Last week I was out with guests on a tour from the West and, after my typical lengthy descriptions of the best street foods to eat, one of my friends pulls me aside and whispers:
“Looks great, but — is it safe to eat?”
I actually get that question quite a bit. We’ve all heard horror stories about the dangers of eating when traveling abroad. Especially to underdeveloped nations that may not have the strict food safety laws and guidelines that most Western countries do. Many people are concerned they might die from food poisoning or end up spending their entire trip clinging to a bottle of Pepto.
It’s not an uncommon fear and there’s always a risk. However, if you follow just a few rules of thumb listed below and pay closer attention to things you most likely do already, like washing your hands before you eat, then you should have no trouble enjoying all the great street foods Malaysia has to offer.
Here are some things to consider before heading out to the hawker:
Let Your Stomach Adjust
When I first had Malaysian food, it was the spices that had me popping tums more than anything else. Take it slow and be careful for the first few days not to overindulge in spicy foods if your gut isn’t used to it. Give your stomach a little time to get localized.
Remember, there are other risks as well like the heat and dehydration (especially if alcohol is part of your nightlife) that can also have an affect on how you digest your food. I always like to carry a good bottle of water with me whenever I hit the streets.
Speaking Of Water…
Although the tap water in the larger cities is deemed safe to drink, it’s best when coming from the West to stick to bottled water while on the streets. Extra filtration has been added for water in restaurants and most likely your hotel and the water used for teas and soups have been boiled.
But what about the ice? Ice is normally safe as most vendors buy their ice from a licenced distributor who used only filtered water. If you find a vendor making their own ice from tap water, best to move on.
Look For Running Water
Keep an eye out for stalls that have access to running tap water and are using soap to wash their utensils, chopstix, cups and plates. Generally speaking, Malaysians are in the habit of washing everything before serving, however you may see some that are merely wiping down the plate or utensil with a tissue or cloth. Avoid these stalls.
You may see a stall with a pot or bucket of water that you may think they are using for washing utensils, plates and cups. This is actually for washing your hands.
Best Times To Visit The Stalls
Stalls like to prepare for the coming rush at certain times of the day, so some items may be prepared in advance to accommodate for the high volume. Strategically plan your street food snacking to coincide with mealtimes like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Doing this will ensure you are getting the freshest and hottest food.
I always go for items that are within just a few minutes of being cooked and bypass anything that looks like it may have been sitting for awhile. One thing to remember is the food “danger zone” is roughly 5 to 60 °C (41 to 140 °F). This is the ideal temperature range for bacteria and food pathogens to thrive.
Deep fried foods have been put through temperatures well above this and eggs and other foods that are cooked to order are also normally safe to eat. Rice that has been around for awhile should be avoided.
Read Food Blogs
Food bloggers are constantly on the Malaysian streets searching for the best street food stalls to write about, so credibility goes a long way. If a blogger has featured a vendor, chances are the quality and standards of hygiene and taste are pretty high.
Join the Simply Enak Food Guide. I’ll visit a vendor several times and at various times through the day to see how they operate and taste the quality, then report back and let you know if I recommend it.
Find The Busier Stalls
Look for the busier stalls that have the most locals in line. This means they will be putting up the freshest cooked food as the turnover will be high, and probably either the best prices or most delicious. Or both!