7 Tips to Eat Street Food Safely in Thailand
Posted by Lisa on February 23, 2015 / 13 Comments
When it comes to international travel, some countries are definitely easier than others to eat healthy, gluten-free meals. Ahem, Sydney, I’m looking at you!
But that in no way, shape or form means you need to stick to well paved roads. A lickety-split detour, dusty dirt road or bounce-you-outta-your-seat pothole might just turn into your most memorable life adventure.
Like my 4-hour solo motorbike ride from Chiang Mai to Pai. A combination of self-doubt conquering + confidence boosting + “I am woman hear me roar!” and “holy smokes, I really did this!?” kind of adventure. It’s now one for the story books.
A healthy lifestyle is about much more than food. So. Much. More. But still, food safety can’t be underscored. Especially if you have celiac disease like me.
So after calling Chiang Mai “home sweet home” for nearly 6 weeks, I’d like to share 7 tips to eat street food safely in Thailand.
1. Bring food allergy dining cards
Food allergy dining cards are always handy to have. Think of them as food safety insurance. They translate what you can and can’t eat and why. Dining cards from Select Wisely highlight specific allergies (gluten, dairy, etc) and preferences (like no sugar).
And let me remind you – sugar is added to virtually everything in Thailand.
But I’ll be honest. I find these cards more appropriate for sit-down restaurants versus street food. For those times when your waiter can “borrow” your card for a conversation with the chef.
In the case of Thai street food, where your cook, waiter, hostess and server are one and the same…it can be information overload. They’re juggling multiple hats and don’t typically have time to wade through the nuances of your dietary restrictions.
But as prior planning is the friend of someone with food allergies…I’d still keep them in your back pocket. At all times.
3. Write down and learn to say your food allergies – in Thai!
Getting straight to the point is preferred in a street food environment. So stick to the basics – the non-negotiable ingredients you can’t have. For me, I can’t have any meals with soy sauce or oyster sauce, which both contain gluten. Sugar won’t kill me.
Of course, there are other gluten-containing sauces and deep fried “crispies” added to numerous meals in Thailand, but those are easier to visually spot and avoid. Soy sauce and oyster sauce have a way of sneaking in.
To make things easy, I had my hotel receptionist write down these two phrases in Thai. Then, I practiced the phonetic pronunciation with her until I sounded like a local. Or more accurately, where I didn’t completely sound like a farang!
No soy sauce – Mai ow see eeou khow
No oyster sauce – Mai ow sot hoi
When used with street vendors, I would also say “allergy,” or “get sick” (while holding my stomach). Universal communication is a beautiful thing.
4. Ask what the ingredients are BEFORE you mention your allergies
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is, particularly in Thailand. The reason? Cultural tendencies. Thai’s are incredibly friendly, warm and accommodating. It’s the land of smiles!
But when it comes to your food, that translates into a bit of a problem. Namely, they’ll want to please you.
If you say something like “I can’t have soy sauce…does this have soy sauce?” They’re more likely to say no, thinking that’s what you want to hear. Or, the dish may have a small amount soy sauce, which they’ll assume is close enough to none.
Ask what the ingredients are first. You’ll thank me later.
True story: while I was en-route to my Thai Cooking School I was chatting with our instructor in the van. Given her solid English, I mentioned my avoidance of wheat, soy sauce and oyster sauce as I would get “very sick.” We had a good discussion about it and she understood I had a medical condition. But then a few minutes later she said, “I think the reason you have problem is because you eat too much wheat in the US. But a little is probably still fine. You should just try today.”
To which I just smiled back. :)
5. Stick to single ingredients as much as possible
When it comes to street food, steer clear of prepared meals, glazes and sauces. Food with the least number of ingredients are your best (and safest!) options.
Some of my favorites include:
- fruit on a stick (or in a cup)
- smoothies and juices
- quail eggs
- egg boats/mini omelets
- bacon-wrapped mushrooms
- mangos and sticky rice (yes, I’m Paleo and eat white rice!)
- grilled prawns, squid and other seafood
- pork or fish meat balls (*note: a starch is sometimes used – cassava, potato, or arrowroot. If ordering, double check there’s no wheat flour, by using your dining card).
- chicken and pork skewers
Street food that has a higher probability of getting you sick includes stir frys (due to cross contamination), certain soups (where it’s hard to know all ingredients) and BBQ-style meat with glazes or sauces (like the red-glazed chickens you’ll see hanging).
6. Watch vendors prepare food for several patrons before ordering
I can’t emphasize this enough – take your time when eating from street vendors. Stand back and watch them for 5-10 minutes. Take a look at their ingredients, how they prepare food (especially if someone just ordered what you want) and the cleanliness of their grill or pans.
The reality is that street vendors are trying to serve the masses…for a buck or two per meal. They’re simply not going to wash pans between orders or be extra careful based on your requests. It’s up to you to do your due diligence.
Video from the Sunday Night Market. I had my eyes on pork balls from a few different vendors, with different preparation methods. This vendor boiled the pork balls. She also added a sauce right before serving. Because I saw her do this for other patrons, I requested no sauce. Oh, and by the way – they were delish and worth the added effort!
7. Avoid food that’s been sitting or not cooked over high heat
This is the number one way to get sick. Period. When it comes to meat skewers and grilled pork balls, you want those babies grilled over flames! A slightly warm grill isn’t going win the war against bacteria nasties.
So when placing your order, make sure your food is cooked fresh. And avoid all food that looks like it’s been sitting for 30 minutes or longer.
Then again, if you’ve followed tip #6, you’ll know as you’ve already been watching the vendor for a while.
And for those wondering…after 6 weeks in Thailand (eating out A LOT), I never did get sick from street food. It just goes to show that a little preparation, time and effort can make an adventurous foreign travel experience one of your best!
How do you feel about eating in a foreign country? Have any tips or tricks to add? I’d love to hear!
Make sure to check out Roaming Free – A Whole Food Approach for Traveling the World Healthy, Happy and Gluten-Free for more tips, advice and wanderlust inspiration!