Can I eat street food in India without becoming deathly ill?
June 28, 2017 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to India, and I love street food. And I've heard that south Asian street food is, like, special. But I don't like getting terribly ill. Is there any way that I can eat like the locals do but avoid hellacious sickness, or at least favourably skew the risk/reward ratio?

Just to clarify, I don't count "taking a few eventful poops" as terribly ill -- if a little getting-adjusted-to-the-cuisine diarrhea is an inevitability, that's fine. I'll just stock up on Pepto and rehydration salts and steel myself. I'm talking about insane parasites, vomiting for days, etc.

If locale makes a difference at all, I'd be interested to know, since I'll be all over, like, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kochi, etc. Also I've got a pretty strong stomach -- I ate almost everything I could in Bangkok without incident, as well as some slightly dodgy breakfast in Nepal.
posted by insteadofapricots to Travel & Transportation around India (40 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Indirectly answering: a young man I worked with was from India. He completed college in the US and started at my company. He'd been state-side full time for ~6 years, and went home for a month long trip to get married. He came back unmarried, because he was so sick for 30 days (He'd lost his local-immunity to whatever is indigenous there).

Yet, plenty of tourists go and have a great time and don't get sick for 30 days. So it's hard to say. YMMV.
posted by k5.user at 10:04 AM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Don't eat uncooked food (fruit, etc). Don't drink tap water (and make sure the bottled water you drink is actually sealed, sometimes bottles get refilled & resold with tap water.
posted by tivalasvegas at 10:06 AM on June 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

No ice! Also, pepto can be taken as a preventative for short periods of time.
posted by florencetnoa at 10:13 AM on June 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Are you staying with people? They'll know where to get the legit street food experience you're looking for with low risk, especially in the bigger cities.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:13 AM on June 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Before I went to the Philippines, I got vaccinated for Hepatitis A. I also got an advance, "just in case" prescription for antibiotics specifically for traveler's diarrhea. This combination led me to be fine with eating the nicely sauced chicken guts on a skewer when the opportunity presented itself. YMMV.
posted by Temeraria at 10:17 AM on June 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Make sure the food is hot and the plate it is served on is completely dry (as opposed to having any water droplets on it). Avoid any ice cream carts. Also follow Tivalasvegas's advice.
posted by tiger tiger at 10:20 AM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

My friend got so sick in India that he was "shitting blood and mucus" and nearly died. This is not your standard stomach trouble.
posted by w0mbat at 10:28 AM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


Like, I don't know how anyone, in good conscience, could give you a recommendation of actually eating food prepared/served/consumed in the streets in India. The usual precautions for cautious travelers already brought up here are sound but deserve to be redoubled when it comes to india-specific concerns.

For background - I am married into an indian family, have been 5 times in the past 8 years. After an incident several trips ago I no longer drink anything but bottled water, even when staying with family members with home filtration/purification units. These unit produce water that is perfectly fine for the family members I stayed with, but it cost me 2 days of my life and a changed-ticket fee for an airline flight.

It just doesn't compare to Thailand (been to Bangkok and eaten everything/anything multiple times, like you, without issue).

My father in law brought my spouse to a bhel puri vendor he frequented when she was visiting him while home from college. This was a place my FIL ate at several times a week - ill spare you the details but its still a decision she regrets. The biggest issue with street eating is the water - any uncooked sauce or plate/cooking utensil washed with questionable, re-used, or standing water is a risk I just wont accommodate.

Even eating primarily in peoples' homes there is a base level of gi discomfort that I experience on every trip to india - prophylactic pepto, staying hydrated, and pudin hara (indian mint-extract capsules designed to calm stomachs) are the way.

This is not to say you shouldn't be able to enjoy the same foods you see others eating on the streets - but just don't get them there. There are a number of places that serve typical snack foods you would see streetside, but in well lit and cleaner environs (Haldiram's is a major chain/producer of packaged snack foods that manages many of these 'food courts' for lack of a better word - experiencing one can be pretty fun since you usually go to one desk to order/pay then they give you receipts to present to the actual cooks at various stations who each only make 1 or 2 types of items and you might have to get a little aggressive to get your order recognized, its part of the fun).

