‘Fruit and berries on strange planets either make you live or make you die. Therefore the point at which to start toying with them is when you’re going to die if you don’t. That way you stay ahead. The secret to healthy hitchhiking is to eat junk food.’
–Ford Prefect, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
There is a lot of truth to that piece of comedy. If you do not want to vomit, spend eternal hours in the toilet and have your stomach in zombie mode, then the best thing is to stick to fast food. Junk that has no taste. Burgers that have been zapped to death, over-fried chicken and chips. Tasteless but perfectly safe. However, if you are anything like me, then the food makes up a pretty big experience of the holiday. I love cooking, I love food and while shopping for clothes (even my own) bores the hell out of me, I can quite easily spend many hours sourcing the best tasting food. I like eating out, not at the posh restaurants with the haughty service but the local places, where lots of families congregate – the best places for finding wholesome and healthy food. It is those same rules that I apply when I travel abroad.
I can proudly say that I did not get one bit of sickness while in India. Not once did my stomach growl, no diarrhoea, no vomiting, nothing. And I was eating at the kind of places the guidebooks would not even dare mention. So I thought I would share the secret of my success. Obviously, I do have a pretty good immune system, having so frequently travelled in the past. But I also take precautions when I travel abroad and so can enjoy exactly the same foods as all the local people do. And India is filled with great tasting food, so it would be crime to miss out on the delicacies on offer. The cuisine is so rich and due to the vast size of the country contains many local specialities. As is befitting of such a vast producer of food, what you eat is fresh and plentiful as well as being ludicrously cheap. And if all the locals are eating it, then why not the casual traveller? So here are my six simple steps to staying healthy abroad.
1 – Water:
This is so important. Do not touch the local water. Be bloody careful. Unfortunately, this is the one time that I have to endorse bottle water. But if you can, boil your water or filter it. Some of the countries that I have visited have perfectly safe drinking water (US, the EU, Seychelles, Singapore, Malaysia (most of it), Hong Kong) and some do not (Sri Lanka, India, dysentery infested Pakistan and China – but at least that country boils their water as a rule).
Ditto for milk, treat it with suspicion. Not all ice cream and yoghurts may be safe. Be careful. However, hot milk is perfectly fine (yes!), as well tea (oh baby!) and coffee (not bad). Soft sugary canned and bottled drinks (yuck) are great for your sugar rush, but terrible for your teeth.
The guidebooks and health professionals advise you to brush your teeth in bottled water. Mmm. I don’t, I normally use the local tap water. Now, I can only go on my own experiences, and the fact that my gut is not as sensitive as many others. While there is a lot of sense in avoiding the local water, it is a pain to do so when brushing your teeth. Also, my mentality is that I need to desensitise my body to the local bugs, so brushing your teeth, rinsing out your mouth and spitting out the water will mean that only a small amount of bugs gets into your body. It allows some tolerance to be built up, but if you want an official piece of advice, I would always say that you need to seek out a truly qualified health professional, not some funky blogger 😉
2 – If you can’t cook it, boil it or peel it, then forget it.
The colonial masters may have been a bunch of tossers, but they did come up with a great slogan for those sensitive western bellies. If the food is cooked, it will kill all the bugs. Particularly when eating meat or fish. Fruit and vegetables that need to be peeled and/or cooked are also perfectly safe to eat. Mangoes, bananas, pomegranates, pineapples, papayas, mongosteens, durians, jack fruits, lychees, komquats, rambutans, oranges, lemons and limes arre amongst the many fruits that can be peeled and are easily available, cheap and highly nutritious. They will probably not give you any problems.
Melons can be dodgy as they absorb water through their skins, although I have never had a problem with them. Salads are usually washed (worrying) or soaked (yikes!) in the local water and so should be treated with suspicion. Veggies that are cooked are great to eat. Boiling refers to the water and any liquids. Watch out if going up in the mountains as liquids will boil at lower temperatures and so may not kill all the local bugs!
