A simple guide to trying local street food in China

I was never a girl to try local street food but let the truth be told: and that is 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. It’s a way of life. Whether you’re on your way to work in the morning or wandering through the hutongs, delicious smelling carts of food line the streets everywhere you go. The smell of spicy barbecued meat on a stick or savory stuffed pancakes with fried egg and vegetables is sure to catch your nose and make you at least want to try a bite. Despite the delicious wafting aromas, the more important question was… do I give in and try it? After all, I was scared. I didn’t want to get sick and more importantly, I didn’t want to eat anything that wasn’t pork, beef or mutton.

No rat or cat or dog for me, thank you!

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 along.

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One of the first rules to eating street food that I quickly picked up from my local friends was 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.

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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 Go to those vendors that are continuously cooking food so you can be sure that they prepare something that is fresh. At some stalls, you can also request for them to re-fry or reheat the dish.

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When meat is fried properly, you can be sure that if there are any bacteria present, they most likely will 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.

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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 always know when it was sliced or what kind of a knife was used. Ask the vendor to slice up 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.

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I can’t stress this tip more but I’m going to try. 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 that 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.

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Flies are excellent carriers of bacteria and if they’re around the vendor’s cart, they’re around your food. If the street vendor isn’t making any efforts to keep the flies at bay, then you should pass this cart up.

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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 color. If it seems like the meat has been lying out in the open for a while or if it has changed to a dull grey looking color then it’s best to give this one a pass.

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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. 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, it’s best to stay away from these. This includes any drinks with ice too.

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Most street vendors will at some point scrape clean their pans, poor on some 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.

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I can’t stress how important this point is… especially when you’re in a country where the majority of people don’t speak English. Your gut feeling is 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 you’re about to eat?
  • Are there many people eating here?
  • How many flies are there?
  • How clean does the stall, cook and his or her equipment look?

Now it’s over to you! What are your tips for trying local street food when traveling?

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