Tips for expats too afraid to eat the street food

Street food in India
Eating on the streets of Mumbai, India.

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

I recently shared a link on League Cultural Diplomacy’s Facebook Page to an article by Jason Fell titled Anthony Bourdain’s 3 Best Tips For Eating Great When Traveling Abroad. I’ve been a fan of Bourdain’s TV shows for a long time, and over the years I’ve picked up a few tips of my own.

I currently live near the Vietnamese resort town of Mui Ne, a popular beach side location for those living in Ho Chi Minh City to come and unwind for a few days. Every now and then I’ll get a call from a stressed out HCMC based expat saying “Grant, I’m in town, let’s meet for dinner” to which I will usually respond “OK – but we’re eating on the street!”. I insist on this for a handful of reasons; the street side dining experience in Vietnam, as in many places, is so much better than that which a restaurant can provide – the food’s better, it’s cheaper and it’s a more fun night out.

But there’s also a more significant reason. Some years ago I discovered that many expats, some of whom have been in the country for years, have never sampled the street food or eaten with locals. To me this is like living in the cave that Plato and his pals wrote about, and I get a huge kick when I see my dining partner’s eyes light up whilst experiencing a flavour orgasm upon their first mouthful of deliciousness – it’s an enlightening experience for some.

Expats give me many reasons why they haven’t tried the local food: they worry they will get sick, they can’t read the menu, they don’t know what the food is, they’re not sure how to order or pay the bill or what the local dining etiquette is or they’re not even sure if they’ll like it. If this is you, Bourdain has some tips.

Be open to “happy accidents”, he says, and seek local intelligence on where to eat. He says that “if you’re in a restaurant where everyone looks like you, like a tourist, you probably wound up in the wrong place” and suggests that you “look at what the locals are eating, and eat that”.

This all sounds simple, but for many the challenge of ordering food from a menu they don’t understand in a place where no one speaks their language is a daunting one. It’s an example of where words fail, and as always there are a number of different approaches that will work. So starting with the obvious ones here are my tips that have served me well when eating the street food abroad:

  • Eat where the locals eat. The places packed with locals are usually the best places, and often the least expensive. You probably can’t go wrong and you’re less likely to get sick – do you think the locals would keep coming back if the food made them sick?
  • Get out of your comfort zone. For the most fun, authentic and rewarding experiences, avoid places full of tourists, English menus, visual displays of the food or those recommended by your concierge, The Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor.
  • Use your hands. In a street food setting there’s little that can’t be communicated through hand signals, but it’s good to know which gestures might be considered impolite in your location (the body language I suggest in this post has worked well for me in Vietnam and a number of other countries).
  • I’ll have what they’re having! Pay attention to what others are eating and when you see something that looks delicious and smells awesome, order it using sign language by looking at the server and pointing or gesturing back and forward between yourself and the dish (signal for “I’ll have what they’re having”). When pointing, turn your hand so the palm faces upwards as this is a more appropriate way of pointing in many places. Alternatively, gesture to what you want to eat and raise your index finger to indicate “one” (signal for “I’ll have one of those thanks”).
  • Pick random stuff from the menu. This works well if you are in a group and in many Asian locations food is put out to share rather than each person having a single dish to themselves. If a menu isn’t immediately at hand, indicate to the server that you want a menu by joining your hands together to imitate a book by opening and closing your hands. Then confidently point to a stack of different dishes on the menu, as though you know what they are, and enjoy the randomness of your selections – this is a load of fun and there will certainly be some new discoveries!
  • Help yourself. If you have great body language skills, here’s another option that works well in certain places, such as those where the food is easily accessible. Indicate using your hands and face, pointing towards yourself, the food, plates and required utensils that you’d just like to help yourself to the food. Move slowly so that the staff can stop you if they aren’t happy with your approach; they often are happy though because it saves them the effort of trying to communicate without a shared language.
  • Stress less. Don’t worry about the cost if you don’t like something. Don’t be fussy -street food is cheap and if you don’t like it – don’t eat it! In my neighborhood I can go out, have a great feed and get pretty boozed for less than five dollars.
  • Don’t worry about the street food making you sick. In countries where food hygiene isn’t always perhaps the highest priority for food vendors you are just as likely to get sick eating at a fancy looking restaurant as you are at a street food stand.
  • Etiquette schmetiquette. Don’t stress about etiquette. People can tell that you are from abroad and will usually be happy that you have shown an interest in their food and culture. In Vietnam there is hardly anything that I would call etiquette anyway and I always tell my guests to just do what the locals do; eat with your hands, lean over everyone, shout to the waiting staff, spit the bones on the ground and stuff your faces.
  • Copy the people around you. The first time I visited the USA as an adult I didn’t know how much to tip at the bar where I found myself on the first night; I observed what others were doing and how they paid their tip and did the same and the waiter gave me a grateful smile on my way out.
  • Take a local with you. They can introduce you to the best places and dishes and teach you the local customs.
  • Learn the lingo. If you are going to live in a place for a while, learn the language needed for eating out and the words for the food items that you will find on menus
  • Use your books and gadgets. There is no harm in referring to smart phone apps or your phrasebook to work out what’s on the menu – although this approach can take some of the fun out of the experience. Often it’s easier to simply show the server the translation on your book or phone rather than trying to say it.
  • Gluten-free? Vegan? Keep a translation of your dietary requirements with you at all times and show it to the food vendor or waiting staff.
  • Don’t do a runner. To ask for the bill, pretend to write on one palm by using an imaginary pen in the other hand (signal for “bill please!”). Otherwise, just go up to a staff member with some money in your hand to indicate that you’d like to pay and leave now.

The thrill I get from experiencing a new and awesome dish at a place where nothing is conveyed in my own language is akin to the thrill a golfer gets when they hit a perfect drive, or when a foreign language learner has a successful conversation in the language they have been studying. These days nothing bores me more than the western style of dining; sitting in a posh restaurant minding my manners and eating my own meal that I don’t share with anyone just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Eating locally is a wholly satisfying experience and the rewards are great. Once you’ve done it a few times it becomes an addictive pastime – and usually a healthy and cost-saving one too.

What about you – do you eat the local food? How did you learn? Got any other tips?

League Cultural Diplomacy manages international food diplomacy events and initiatives; click here to find out more!

To read more posts about travel click here.

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