We have all been warned about the dangers of eating street food in third world countries, warned about Gibby Tummy, Delhi Belly, Montezumas revenge and other such delightful phrases! How not to eat anything that has not been freshly cooked, to avoid raw fruit and vegetables and God forbid having a Gin and Tonic with Ice, the ice could be contaminated!
There are exceptions to the rule, eating on the streets of Bangkok and other Thai towns never produced any of those symptoms, there are street stalls and centres selling food all day long and the same could be said of Singapore. In Singapore, the term “hawker” no longer describes the person selling street food, as in the early days, nowadays, hawkers are located in ‘hawker centres or food courts. All the food I have eaten in such places have never produced any undesired effects.
The same can not be said of India, notorious for unsanitary conditions , where in a land of 1.28 billion people over two thirds do not have a toilet, the streets are filthy and trash is everywhere. Hence, it is not surprising that street food is not safe. But when backpacking in China, the rule of thumb was, if it is being cooked in front of you and not located next to a dog pound, then it was safe to eat.
I always was very wary however in Mexico, I avoided street food. I stayed in reasonable accommodation ate good food and got sick, copious amounts of Imodium were always in my suitcase. This was the case until I went on a street food tour of Mexico City.
We went on the Eat Mexico Culinary Tours. We, #1 daughter, himself and myself, met our guide in the fairly smart centre of Mexico City and spent the morning going from stand to stand and eating our way through them all.
We started at Tamales ( corner of Rio Lerma & Rio Panuco), tamales are traditional Mesoamerican dish made from masa (corn) which is steamed or boiled , grilled or fried in a leaf wrapper. The wrapper is discarded before eating. They can also have grasshoppers (especially delicious ), small anchovy type fish and served with salsa, red, green or Jalapeño . Usually eaten early in the morning or late evening. 1 Tamale and drink cost $10 peso (5 pence). I chose the green Salsa, Yummy!
Next was a side trip into the Mercado Cuauhtémoc, outside was a wonderful array of flowers and fruit, inside fruit and vegetables and food stalls. A delicacy which is sold every where, is Chicharron it is pork skin after it has been seasoned and deep fried. In Mexico, they are eaten alone as a snack, drier and much nicer than pork scracthings . They are also used in soups Tacos and stews. We were also served, Atol, which is a hot drink made from corn, can be as thick as porridge or very runny more like gruel, can be flavoured with cinnamon or can have chocolate added. Always served on the Day of the Dead, however I have to say, it did not really ‘tickle my fancy’.
Next stop was a Tortilla factory , corn tortillas that is. The small Hole in the Wall factory makes fresh corn tortillas daily, standard size is 6″ and they sell for $12 peso a kilo. The average family eats about 9 kilos a day, and this little factory produces an unbelievable 800 kilos a day. Tortillas are to Mexican families, what a baguette is to French families. Nothing goes to waste, stale tortillas are made into breakfast dishes such as Chilaquiles .
We then continued our tour by stopping at a fresh juice stand ( fresh juice of all kinds is a delight in Mexico) and then moved on to Tlacoyos and Quesadillas. In Mexico City the preferred filling for these delights, ( quesadillas are flour tortillas which are sandwich together with a filling and grilled or baked in an oven) is cheese. In other parts of the country they choose such things as Salsa Verde, Huitalacoche, courgette flowers, cheese and meat. Once upon a time I made on a weekend what I called Breakfast Quesadillas, which I filled with scrambled egg, chopped ham and cheese. What is Hutalacoche? Well it is also called Corn Smut, does that give you a clue? It is indeed a fungus that grows on ears of sweet corn, but Mexicans use it in soups and for fillings for quesadillas ! As yet I have not tried it, and # 1 daughter has a thing about fungus of any kind, and that includes mushrooms!
We then proceeded to Tacos de Canasta, these Tacos were filled with pulled pork, but pulled pork, like you have never tasted before. The wife of the stall bolder arises at 3.0 am everyday to make the fillings for 800 tortillas. He sets the stand up at 6.0 am to catch the early morning trade. The Tacos cost €8 pesos, and they have been doing this for an amazing 18 years!
We ate Fresh fruit dusted with chile powder, and odd combination you might think, but no, really interesting. We went to a Burrito stand, Burritos are not really Mexican ( more Tex Mex) but in the City they have become a hit and have been in business for 6 years. They are flour Tortillas filled with sautéed peppers, cooked pork or chicken and different salsas.
Our last stop was Carnitas, it is fried pork and every part of the pig is used ( except the testicles known as Prairie Oysters in Texas), again it is a corn tortilla, filled pork of choice, chopped onions, salsa and cilantro.
This tour certainly changed my mind with regard to Mexican Street food. The rule of thumb given to us by our guide was
- Choose a stand that has children, the vendors will not be wanting to hurt their own children.
- Choose a stand that is popular.
- Choose a stand that looks clean
- Choose a stand where the vendor wears disposable plastic gloves
- Choose a stand wear the plates used are not washed up in dirty water but covered with a disposable plastic.much cleaner.
Follow these rules and you too will be able to avoid the dreaded Montezumas Revenge!