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On Trying Street Food In China... And Not Dying

Fine. Perhaps the title might be slightly extreme, but try telling me that I'm being dramatic when you're the one in bed in a fetal position clutching at your stomach, praying for the Asian equivalent of Tums to just up and do its work already. 

That was me, about seven years ago, after I stupidly purchased a huge thing of shaved ice with "fresh" fruit from a street vendor in Shenzhen, China. And the worst part was, the shaved ice wasn't even worth the few cents I spent on it.

Too much derpin' in one picture.
The hair, the hands, the pants, wow girl...

But even with this lowest of the low experience under my belt, I must say that street food more often than not leads me to my favorite treats in the countries that I visit, and particularly in China. 

Last week after an expensive but unfilling Thai dinner with my cousins, we hightailed it to a tiny, itty bitty restaurant hidden in the depths of an alleyway. It's probably the size of a laundry room, and pretty grimy, but the workers are friendly and they cook up a huge bowl of the yummiest, most aromatic noodles. Sitting on those teetering, plastic stepstools and slurping up the contents, ensconced in a chilly breeze and a few raindrops, it was perhaps one of my most memorable in-a-good-way meals here yet. And thinking back to my many trips to China, most of my favorite moments have been spent in a similar way, and in a similar place. 

Hong Kong's famous "fish balls" and I spy a food baby.

I've found that although street food can be a risky move, we should also give them credit where credit is due: they are bite-sized and cheap, saving us valuable tummy space and moolah to try more foods; they are usually cultural specialities and taste more authentic than the food you find in more expensive restaurants; street food always offers a fun and eye-opening vibe and experience; and lastly, at least you have bragging rights for trying such-and-such. You food truck lovers {like me} will love it.

Sarah with her "mouthnumbingly spicy hot stew" in '09 -
you pick your fixins' {vermicelli, meats, seaweed, seafood balls, eggs, etc.}
and throw it into a broth made from chili peppers, so hot that it literally numbs your mouth.

Street food, or "little eats" as the literal translation goes, is something that I urge all of you to try if you ever make your way over to Asia/China, and while every vendor stand is a toss-up when it comes to sanitation and tastiness, here's some advice for navigating these tricky stalls:

  • Do your research in advance. Figure out A) the region specialities {Nanjing is known for duck blood vermicelli, liangfen - spicy starched jelly noodles, beef potstickers, salted duck, stinky tofu, and more} and B) where to find it. Tourist/city guides, bloggers, food shows, famous snack streets in the city, and the mighty mighty Google will point you in the right direction!
  • Go where the locals go. I think you have a 90% success rate if you choose the line/vendor/tiny restaurant with the majority of people who look and sound to be from around the area. Alternatively, street food at more gimmicky tourist attractions and food emporiums aren't always a no-no; they might not be the most authentic and slightly pricier, but they are likely to be better supervised in terms of sanitation and still offer delicious goodies.
  • Avoid ice, cold rice, and anything uncooked, easy to spoil, and/or not served straight from the grill/fryer/etc.
  • The Onceover: although you can't guarantee anything just from seeing the exterior, I'd say it's a safe bet to be aware of the placement of the vendor {if it's right next to a public restroom, skip it}, general cleanliness of the people manning the stalls {dirty nails, bye bye}, etc.
  • Go with your gut instinct, keep an open mind, and understand that some things you try may not be winners. On to the next!
A sweet old lady spends her days frying up stinky tofu in the corner of Zhujiang Street;
her regulars come by so often, that they now call her "Granny."
So cute, and it's amazing how some fried, pungent tofu with a sweet and spicy sauce
drizzled on top can be so life-alteringly delicious!

May the odds be ever in your favor, friends!


Linking up with Chelsea, Rachel, and Nicole today! 


  1. Yum! Street food can be so touch and go- but I'm glad that this experience was better than the shaved ice incident! ;)

  2. I lived in Thailand for 6 years and a few two many encounters with bad street food, I started to remember what vendors made me sick and which ones didn't hahaha! And these tips are absolutely perfect

  3. Oh. My. Gosh. Street food is my favorite too! I LOVE it. I've only gotten sick a few times. Worth it.

    xo Lisa
    Making Life's Lemons

  4. Awww....little Caroline 10 years ago! I love that picture. Oh my gosh...I can't even imagine the food poisoning. I think those are really great tips...especially go where the locals go.

  5. I think my favorite is putting the fall clothes on!! Oh goodness that is the absolute best feeling!
    Kristin xx

  6. Love this--really, I do :] I wish I'd had a guide like this when I went to China at sixteen; I have a feeling I would have found some awesome treats! Awesome tips!

  7. this is so great! street food is one of my favorite things to try wen we travel, even though it may be more risky!

  8. I really enjoy street food and have been told off so often by my family for my lack of savviness in procuring street food.

    I have a strong stomach but they are more worried about Hepatitis I think or those kinds of transmitable street food germs. Thanks for your tips. I will try to remember them more when I visit Asia next.

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xx Caroline