January 22, 2010
“How did you guys eat that?” … A surprisingly common question people ask us. I mean, this is a food and travel blog so we do try to taste a lot of different dishes, from normal local street fare to home-cooked family meals, and that does take a mixture of curiosity and bravery. Otherwise we’d have to drop the food part of the blog and stop taking pictures of all these culinary masterpieces. But we understand the fear inherent in the question, too.
Everyone has heard of “Delhi Belly” or “Montezuma’s Revenge” and no one wants to lay in a sweaty dorm thinking they’re going to die. On a one-year-trip, it has to happen sometime — but we didn’t want to waste 6 months of it in the bathroom so we devised and fine-tuned a sort of code of food rules which seems to work. Out of 10 months of traveling we have only really been sick once — we even made it through India unscathed (is that a Guinness Record?)
Healthy Foodie Secret #1 — Counting Heads
It’s no big secret — even we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: go eat somewhere busy and popular. The water has already been tested by hundreds of locals when you sit down at a cramped table at a busy street-side stall. They’re all here, and returning here, because the food is not only cheap and delicious, but also because it’s consistent and clean.
A popular place wants to maintain it’s popularity, and getting patrons sick isn’t going to get them anywhere. This is by no means to say that a quiet eatery is ladling poison pasta, but it is the most basic ammunition for making an educated guess.
Healthy Foodie Secret #2 — Tools of the Trade
This one is the toughest, and can’t always be determined, or helped. The one time we did get sick in Morocco, the most likely culprits were the wet bowls and forks we ate with. The kitchen was just dunking crockery in a giant vat of reused water. Just thinking about it makes us gag. Our food was cooked fresh, but the flatware gave us a nice big spoonful of bacteria to go with it.
While we’ve watched backpackers use hand sanitizer on cutlery, and whip out their own personal set of chopsticks, there isn’t a good solution to this issue. In many Chinese restaurants, diners request a large bowl of plain boiled and steaming water which they then use to give their flatware an ad-hoc sterilization.
Many folks in Mexico administer a squeeze of the ubiquitous lemon or lime to their lunch, but also directly onto forks, knives, and even hands. This supposes the high acid content of the citrus juice fights off some of the worst bacteria. It’s not rocket science, but it doesn’t hurt — actually, it tastes pretty good.
Healthy Foodie Secret #3 — Hot and Cold
Aside from tapas in Spain, and the slow-cooked delights of Greek tavernas, we never eat food that hasn’t been made fresh, right then and there. Most everything you consume should be hot, boiling or steaming. When the temperatures cross 165º, food-borne bacteria such as E. Coli dies.
For this reason, eating on the street is actually a pretty good thing. Most mobile vendors make simple products which are often cooked to order. Meats are grilled up fresh, eggs scramble, buns come out of the steamer and soups boil away happily, filling the avenue with nice aromas. You can usually watch the creation of a sandwich or taco from start to finish, and decide what goes in and what stays out.
If something has been sitting around, especially uncovered, stay away. Are there flies in the restaurant? Does the place smell funny? Turn around! Your nose is trying to warn you: a restaurant should smell good.
Healthy Foodie Secret #4 — Acidophilous A Day
Upset stomach and indigestion are often caused by foods which are too rich. Even we were getting stomach cramps in Eastern Europe where it’s all starch, gravy and pork roast. If you’re used to eating your greens back home, or an apple a day, stick to it — if you change the rules on your stomach, it’ll probably get a little grumpy. Maintaining some level of normalcy is the hardest part of being away from home.
If you can stomach dairy, eating yogurt everyday will go a long way to keep your stomach calm and happy. Almost every nation across the globe has figured this out, and yogurt drinks appear everywhere, under many names.
Remember the dirty plates and forks above? Eating fresh raw greens comes with a few caveats as well. The golden rule of eating on the road is “Boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget it,” right? If you’re somewhere that has you watching the water quality, opt for steamed or sautéed greens. If the cooking process is quick, all the nutrition is still there; the local cooking method might be up your alley.
Veggies high in fiber such as tomatos and eggplant are most beneficial. In popular tourist destinations, restaurants may claim to wash your veg in bottled water. We’re still waiting for the verdict on that. Don’t forget fruit which fits nicely into the “Peel It” category, and will give you a solid dose of fiber and vitamins.
Healthy Foodie Secret #5 — Prevention and Medication
As far as bringing pills to combat stomach ills — we over did it, by a few pounds. We have 3 kinds of traveler’s tummy meds, and probably about 300 Cipro tablets. Of course it’s best to be prepared, but save your wallet and luggage and don’t go overboard like we did. If you’re so sick that you’re considered self-administering Cipro, don’t. Go to the doctor. A visit is quick and probably painless, while messing around with antibiotics can screw you up pretty good. A doctor abroad can write you a perscription for your best relief, or you may find it’s sold over the counter where you are. Cipro, for one, is available everywhere, and quite cheaply at that. Many countries also have medications which aren’t accessible in the States, or your home.
We researched our inoculations pretty extensively before our trip, and found that there is vaccine called Dukoral for Cholera (an oral drink, administered in 2 doses 1 week apart) which isn’t available in the US. Amusingly, there seem to be a lot of reports from subjects who receive the vaccine claiming that their overall problems with “Delhi Belly” have gone down, drastically. They call it one of the “side-effects.” Doctors are really mixed on that assumption, but we liked the sound of it. It’s worth checking out if the vaccine is offered any place you’ll be traveling to. We found some traveler clinics which operate in major metro/rail depots in London and got it there.
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