I was never a girl to try local street food but truth be told: my perception of street food soon changed after living in China for two and half years. Street food is not just food in China, it’s a culture. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say, it’s a way of life. Whether you’re on your way to work in the morning or wandering through the hutongs on your weekends, delicious smelling carts of food line the streets everywhere you go. The smell of spicy barbecued meat on a stick or savoury stuffed pancakes with fried egg and vegetables is sure to catch your nose and make you want to try them all. Despite the delicious wafting aromas, the more important question… do I give in and try them? Common fears are normal. I didn’t want to get sick and more importantly, I didn’t want to eat any pork, beef or mutton.
Along the way and with the help of my local friends, I soon learned some essential tips that helped me order and enjoy local street food in China. If you’re looking to try some delicious smelling street food but are still a little scared (and it’s okay to be!) here are some tips to help you.
FOLLOW THE LOCALS
One of the first rules to eating street food is that you should always follow the people. Look around and pick a place that is streaming with customers. The busier the better! If a street vendor has no (or a few) customers around, then there’s usually a good reason for this. It’s best to stay away.
TIMING IS KEY
Many vendors are at their busiest during peak hours. This is also the best time to try local food because you can be sure that it is made fresh and using clean equipment. Some vendors like to cook their food early in the morning and serve this throughout the day. This can be pretty dangerous if meat is involved. Try the vendors that are continuously cooking food. This way you’ll be sure they have prepared something that is fresh. At some stalls, you can also request for them to re-fry or reheat a dish.
AVOID ANYTHING THAT IS UNDER COOKED OR STANDING IN WATER
When meat is fried properly, you can be sure that if there are any bacteria present, they will most likely be killed. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for fresh fruit or vegetables that are washed in standing water alongside vendor carts. Not only do you have no idea where that water comes from but you also don’t know if that water has been standing outside in the sun all day. Potential hazards! Always opt for foods that are thoroughly cooked.
BUY UNPEELED FRUIT
One of the biggest temptations on a hot day is to buy a cup of juicy sliced watermelon to help you cool down. As delicious as it may be, you don’t know when it was sliced or what kind of a knife was used. Ask the vendor to slice up some fresh fruit in front of you or rather stick to fruits that require peeling. For fruits like apples, wash it thoroughly with your own bottled water first.
CLEAN YOUR HANDS BEFORE EATING
Local transport, public bathrooms, railings and pretty much any public place in China is swarming with germs. If you’re coming from a public place (and you most likely will be as you pass by street vendors), then you’ve got to clean your hands before grabbing any kind of fast food. Carry hand sanitizer in your bag at all times. This way you can clean your hands without having to look for a bathroom.
BE WARY OF FLY COUNTS
Flies are excellent carriers of bacteria and if they’re around a vendor’s cart, then they’re around your food. If the street vendor isn’t making any effort to keep the flies at bay, then you should pass this cart up.
LOOK AT WHERE THE RAW MEAT IS STORED
As delicious as spicy frying meat can smell, be wary of how they are being stored. Meat should always be stored on ice prior to being cooked and should be a rich pink colour. If it seems like the meat has been lying out in the open for a while or if it has changed to a dull looking colour then it’s best to give this one a pass.
DON’T TRY THE ICY FRUIT SHAKES
Spicy street food is one of the most delicious snacks in China but if you’re not used to the burning sensation of Sichuan peppers, this can be too much to handle and you may require an icy cold drink! Many street vendors sell delicious looking fruit shakes however these are commonly made with local tap water. If your body is not accustomed to the local variety of water, then it’s best to stay away from any drink that may use them. This includes drinks made with ice too.
BE MINDFUL OF HOW THEY CLEAN THEIR EQUIPMENT
Most street vendors will at some point scrape their pans clean, poor on boiling water and wash their equipment. While this may not be happening exactly when you arrive, take a look at their work surface. If it’s minimal and looks clean, then it should be okay. If it’s messy with bits of previously cooked dishes lingering about, it’s time to walk away.
TRUST YOUR GUT
Always trust your gut… especially when you’re in a country where the majority of people don’t speak English. Your gut feeling is always your best friend. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Ask yourself some essential questions to help you along:
- Was the food covered or was it out in the open?
- Was the raw meat and seafood kept on ice before being cooked?
- When did they actually cook the dish?
- Are many people eating here?
- How many flies are around?
- How clean does the stall, the cook and his or her equipment look?