Also, the second sketchiest thing I ever ate in India was with my mother in law (at her actual recommendation). If you are in old delhi and feeling adventurous check out the paratha walli galli a street near the red fort filled with vendors famous for deep fried parathas - stuffed bread pockets/pancakes. The oil may be several hundred years old but its hot enough to kill most things. Again, id be plentifully wary of any sauce or chutney that came with it, but the paratha itself is fine.

I LOVE food and live/travel to eat, so not being willing to eat on the street in india is very bothersome.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 10:29 AM on June 28, 2017 [15 favorites]

I'd say literally follow your gut. Like, if you see oranges piled up on a cart, great. If you see fresh fruit salad in cups and it's not covered and there are some flies around it, just don't, however fresh and juicy it looks. If you're a bit iffy, don't. Enjoy things that look fine and well-prepared, don't take risks with stuff that doesn't.

Citation: some friends who travel around a bit have done so in South East Asia without incident several times. The only time they got ill was when they ate meat skewers which had clearly been out all day. They literally knew it was a bad idea but they were a bit drunk and were like, what the heck, we're hungry. And got proper sick.
posted by greenish at 10:30 AM on June 28, 2017

Two specific thoughts on the fruit example above:

a. I have seen, FREQUENTLY, fruit and vegetable vendors at street side stalls spray/splash their wares with water to keep them looking cool and fresh. That water was 100% of the time something that I would not have wanted to voluntarily enter my body, and there it was all over that fruit.

b. even if you pick a fresh uncut piece of fruit, that vendors knife is covered in the same sketch water and is actively pushing microbes from the outside peel through into the flesh as it cuts. Nope.

I really really get it - going for a month at a stretch without eating fresh/raw vegetables (and only eating fruit at home when it had been washed with water with a disinfecting agent) isn't anyones idea of a perfect diet, but it is distinctly better than the alternative.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 10:38 AM on June 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yeah, DO NOT eat fresh/uncooked fruit or vegetables regardless of what it looks like. Take those home and soak them in a disinfecting agent. Even regular sit-down restaurants can be dodgy in this regard.
posted by tiger tiger at 10:45 AM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Eat it. Look for busy places, deep fried hopefully. Bring antibiotics, pepto, etc.

Indians are waaaay more cautious than you need be.

Source: Indian but born in America with parents who won't allow myself (35 year old world traveller) walking around a perfectly nice middle class neighborhood by myself). Eaten street food many times in india. Sick just once.
posted by sandmanwv at 10:46 AM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

You will definitely long for fresh salads by the end of your stay, but don't give in!

My uncle (thirty, maybe forty-some odd years of experience in the Peace Corps and then the State Dept, primarily working in West Africa) swears by street food, actually -- he points out that you can watch it being cooked, so you know it's getting heated and you can check what's going into/onto it and avoid contamination.
posted by kalimac at 10:47 AM on June 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

There is an oral vaccine for e.coli/cholera designed to help prevent or lesson travellers diarrhea , it is only 65% effective but I no longer travel anywhere without doing a course of it first.

I also predose with Floristor for two weeks before travel and continue dosing while travelling.
posted by Cosine at 10:53 AM on June 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

American born and raised, but I ate street food the whole time I was in India (largest portion of the trip was in Delhi) and the worst I had was one uncomfortable poop after I ate without washing my hands (with a wet wipe) first.

Don't eat raw salad, don't drink anything but bottled water, and always clean your hands (wet wipes are fine) before putting anything in your mouth. Bring lots of wet wipes so this won't be an issue!

There are lots and lots of people who sell chai out of kettles on the street, and that is one street food that is pretty much for sure fine even if you're very risk adverse -- it's boiled and I have never heard of anyone getting sick from it.

