How to find good street food, an amateur’s guide

Street food vendor

Part of the fun of traveling is sampling the local cuisine. This is true of familiar foods, like pizza in New York and cheesesteak in Philadelphia, as well as of exotic foods, like street food in countries that are known for having crowded open-air markets. The menus many be in different languages from country to country, but the overall idea of eating at a restaurant is pretty much the same. Eating street food from a busy street-side stall, however, can be a little bit of an intimidating experience for any traveler whose previous street-food experience has been getting a hot dog from a cart in the park.

I am not an expert in selecting street food, but as an amateur and avid traveler, I have managed to put together a couple of easy tips that will help you (I suspect that most of you aren’t experts either) pick out some of the better options available to you.

  • First, choose a stall that is busy. Unless the street is deserted – in which case you’re either a very early riser or are looking for food on the wrong street – the more popular stalls tend to have slightly better food. This is a very important point for stalls with fried food, which will be at its best when freshly cooked.
  • Second, choose a stall that has just one food or one type of food. I found better noodles and sausages at places that only did those foods than ones that tried to do a little of everything. It’s also good if a stall offers just one type of food, like a variety of dried sea foods or a variety of corndog-type items with different fillings (sausages, vegetables, fishcakes, whatever.)
  • Third, choose a stall that does the cooking right in front of you, if possible. It’s not a great sign to order an already grilled sausage and have the vendor stick it in the microwave before serving it to you. Obviously, this is not applicable if the food you’re ordering doesn’t need to be cooked.
  • Fourth, try to shop around a little on price. Most vendors in one area will have the same pricing, but if you have the time to walk over one block, sometimes you’ll find things a lot cheaper. Expect to learn that different areas have slightly different price points if you’re in the same city/country for a few days.
  • Fifth, if it smells great it will probably taste pretty good. The cinnamon hotteoks and walnut cakes I had smelled amazing from several yards away. My nose didn’t let me down with those, nor did it with some spicy sausages and some kind of kettle corn-type popcorn I had.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to stop after one bite and throw out whatever you’re eating if it doesn’t taste quite right or you simply don’t care for it. It probably wasn’t that expensive (that’s the point of street food!) and there is no sense eating something that might make you ill when there are plenty of other options out there!!

Any other tips – and I’m sure there are lots – leave them in the comments for other intrepid eaters (and myself) to reference for future travels.

7 comments

  1. If you are in one area for a few days pay attention to what sells out quickly and try to go a little earlier the next day to try it yourself, it’s usually worth it.

  2. Look closely at the stand or cart for cleanliness! How clean does the seller keep the cooking area? How often does he/she wipe up the area as he works? What is the appearance of the seller? Is he clean in his dress? Does he have on a hat or other head covering? Are gloves being used? Where is the trash can in relationship to the cooking area? Street food doesn’t have to make you sick. An experienced street food vendor will care about these things and will probably have really good food too.

  3. Along with #3… If a stall has a microwave, go to another stall. Street food shouldn’t be nuked.

  4. a good street food must be:
    1) cheap
    2) prepared fast
    3) near me
    4) keep me full for more then 1 hour.

  5. I love street foods..I agree to anunturi when it comes to cheapness, fast preparation, found almost anywhere, and satisfying..

  6. This article is very interesting. Thank you very much for sharing .

  7. also: pay attention to what the locals are paying and try not to let yourself get ripped off! I found this to be a bigger problem in Thailand and Cambodia than other, more developed parts of Asia (Singapore, bigger cities in China, and Japan)

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