South by Southeast: Five reasons to eat more street food

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. In Southeast Asia, the center of daily life is the street. In Hanoi, pedestrians stop for a trim at sidewalk barber stands. In Bangkok, co-workers gather for steaming street-side bowls of noodle soup. And in Mandalay, men huddle at curbside tea shops, sipping milky-sweet chai while trading stories and gossip. You cannot claim to have visited Southeast Asia without soaking up this unique sidewalk atmosphere. And if you truly want to partake in this daily carnival of the street, you need to be eating the street food. Frequently.

I can already hear the objections. “I can’t eat street food, it’s going to make me sick. Isn’t all that greasy stuff unhealthy? I have no idea what I’m eating – it could be goat testicles or something!” All these fears harbor a grain of truth. But if you’ve ever had concerns about eating street food during your travels, Southeast Asia is the place to shove those fears down the disposal. Compare plates from your average restaurant in Southeast Asia against a street vendor around the corner and the vendor will win every time. Nowhere on earth will you eat such fresh, well-prepared and innovative meals – all for pennies on the dollar.

Still squeamish? Wondering what all the street food fuss is about? Keep reading for five reasons you should be eating more street food when you come to Southeast Asia.

%Gallery-83608%Because it’s cleaner than you think
The fear with street food is that it’s often unclean. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many vendors wake up while you’re still snoozing to grab the freshest, most tasty ingredients at the local market. In addition, the vast majority of street food is cooked over an open flame or simmered in a boiling pot. This high heat kills any organism that’s likely to make you ill. Not to mention you get to watch with your own eyes as your food is prepared. Compare this to a restaurant, where an invisible chef prepares your meal away from view. Yes, people do get sick from food in Asia. But if you take care to eat food that is properly grilled, boiled or peeled…you’ll be fine. Relax and enjoy it!

Because it’s the best on earth
Lots of countries have street food. But Southeast Asia has the best. The region’s unique blend of European, Indian and Chinese ingredients is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted: year-round supplies of straight-from-the-ocean seafood, colorful exotic produce and dizzying selection of spices combine to ensure a mouth-watering array of meals, snacks and desserts. Eating the street food of Asia is literally a tourist attraction in and of itself.

Because it’s a great way to meet locals
You don’t eat street food in Southeast Asia by yourself. Typically you’re sitting on a low-slung plastic stool, seated around a communal table. Even when you order, you’ll be chatting with your chosen vendor, offering a chance to practice some local language. The closeness of street food encourages conversation. If you’re traveling the region on your own, it’s a great way to strike up a conversation with your dinner companions and make new friends.

Because it’s good for you
When you think of street food, we often think of greasy snacks from deep-friers. But Southeast Asian street food is much more than deep-fried cuisine. Juicy ripe produce and top-notch ingredients ensure you’ll be getting plenty of vitamins and nutrients. Shockingly, “eating fresh” isn’t just a slogan invented by a fast-food chain – in Southeast Asia it’s a way of life. Cooks have been using healthy ingredients like “organic produce” and “locally-sourced” foodstuffs since the dawn of time.

Because it’s cheap
Each time I pay for my street food meal in Southeast Asia, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. After gorging myself on fresh, delicious food – meals which would set me back $20 or more at home – the bill is never more than $2-3 dollars. If you’re coming to Southeast Asia on a budget, street food is your secret weapon. You can use the savings to pay for nicer accommodations, extra activities or maybe a few souvenirs and still keep within a small budget.

Whether you’re already eating congealed pig’s blood for breakfast or you’re just beginning to explore Southeast Asian cuisine, we could all benefit from eating more street food. Have any street food (mis)adventures you’d like to share? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.