One of the most common questions our guides hear is “Is this water safe to drink?” and “Will this food make me sick?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question – after all, no one wants to begin the trip of a lifetime with a magazine in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other – in the land of squat toilets, to boot!
But while caution is definitely warranted when you’re out on your own trying new things, the local restaurants that Smiling Albino chooses on our trips are high-quality affairs that use proper ingredients and – even if it doesn’t appear so through a western culinary lens – proper hygiene for an Asian food experience, even if it’s under a bamboo canopy on the edge of a meandering river far from civilization.
First thing to remember is that almost all ice served in Southeast Asia comes from large factories that use treated water (unless you’re reallllly in the boonies, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it). The main reason for this, sadly, isn’t a noble concern for the delicate stomachs of foreign tourists – it’s pure economics. Mr. Somchai freezing blocks of dirty water in his homemade freezer simply can’t compete with the economies of scale and distribution power of a large ice factory. So that’s one problem done.
But food is another thing. If food is cooked well, you won’t get sick, but, you may still get a bit of Bangkok Belly, and it’s important to realize that they are not the same thing. The reason for this is that no matter how well you cook food, it was still grown, raised, and cooked using local ingredients and methods. Asian ecosystems – from the animals to the microbes – are different from western ones, and there is bound to be a bit of an adjustment period getting used to it. Indeed, it goes both ways – when SA returns home for a trip, our stomachs often take a bit of time to get used to things there too.
All this being said, there are still some well-known rules to follow when it comes to finding food and water in Asia. Crowds are a good sign – if it’s okay for all of them, it will probably be okay for you. As we mentioned, ice is almost always okay to have in your drinks, but if you’re still wary, bottled water without ice is available on almost every street corner.
The one area where westerners need to be careful is if you have any allergies, especially if those ingredients are common in Asian cooking. The same care is often not taken with separating food, and if, for instance, you have a severe peanut allergy, the chef might not understand how severe, and cook a non-peanut dish using the utensils he cooked a peanut dish with. If this is the case, we recommend learning the name of the ingredient you’re allergic to in the local language, as well as the word “allergic”. This phrase and some quick sign language should be enough to get the point across. Another trick is to have someone write “I am very allergic to peanuts” on a piece of paper and take this, or a picture of it, with you to show the chef. Ask us to help with this if you want to be sure.
The bottom line is that Southeast Asia has some of the best food in the world. It would be a shame to not be a little adventurous cuisine-wise while in the region. If there is ever a time to dive into a culinary wonderland, this is it. A few simple precautions and a bit of knowledge on the issue makes a world of difference. Enquire here about some of our culinary tours around the cities and towns in the region. Bon appetit!