Asian street food smarts

I know nothing about Asian street food.

When reporter Robyn Eckhardt from Malaysia skyped with me a couple of weeks ago, I repeatedly said, I know nothing about Asian street food.

In this part of the world the term "street food" (or "hawker food," as it’s referred to in Malaysia and Singapore) denotes not just a cheap and quick way to fill one’s belly. It also describes a repertoire of dishes prepared by experienced specialists, dishes rarely duplicated successfully in restaurant kitchens. Eating on the Asian street offers the opportunity to observe cooking techniques up close and to engage with strangers over a meal in a way that would be difficult in a proper brick and mortar eatery (right, vegetarian mi quang, a thick noodle common to Central Vietnam, served in a Ho Chi Minh City street stall. Credit: Dave Hagerman).

There’s just one problem: Asian street food makes a lot of travelers ill. The World Health Organization has designated the developing countries of Asia as among the most high-risk destinations for "traveler’s diarrhea," which means that more than 50 percent of visitors to most countries in the region have a chance of getting ill from what they eat.

barfblog publisher Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, advises that the best way to avoid illness –- at home or on the road — is to put yourself in the place of whatever it is that’s going to make you sick in the first place: "Be the bug, whether virus, bacteria, or parasite. Imagine how they get into your food and how they move around."

Produce is often contaminated at the farm, from human or animal feces, and then carries its bugs to the street stall. Heat kills them. "You shouldn’t eat poop," is Powell’s blunt advice. "But if you’re going to eat it, make sure it’s cooked." Street food vendors have a particular challenge because they work in small spaces, facilitating cross-contamination between "clean" and "dirty" foods.

But street stalls also boast an advantage over restaurants: transparency. At a street stall everything is prepared right in front of the consumer, which makes it easier to gauge food safety.