Ordering street food in Asia can be intimidating and tricky. The writing looks like a picture book, you have no idea if you’re eating beans or intestines, and locals will get annoyed with your ineptitude as you frantically try to figure out what to do in the middle of a bustling street with loud noises and weird smells. It’s easy to back down and head to a safer food option that has an English menu and some sort of health code. While it might be more comfortable, you’ll be missing out on a great culinary and cultural experience while paying 4 times as much.
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here are some tips and tricks for getting street food to make the most of your travel experience.
1. Be Open Minded
East Asian cuisine is completely different than European and American fare. It is centered on rice and noodles, seafood that might have been swimming in a near by tank 5 minutes ago, mystery meat that may have been clucking or oinking last night, and a whole new array of spices and herbs unique to that particular region.
Be open to anything and everything because you never know when you’ll find a knock-your-socks off flavor explosion that you’ve never tasted before. Worst case scenario is you take a bite, hate it, and pitch the rest. Chances are it only cost you $2 anyways.
“But Katie, I might get food poisoning!!!”
Here’s the thing, food stall conditions might not pass a USA health inspection, but these people have probably been serving up the same food in the same way for decades; they know what they are doing. Not to mention, the ingredients are typically fresh and prepared to order which lessens the chance for food born illnesses to grow. My friends and I never thought twice about potential food poisoning throughout our travels. I was the only one to get sick, and I have a sneaking suspicion it was from the ship buffet food….
You are probably equally, if not more, as likely to get food poisoning from a bodega on a NYC corner than a street food stall in Thailand.
2. Have an idea of what you want before you get to the front of the line
Scope out what other people are eating and what’s being cooked up before it’s your turn to order. Don’t hold up the line and make locals angry when you just had five minutes of waiting to make a decision.
BONUS TIP: Translator apps can be handy, but be warned that it isn’t the most reliable when it comes to a character alphabet.
3. Anticipate Common Questions
The chef might not know a lick of English, and if he/she continues talking at you with an expectant look, you can infer they want to know a detail on the order. Anticipate being asked whether you want chicken, pork, or beef , rice or noodles, and how many.
This leads to tip 4 ->
4. Don’t be afraid to use charades and/or point.
Hand signals have no language barrier. Flapping your arms to indicate “chicken” or showing 4 fingers in regards to how many spring rolls you want is perfectly acceptable and useful. Don’t be afraid to point to the noodles on the right or that stranger’s meal on the left. Just as you can’t understand them the 5th time they yell at you in Cantonese, they can’t understand “chicken” four times later just because you say it louder.
By month 6 in Asia, I had become a master of food ordering charades.
With that being said, sometimes things still go awry. Jeremy and I found a dumpling stall in Keelung, Taiwan, and wanted to try 6 wontons, 4 pieces of gyoza, and another dumpling of sorts. We ended up with 11 orders of food that consisted of 60 or so food items. Luckily it was all under $6 usd!
Perhaps you won’t get what you thought you ordered, but if you follow tip #1, food ordering mishaps are simply another unique cultural experience !
5. Be Nice
You clearly are a foreigner…. Don’t be rude. Asian culture has a collectivist mentality that values the family and emphasizes respect, and by walking up to a food stall you are, in a sense, entering a home. Smile and be kind and gracious. You don’t have to like the Chinese culture of spitting and you might disagree with seeing a fish being hacked apart 5 feet away, but you are a guest. You are willingly choosing to enter someone else’s world, and you have to respect how they chose to live. You very well might see bugs, intestines, and even dog for consumption, but remember, it is not your life and it is not your home.
Being kind and happy not only make the whole experience more enjoyable for all parties involved, but it can lead to cool, unique travel experiences. I’ve been offered new foods to try, I’ve had unique charade communication exchanges, and I’ve even met a strangers baby who was born 6 days prior. If you open yourself up, the world will open up to you.
Visiting temples and museums teaches you about a country’s past, but eating the local food teaches you about the present. Through street food experiences, you learn about local customs and values while submersing yourself in their every day life and culture. It’s okay to be intimated and scared to file in amongst the locals to order strange food in a strange place, but follow these tips and you’ll be a pro in no time!