Otherwise, your level of risk aversion is up to you.
posted by rue72 at 10:57 AM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I ate street food every single day for 3 weeks in India and didn't get the slightest bit sick. The only time my stomach felt rumbly was after eating at a fancy hotel.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 11:03 AM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

You go where the best street food is famously located. (I'm thinking of a couple streets in Old Delhi here. But every city has a spot particularly famed for the street food.)

You find the stall that has the longest line. You make sure that the food being served at the stall is being cooked in front of you, and cooked thoroughly. That the oil is bubbling with heat, that the food is being delivered straight to a plate and then straight on to the purchaser.

Even so, you do run a risk. And you may get sick. I know someone who was born and raised in Pune who got deathly ill from an ice cream cone she ate at the same place she'd eaten ice cream for the past thirty years of her life. So, it happens.

That said, I've eaten a hell of a lot of street food in my time, and it has never happened to me.

I want to add:

1) I don't think street food is necessarily more dangerous than a mithai (sweet) shop, or even one of those famous buffets at the Oberoi or other five star hotels. I know people who have gotten sick off food at a restaurant in the Taj in Mumbai.

2) People who go to India to visit relatives are often prevented by their families from eating street food because there is no more zealously overprotective kind of host than India-living Indian family members hosting NRI / foreign relatives. It's like everyone is convinced that their city is the most dangerous and dirty city and bound to DOOOOOOOM your weak foreigner stomach! But you're probably not quite as tender-bellied as they think you are. :) Nevertheless, proceed with caution.
posted by artemisia at 11:17 AM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

And I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but my stomach was also calmer than I've ever felt in my life. I experience stomach pain all the time in the US, and it just disappeared there.

Also, I knew I was taking some risk. Indians in India get sick somewhat regularly from what I understand, and it's just a thing that happens no matter the precautions. But I really wasn't too worried: the food was being seared/fried/etc right in front of me, and I was eating it while it was scalding hot. I also ate curries that I was less sure of, but similarly never got a twinge of sickness.

That street food and market food remains some of the best I've ever eaten, and now I'm feeling sad. (YMMV YOLO)
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 11:18 AM on June 28, 2017

Response by poster: Okay, thanks everyone, so if I can gather all of these suggestions into some consensus advice?

-Bottled water, Always

-Hands washed, Always

-Pre-cut vegetables and fruit, Never

-Avoid street food, UNLESS it's a well-known place with food cooked intensely right in front of you

(Exceptional_Hubris, you seem to be the most down on street food of anyone in the thread, but you also recommended eating at paratha walli galli -- so would you agree with the "only well-known freshly cooked street food" guideline?)

-Prophylactic Bismuth is a good idea, as well as specialized antibiotics and lozenges

Does that sound right?
posted by insteadofapricots at 11:24 AM on June 28, 2017

Response by poster: Also, while I'm at it, does anyone have advice in terms of train snacks and their safety? I'm going to be taking some trains.
posted by insteadofapricots at 11:32 AM on June 28, 2017

I cant counter everyones truth that indian relatives are often the most conservative when it comes to viewing any activity through a safety lens. that is why I say I was so surprised when my MIL was okay with paratha wali gali.

Im genuinely curious what specific food items all the people in this thread have eaten off the street in india and how they could have possibly been confident that they were not prepared with questionable water. Meat is obviously out of the question, and id be super wary of the sauces and chutneys in/on anything, even at famous or busy spots. Any/all chaat would be out of the question for the sauce issue. I guess a plain samosa without sauce is probably a reasonably safe bet, unless the filling was old/improperly handled.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:39 AM on June 28, 2017

Response by poster: Out of curiosity, E_H, where would you recommend eating instead? Should I just get the street snacks at sit-down places, or stalls in train stations etc?
posted by insteadofapricots at 11:48 AM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also ensure that any vendors who're handling money are not then handling food without proper precautions. My favorite Indian street food are golgappas (pani puri) but I always check to make sure they use bottled water for the pani and wear gloves while dunking the puris.
posted by homesickness at 11:50 AM on June 28, 2017

Yes, I would recommend finding indoor spots that serve versions of what you'd see on the street. They may not be quite as good, but I will trade unimpeachable authenticity for peace of mind any day.

