I remember it like it was yesterday. June 20, 1993 was the last time I barfed. I remember it so well, because it wasn’t your ordinary barf-wipe-and-go. It was a defining life event, like the birth of one’s child or a wild monkey stealing your $1,500 camera and throwing it into a river. The grave injustice about that situation was that it was totally undeserved. I hadn’t yet embarked on the adventurous eating phase of my travels.
I’d arrived in Essaouira, Morocco a few days earlier. Up to that point, I’d stuck to restaurants and “clean” places for food. My guess is lax hand washing by kitchen staff was the culprit, though perhaps my system simply decided it had had enough of the unfamiliar North African bacteria. Whatever the cause, I spent about 24 hours doing something I now refer to as the “double eject,” if you catch my drift.
Like someone who gets trapped in a dodgy nuclear reactor or struck by lightning while holding an alien compound, I was bestowed with vomit-suppressing superpowers during that violent illness. I now fight poor food hygiene under the fearsome moniker “Captain Never Barf.”
I tell you this not because it’s so clearly awesome, but because you should know that I can now engage in adventurous eating without fear. And being aware of one’s stomach delicacy (or indelicacy) is the first thing to consider when contemplating putting new or unusual food in your face.
“Adventurous eating” isn’t as perilous as many people think
The contradictory perception that a sterile restaurant is the only safe place to indulge in “adventurous eating” is one of travel’s more robust misconceptions. Some of the best food I’ve had was made in open-air kitchens on filthy streets in places like Cartagena, Colombia.
The best sandwich I’ve had in my entire life was made in a shack in the back of a street market in Hoi An, Vietnam.
The best meal I had in all my numerous visits to Bangkok was the amazing dish pictured below, served from this woman’s street food stall with no running water, down an unassuming alley. I only found her because the guy in the street-facing convenience store pointed it out to me.
Soon after that amazing meal in Bangkok (I ate there twice in two days), a meal in a perfectly good restaurant in Fort Lauderdale resulted in a couple emergency trips to the bathroom later that night.
My point is you can get a bad meal almost anywhere, whether you’re dedicated to adventurous eating or dedicated to eating at every Hard Rock Cafe in the world – with the t-shirts to prove it. I can only think of a few places in the world where I would be wary of street food, otherwise I’m an avid supporter of sampling the street food wherever your travels may take you.
Adventurous eating – basic precautions, beware the tap water
Whether you intend in indulge in adventurous eating or not, a little research before a trip is a good idea, particularly if you’re a fresh-faced traveler.
If you do a biased Google search like “How dangerous is the street food in [fill in destination],” you’ll obviously find plenty of articles saying you shouldn’t touch the street food anywhere. But if you just search for “Street food in [insert destination],” you’ll hopefully get a balanced selection of articles, including a million “Top 15 street foods to try or else you suck” listicles.
If you don’t have time to pour over dozens of blog posts, good general resources about food safety at any given destination include the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Arguably, more important than food safety is the status of the tap water at your destination. Though I’ve brushed my teeth with tap water almost everywhere I’ve visited, I wouldn’t recommend this for mere mortals.
In places like Africa and Asia, tap water is definitely a no-go unless you’re in a five star hotel and even then I’d ask first. Tap water in Central America is also best avoided and of course Mexico’s tap water is legendary for its potential to cause the expulsion of bodily fluids at alarming velocity.
Conversely, hot liquids that have been thoroughly boiled before serving (coffee, tea, etc) are usually safe, though make sure the milk or cream you pour in there is from a trusted source.
Bad tap water can also sneak into your system via salads, juices and even the ice in your drink. If you’re in a well-trodden tourist destination, you’re probably fine as purified water is used for food preparation to ensure their tourism industry doesn’t self-destruct in bad press, but if you’re, say, in the mountains of northern Laos, stick to boiled water.
An important reminder: If the drinking water is unsafe at a destination, be extra vigilant about keeping water out of your mouth while you shower. Even veteran travelers occasionally let their concentration slip while rinsing off and pay the ultimate price for the next 24 hours.
Bottled water is obviously safe, but make sure the bottle is sealed. It’s rare, but some people will refill used water bottles with the tap water! If the bottle has been sitting in a pool of questionable ice water, it’s a good idea to wipe it dry before putting it to your lips.
Salads at locales with non-potable tap water should be approached with extreme caution. All those shredded vegetables, often with a moist surface area, is the germ equivalent of Coachella.
Safe(r) food and food to avoid
Even food that’s been well cooked can become iffy when it’s left sitting out too long, exposed to airborne contaminants.
Also suspect are raw foods of any kind, including soft cheeses and unpasteurized everything. Avoid buffets or any situation where food sits out at low or room temperature for extended periods, with multiple people pawing at it. Seafood, shellfish and anything with mayonnaise should be avoided if they’ve been sitting out for a while.
Food that is almost always safe includes fruit and vegetables that you can peel, shelled nuts and shelled food in general, and anything that been freshly cooked, medium-well (or better) or food that just came out of a factory sealed container.
Also, since germs need moisture to grow and fester, dry foods are usually safe. Inhaling a whole bag of potato chips is literally for your own safety in some places! You’re welcome.
A good rule of thumb is that busy restaurants and food stalls with long lines are a safe bet, due to constant food turnover.
The unfortunate reality is you will get sick sooner or later no matter where you go or how cautious you are. It’s just a part of travel, like people who go into airplane bathrooms in just their socks.
One preventative measure people with mortal stomachs rely on, I’m told, is fortifying one’s stomach before and during the trip with a foul substance called “Pepto-Bismol,” which turns your poop black and kinda sounds worse than just barfing, but you do you.
I can, however, vouch for the magic of Imodium. I bring it everywhere. If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t safely wander more than 20 paces from a toilet, you can also use Lomotil or Kaopectate.
Avoid EnteroVioform, a popular diarrhea drug in some parts of the world. It’s been known to screw up your nervous system.
In some cases, food isn’t to blame for your upset stomach. If you haven’t traveled much and then chose Africa or India for your first international trip, it’s inevitable that your body will go through some unpleasant adjustments as it copes with a sudden onslaught of unfamiliar bacteria, which can enter your body in any number of ways.
Again, a regular course of this Pepto stuff will ease those adjustments somewhat, but completely avoiding at least a little discomfort in a new, exotic destination is nearly impossible, so keep the hotel’s wi-fi password by the toilet.
Other good habits to get into while traveling
Keep hydrated. If you’re sick do your best to get electrolytes into your system. I carry Trace Minerals powder packs, because they weigh almost nothing and work like a dream.
Like spicy food? Good, go crazy. Chilies, turmeric and other spices have anti-bacterial properties which will help dispense with possible contaminants.
Fun fact: If you’re concerned about the water at a dodgy food stall in Nicaragua, your safest bet is to order beer. Beer is boiled in the brewing process and must be kept clean on its trip to the bottle or can. Even if the beer is somehow spoiled, it’s still not going to make you sick.
Finally, become a chronic hand washer. Whatever your habits at home, you should wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food while abroad. What people don’t usually take into consideration is that one of the dirtiest things you will touch out in the world are other humans. No joke. How do you think the fecal matter got on those doorknobs, keyboards and money? It wasn’t the Poop Fairy.
A study done at Grand Central and Penn stations in New York City found that only 49 percent of people washed their hands after using the bathroom. So, believe me when I tell you that going to a conference, shaking hands with 25 people, then sitting down to a big lunch of chicken wings is the fastest way to a long night doing the double eject. Even in Sweden.
If you need a hand washing reminder, here’s an idea: Write it on your hand.
How do you safely indulge in adventurous eating while abroad?