You love to sample foods around the world — but while your palate may be game, your stomach isn’t always up to the challenge. To prevent spending half your trip running to the bathroom, it’s important to find a middle ground between sampling local cuisines and treating your belly well.
It is possible to travel extensively in India and avoid a case of Delhi Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent years in the country, and while travelers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy.
This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. All digestive systems just aren’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the subcontinent. Over time it will adjust, but for travelers, here’s my plan to prevent a messy disaster:
• First, understand that the food you eat at home isn’t necessarily “safer” than food abroad; it’s often simply that your body isn’t accustomed to it. Give yourself a few days to adjust to the local cuisine, especially if you’re not used to spicy food.
• There’s one thing you can do to minimize any potential adverse reactions: eat pro-biotics and yogurt for a week before you head to India. Start building up your good bacteria and your gut will thank you.
• Washing your hands before a meal is always a good practice no matter where you are in the world and no matter what you’re about to eat. Just like your mamma taught you! Carrying hand sanitizer washing gels in a backpack or handbag comes in handy if standard soap and water is not easily available.
• Make sure that you stay hydrated as well! Dehydration is a common occurrence in India due to the climatic conditions and it is important to regularly drink water. Pharmacies (called “chemists”) sell oral re-hydration salts that can be mixed with bottled water, as well as ready-to-drink tetra-packs. If it’s more serious, lasts for more than a day or if it involves vomiting, definitely visit a doctor.
• Always carry a medical kit which consists of anti-septic ointments, band aids and the tablets that you consume regularly. You can carry wet wipes and anti-bacterial tissues. Basic medication for diarrhea, motion sickness & body-aches may come handy.
• You know the rule about following a crowd – if the locals are avoiding a particular vendor, you should too. Any place popular with families will probably be your safest bet. The locals have better immunity, but they also have better-informed taste buds. Follow the herd, and gather with them under whichever branded umbrella they’ve chosen. Every neighborhood has its unique specialties. Seek them out. You can find some great suggests on “what” & “where” from locals.
• Street foods in India is the classic push-pull. You want it but you’re afraid of it. It’s a fraught situation, especially when every street corner boasts small stalls serving up something that smells amazing while a crowd of Indians wolf it all down.
So what are you to do? The short answer is: it depends. But within a few parameters, it should be safe to eat street food in India.
• Once you’re on the street, the best rule of thumb is to eat what’s freshly cooked in front of you. The heat kills most bacteria. It may not be fried in healthy olive oil but can save you of bigger damage.
• Avoid chutneys, they’re made with local, unfiltered water, and also spoil in the heat. Beware, also, of the handlers. No street vendor wears gloves. It would be nice, but the truth is, the E. Coli infected local populace is more or less immune.
• Unless a place is reputable (and busy), it’s best to avoid eating meat from the street. Meats have a higher tendency of going bad due to heat or exposure bacterial attack. Also under-cook meat can do you some serious damage. Relish the veggie curries while staying clear of potentially contaminated meats.
• Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, including cheese and yogurt. Check labels for evidence of pasteurization. Don’t eat uncooked cheese as it has chances of being packed with nasty microbes. Paneer is fine — it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries.
• Don’t eat eggs. Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An under-cooked egg will probably tie your intestine into a sailor knot.
• Avoid eating fish…unless you see it caught and cooked. On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make fully sure that’s the case before eating. Seafood dishes are notorious for causing intestinal problems, as fish accumulate contaminants from a wide variety of sources. Smaller fish tend to be safer. Fish organs and shellfish (such as clams, mussels and oysters) are usually best avoided.
• Don’t eat uncooked vegetables or fruits. The traveler’s mantra, attributed to colonial explorers, goes something like this: “Cook it, wash it, peel it or forget it.” Freshly cooked foods are less likely to acquire airborne contaminants, and raw foods such as salads, and fruits and vegetables without peels, are often likely culprits for trouble. Fruits and vegetables you can peel yourself are usually safe. Peeling fruit is another wise choice. And if you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water. Don’t be tempted by glistening pre-sliced melon and other fruit, which may keep its luscious veneer with the regular dousing of (often dubious) water. Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical.
• Don’t drink off the tap
Obviously, enough said! Most packaged water is fine — just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth as well.
• Definitely avoid ice for the same reason: the water in India is suspect. When ordering a drink, any drink, always specify “No ice, please,” works nearly every time. The ice is often transported over a long distance and a number of impurities may have settled on it.
• The hygiene standard at juice stalls is wildly variable, so exercise caution. Have the vendor press the juice in front of you and steer clear of anything stored in a jug or served in a glass (unless you’re absolutely convinced of the washing standards).
• Don’t drink milk. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up to the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour and take your coffee black. Mostly any kind of dairy products take be a tricky call!
• Tea and filter coffee are generally safe – they’re practically boiled within an inch of their lives.
Trust your gut!!
You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you might meet travelers who down whatever looks good and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of an awesome experience. India is no place for that.
The best way to deal with the sensory overload of colour, smell, noise, and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.
For travelers headed to India, let the mantra be “Meals & Wheels”.
A blog contributed by Shristi Singh