Golgappa/Pani-Puri are an example of a food I would literally never eat off the street even if I had a twin (I do not) who had just enjoyed one successfully. They are fried crisp orbs filled with a flavored water-based sauce (Pani means water, Puri are the fried puffs). I have never ever seen a street vendor selling them wearing gloves and I have literally no idea how one would be assured that bottled water was being used in the sauce. I am fully confident that I was sickened by the filtered water in the family home of relatives, ones with very westernized lives but clearly local stomachs, so no, I would not trust that a street snack filled with water was going to be okay by me.

I don't want to dominate the thread, and I clearly cannot logic my way out of everyone elses okay experiences eating what would be, to me, sketchy food in india. I'm always happy to chat about travel/food/safety and whatnot by DM if your interested.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:58 AM on June 28, 2017

I once spent 4 months travelling in India. I did get repeatedly quite ill and came home with a stomach bug that landed me in a hospital for a few days. The worst was after we splurged on a really nice hotel and ate at their fancy restaurant.

You are going to have to eat something no matter what, and seeing the ingredients and how they're stored, handled and prepared is actually easier in the street. There's no guarantee what's going on behind the kitchen doors even in an upscale restaurant (or at their suppliers). The longest stretches of not-being-ill I had were in situations where people who prepared the food also ate it themselves (e.g. monasteries, wilderness guides, etc.)

In retrospect, I would most definitely only stick to vegetarian food, since things going wrong with meat have a bigger risk of being seriously harmful to you (e.g. parasites). I would actually probably eat more street food, the kind where you can actually see the preparation taking place, rather than trust a restaurant kitchen I can't see into.

Nthing everything about water. Also, we saw plastic straws being rinsed and reused, so maybe watch out for that, too.

Back in the day, powerful kill-all antibiotics were readily available at any street corner pharmacy.
posted by sively at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just to throw my hat in the ring: even if you eat street food in other third world countries with no problem, you will probably get sick in India. Just prepare for it. Also thirding the people who said their worst sicknesses usually came from fancy restaurants - don't let your guard down.
posted by egeanin at 12:27 PM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Take extra cipro with you. Don't eat raw food.
posted by ball00000ns at 12:44 PM on June 28, 2017

The CDC recommends the Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines for travelers to India, specifically to prevent illness transmitted from contaminated food or water. Given how much it would suck to get either of those illnesses, I'd highly recommend getting those vaccinations if you haven't already (especially if you're a traveler prone to adventurous eating). Here, by the way, are the CDC's recommendation on safe food & drink while traveling .
posted by ourobouros at 12:49 PM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes to all of the above about water and how random it can be. FWIW my Indian husband's guideline is always to check the street food guy's fingernails.
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Please go to Elco Market in the Bandra neighborhood in Mumbai! Restaurant that serves totally authentic Mumbai chaat (snacky street food) and is 100% hygienic.
posted by whitewall at 2:39 PM on June 28, 2017

I ate street food with abandon in India (even fresh sugar cane juice and fruit) and only got terribly sick from a meal at a 5-star hotel restaurant. So, there's that. I'd only eat cooked things and I'd also stay away from Pepto or Immodium. They can both be very constipating and if you do have a pathogen in your intestine, they can be dangerous as they trap the pathogen in you instead of allowing it out. I bring activated charcoal capsules (they are great for dealing with food poisoning and you can't take too much of it) and I also bring a course of antibiotics which also can help if you get really ill.
posted by quince at 3:53 PM on June 28, 2017

I think you can glean from the variety of responses here that it's totally dependent on your body's resilience and the actual vendor you are buying from. I would recommend trying hot, cooked food, waiting a bit, and seeing if you can handle it.

India is also a huge country, comparable to many nations in Europe glommed together, so none of us can generalize.