3 – Fire, Steam and Smoke
When deciding where to eat out, these are the three signs that I look for. If I see a hot stove with lots of fire, steam coming off a water or meat being smoked, then the food is being cooked on the spot, and so is going to have the least bugs in it. Also, it is fresh! No matter where you go, if you see the emitting of heat in some form, then it is likely to be fine food cooked to order and not waiting to be served.
Likewise, if the place you plan to eat has a good crowd, then there is a reason for it. Follow the locals, eat where they eat. They know what is good food, what is honest food and what is food that will not make them sick. Better than any guide book recommended eatery. Plus if the restaurant is busy, then the food will not be lying around.
4 – Eat at street stalls.
Now let me qualify this. Not every street stall is going to make you sick. Yes, there are dodgy stalls around and you should look out for them. But street stalls are usually the best places to get your hands on food that is being freshly cooked and that has a quick turnaround time. They are the most likely places to find fire, steam and smoke. Plus they are the most popular place in any town. I have rarely been sick from street stalls, and considering what I have eaten and where I have travelled, that is some achievement.
No street stall in North East India made me sick. And I broke the last three rules at least once while eating at those said stalls.
Much of Asia (in fact much of the world) has a fine tradition of hawker markets where (particularly at night) people get their carts onto the street and begin to cook up one or two dishes from their stalls. They are cheap, freshly cooked and popular. While most guidebooks will not recommend a street stall, I will. But be choosy. Make sure the food is fresh, make sure it is popular and make sure to sample everything available. Usually there is more than one stall in a road, so taste a little of everything. And enjoy the food served on the road, for this is one of the highlights of any journey!
5 – Go veggie!
In many countries (Pakistan) this may be impractical. And in many other parts of the world (Central Asia) this may be no fun! However, at least for the first three or four days, whenever I start travelling, I am usually a vegetarian. Thus gives your stomach a chance to get used to the local cuisine and your immunity a chance to respond. Vegetables, pulses and carbs harbour the least amount of bugs and so is a pretty good place to begin the exploration of the local diet. After a few days, your stomach has had a chance to get used to the environment and so you can start to eat meat, fish etc.
Out of all the meats be careful of pork, horse and dog. Chicken can be dodgy, depends how it is cooked. Beef, Goat, Mutton and Yak have always been good to me. Never tried insects. Offal can be awful but cheap. Snails never gave me a problem.
Fish is one of the wonders of travelling, but be careful of shellfish, they must be cooked properly. Sea fish is great, tasty and is clean – I love sea fish!. Freshwater fish must be thoroughly cooked. No matter what anyone says, eating cuttlefish or any other bottom feeder is asking for trouble, I don’t touch the stuff.
While in India, I was vegetarian for the first three days. Afterwards I was mostly veggie, but I was also eating plenty of the local fish. In the north east of India, the main diet is freshwater fish, rice, pulses and vegetables. Pretty similar to the diet I am used to (sea water fish, rice, pulses and vegetables) and so I was very happy eating the food. Meat was hard to come by, but pork and chicken seem to be fairly popular in the local area if you are hankering for a bit of flesh. To be honest, I just didn’t feel like meat given the intense heat.
In India, there really is no need to eat meat. Vegetarianism is ingrained in the society, and so you can pretty much get all your vitamins and minerals from the veggies and pulses on offer. Just make sure to eat leafy green vegetables to ensure your iron intake is kept up. And rotate your pulse/carbohydrate types to ensure your B Vitamins are up to scratch. If you decide to eat meat in India, then be careful – other than the water, this is probably the quickest way to get sick. Most people I have talked to have had a bad stomach after eating meat in India.
6 – Wash your hands!
The same advice your mother gave you, then follow it!
You have been travelling all day. Maybe on a bus, or hiking somewhere in the dirt. So wash them, especially if there are no pieces of cutlery with which to eat. The locals in India are immaculately dressed and prepared, never coming out of their houses without a sense of style and cleanliness. Travelers on the other hand are the filthiest people in India, mucky pups, half dressed in filthy clothes and smelling of sweat. Wash your hands before you eat. And get used to the left hand/right hand rule. Use your left hand for the ‘unclean business’ and the right hand for eating. It helps.