How to eat adventurously abroad …and when to play it safe

me waiting for the best banh mi in the world in Hoi An Vietnam

Author Leif Pettersen “waiting for the best bahn mi in the world” in Hoi An, Vietnam // Photo courtesy of Leif Pettersen

June 20, 1993, was the last time I barfed. I remember the exact date because it was not your run-of-the-mill barfing. I’d arrived in Essaouira, Morocco, a few days earlier and I don’t know if I ate something bad or if my system just freaked out due to the unfamiliar bacteria. In any case, I spent about 24 hours doing something I refer to as the “double eject,” if you catch my drift. That’s not something you forget—ever.

Like someone who gets trapped inside a dodgy nuclear reactor or struck by lightning while holding a glowing, experimental compound, I was bestowed with superpowers during that gastrointestinal violence. I haven’t barfed since. Call me Won’t Barf Man.

I tell you this not because it’s clearly awesome, but because you should know that I can eat pretty much anything without fear of ever seeing it in reverse. And because being aware of one’s stomach delicacy (or not) is the first thing to consider when contemplating putting new or weird food into one’s face.

That said, in most cases adventurous eating isn’t as perilous as many people believe. I encourage you to reject the misconception that a sterile restaurant is the only safe way to eat abroad. Some of the best food I’ve had while traveling was procured from food carts on filthy streets in places like Cartagena, Colombia. The best banh mi I’ve had in my life was made in an open shack in the back of a street market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

A couple months ago, I spent a week in Bangkok, eating a dozen or so meals from street food stalls that didn’t even have sinks. My stomach was fine. Two weeks later in Fort Lauderdale, a meal in a seemingly trustworthy restaurant resulted in a couple emergency trips to the bathroom later that night. You can get sick from a meal almost anywhere, folks. I can only think of a few places in the world where I would be wary of street food (India comes to mind). Otherwise, armed with a rational amount of caution, I urge you to eat without fear. A good rule of thumb is that busy restaurants and food stalls are probably the safest places with regard to food safety and regular stock turnover.

best bahn mi in the world bought in a market in Hoi An, Vietnam

The best bahn mi in the world itself, procured from a street market in Hoi An, Vietnam // Photo by Leif Pettersen

A little research before a trip is your best defense. Get the scoop about the eating situation from multiple sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Probably the most important thing to be wary of is water. 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 the bodily fluid exodus caused by Mexico’s tap water is legendary. Truthfully, I brush my teeth with tap water almost everywhere, but I wouldn’t recommend this for mere mortals. One should take care to not accidentally ingest water in the shower as well.

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 and beverages, but if you’re, say, in the mountains of northern Laos, stick to boiled water. Bottled water is obviously safe, but make sure the bottle is sealed (it’s rare, but some places will refill water bottles with tap water!) and if the bottle has been sitting in a cooler full of ice water, it’s a good idea to wipe it dry before putting it to your lips. Salads should be approached with extreme caution. All those shredded vegetables with their moist surface areas are the germ equivalent of Carnival.

Also suspect are raw foods of any kind, soft cheeses, unpasteurized everything, mayonnaise, some seafood and shellfish, and any situation where food sits out at low or room temperature for extended periods with multiple people pawing at it. Even food that’s been scorched to oblivion can become dicey if it’s exposed to airborne contaminants for too long.

Food that is almost always safe includes fruit and vegetables you can peel, shelled nuts and shelled food in general, anything that’s been freshly cooked medium-well or better, and items that just came out of factory-sealed containers. Also, since germs need moisture to grow and fester, dry foods are usually safe. I hereby give you permission to binge on potato chips in uncertain eating environments. You’re welcome.

Like spicy food? Good, go crazy. Chilies, turmeric, and other spices have anti-bacterial properties which will head-butt possible contaminants until they’re dead or at least dazed.

beef stir fry with red ants in Siem reap, Cambodia

Beef stir fry—with a few red ants—in Siem Reap, Cambodia // Photo by Leif Pettersen

Hot liquids like coffee and tea are usually safe, though make sure the milk or cream you use is from a trusted source. If you’re uncertain about the water—you’re gonna love this—your safest bet is to order beer. As you know, beer is boiled in the brewing process and must be kept clean on its journey to the bottle or can. Even if the beer is somehow spoiled, it’s still not going to make you sick.

Becoming a chronic hand-washer is an important line of defense. 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 one touches while out and about are other people. 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 is a surefire way to a long night doing the double eject. If you need a hand-washing reminder, here’s an idea: write it on your hand.

Bangkok street food stall in dusty back alley

Street food vendor in Bangkok, Thailand // Photo by Leif Pettersen

In some cases, food isn’t to blame for your upset stomach. If you haven’t traveled much and then daringly choose Africa or India for your first international trip, your body is going to go through unpleasant adjustments as it copes with the sudden onslaught of unfamiliar bacteria. A regular course of Pepto will ease this somewhat, but completely avoiding at least a little discomfort in a new, exotic destination is nearly impossible, so stash some magazines in the bathroom.

If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t safely venture more than 20 steps from a toilet, get your hands on Lomotil, Lomodium or Kaopectate. Avoid EnteroVioform, a popular diarrhea drug in some parts of the world, as it’s been known to scramble your nervous system.

The fact is, sooner or later you will get sick. The best you can do is keep hydrated and get electrolytes into your system. To that end, I carry Trace Minerals powder packs, because they’re tiny, weigh almost nothing, and taste downright pleasant.

Now please, for the love of beer, go eat everything!


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