Context: Born and raised in India (southern city), family always careful about eating street food, and never got sick from the corn on the cob or bhajjis I sneaked for myself as treats. Don't get sick after over a decade in the US either.
posted by redlines at 4:18 PM on June 28, 2017

Never been to India but just putting it out there that people tend to assume that the last thing they ate made them sick (the Garcia effect). In reality, different foodborne bacteria/viruses take different amounts of time to cause symptoms. You may think it was what you had for lunch that made you sick, but really it was from something you ate the previous evening. Just adding this in because a lot of comments identified specific meals, but sadly it's hard to really know where you picked it up.

"Signs and symptoms may start within hours after eating the contaminated food, or they may begin days or even weeks later."

Link to Mayo Clinic article on food poisoning
posted by forkisbetter at 6:39 PM on June 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

The one time I got really, violently ill in India was after eating a salad in a nice restaurant that catered to tourists. Actually, every stomach problem I had in Asia was after eating Western food (I also regretted a tuna sandwich in Laos). I ate street food all over Northern India with no problem, though it was all very thoroughly cooked and absolutely no meat.

One other thing to look out for is water bottles that have been refilled. Pick them up and shake them around. I picked up a water bottle that had silt in the water, and when I shook it, drops of water went flying! The vendor had been trying to pass them off new water bottles.
posted by lunasol at 8:49 PM on June 28, 2017

In India, you can usually find upmarket restaurant type places that sell similar street food. These may be your best bet.
posted by dhruva at 11:35 PM on June 28, 2017

Yes I'm from that part of the world and we are overly zealous about protecting our foreign guests from eating anything that might make their tender foreign tummies unhappy! So your hosts/local friends will definitely not recommend you something unless they're sure you can handle it. (I do think, though, that growing up there you just get used to eating things that would send you running for the toilets if you ate it for the first time as an adult. So, they'll try their best, but you may get sick anyway.)

Yes to everything everyone has said, NO RAW FRUIT, no raw salad, only bottled water, no ice cubes. Also, if I were you I'd go easy, quantity-wise. Like instead of a whole plate of pani-puri, try one from someone else's plate. (Oh, I've just seen the pointer above about avoiding pani puri because of the pani/water element, which I can't argue with.) Instead of a whole paratha a few bites etc. Does this give me a sad? Yes. But I think it's less risky than stuffing your face full of delicious street food and then regretting it.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:11 AM on June 29, 2017

I just came back from a year in India. I had two fevers in the first two weeks. Then I adjusted.

You will probably get sick. Definitely take the precautions above so you don't get sicker.

Pack boxes of pepto-bismol chewables. Have one in the morning. Have one at night. More when you need it.
Bring Dayquil and Nyquil pills. You'll know when you need them.
Drink A LOT of bottled water. Buy it by the Liter. Double-check that it is sealed before you drink.
Get extra sleep. Try for an extra 90 minutes.
Eat enough! Your body needs energy. Eat safe food often.

I went to the same Pani Puri guy for 6 months. One day I got sick - I think the water wasn't as clean that day. But 2 days later I was fine.

All that said, eat some...
sweet paan (not regular paan)
Kathi Rolls
Spicy Mango Pickle (condiment)
fresh mango if it's in season

I wrote an ebook on living and working in India which includes a couple pages on staying healthy. PM me if you'd like a link.
posted by jander03 at 8:11 AM on June 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

DUKORAL! - I said this above but it likely was missed. Dukoral is e.coli vaccine, you drink two packets of it a week apart before travel, it is currently the best possible preventative step you can take.

I've been sick enough that I question the sanity of ANYONE who travels to a high-risk area without getting vaccinated first.
posted by Cosine at 8:53 AM on June 29, 2017

Don't forget, no ice in drinks. Even in fancy bars.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:16 PM on June 29, 2017

There are plenty of restaurants in India which can serve authentic and hygienic "street food". There is no magic ingredient that the seller literally-on-the-street has that these restaurants don't. Two chains specializing in street food that you can find in most major North Indian cities are Haldiram's and Bikanerwala. But most other North Indian restaurants will also serve some variety of street food in their starters/appetizers menu. I'm sure similar situation exists in other parts of India as well.
posted by vivekspace at 10:53 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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