellers that he had eaten so many different things in China that he should have no trouble in Mongolia.  The natural result of that was that he had 12 hours of indigestion from his first Mongolian street food.  But fortune follows the brave, since one of those fellow travellers from Wales was a doctor.

Joel’s common sense advice can be used anywhere.  We all have internal sensors that tell us when it’s good to eat or drink something–our eyes, our noses, our taste buds, our ears.  This is good supplementary information for how to deploy them in unfamiliar places.

I commend Joel’s blog to you and not just for the travel insights.  If you care to do so, vote for his blog as Travel Blog of the Year in the Blogger’s Choice Awards.  I also thank him for the delicious photograph accompanying this entry.  I think we may safely assume he didn’t get sick from that meal.