Some street food rules are universal: Look for the stands with the longest lines. Don’t buy food that has been sitting out for who-knows-how-long in the hot sun.
Carry translation cards if you have a serious allergy. Other etiquette is more obscure or culturally specific. With this in mind, we asked expert street food guides in a dozen Asian countries to share their smartest tips, tricks, and rules for getting the most out of eating on the street.
Here’s the list of 12 street food rules you don’t know you’re breaking in Asia, that the experts from a dozen countries around the continent weigh in.
Vietnamese street food is as casual as it comes, but there are two big etiquette points worth keeping in mind. One: “Don’t ask for a menu,” says Tú Văn Công, co-founder of Hanoi Street Food Tours. “Vendors here generally specialize in one thing. Hang around, see what’s going on, how the dish is assembled, and what the ingredients are, and if you like the look of it, sit down, point at what someone else is eating, smile, and indicate how many servings you want.” Two: Don’t dilly-dally. “The vendors make their livelihood from volume and turning over tables, so eat quickly and get out,” advises Văn Công. This goes for markets, too, especially if you’re taking pictures with no intention of shopping. “The vendors don’t want their trade restrained by tourists gawking—and they will wave you away if you overstay your welcome.”
Lastly, there’s no need to be overly complimentary of a chef. “Even saying ‘delicious’ is kind of a waste of time, because the vendors are only doing one dish—they’re a master of that dish,” says Văn Công. “They know it’s delicious. A simple ‘thank you,’ with a smile, will be better received.”
Bangkok is a mecca for street food, even if the authorities are working hard to restrict it. Chinawut Chinaprayoon, co-founder of Bangkok Food Tours, says the biggest faux pas he notices is foreigners placing their feet on other chairs when eating curbside. Most of the “rules,” however, pertain to the dishes themselves, and how you doctor them. Popular Thai soups like tom yum koong are meant to be eaten with rice. Fried egg is a common addition to many rice dishes, including pad kra prao (basil chicken or pork stir-fry) and moo tod kratiem (garlic pork with rice). You can order the egg any way you like, from sunny-side up to kai jeaw (Thai-style omelet). Most importantly is knowing how to use the condiment caddies placed on the tables at Thai food stands. They typically include sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, and chili flakes. Don’t season your food indiscriminately the second it is set down. Instead, Chinaprayoon advises trying the dish first and then adjusting it to taste.
For Imelda “Mel” Pangan, founder of Mel’s Davao Food Tour on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the most important rule is to eat first and ask questions later. “Filipino street foods are often fowl parts like intestines, blood, and feet,” explains Pangan. “Not knowing what it is will make it easier to like.” There aren’t a ton of other rules in this relaxed food culture, but Pangan does have a locals-only suggestion for consuming the most indulgent of all tropical desserts: “When served durian—the sticky, creamy, pungent fruit—pair it with Coca-Cola. That induces a durian-scented burp that doubles, and extends the satisfaction.”
Generosity is an important value in Filipino culture, so no matter how much you enjoy a dish, never take the last piece of food. “Even if it is offered to you, refuse initially,” says Pangan. “If you really want more, only accept the second or third offering.”
Don’t turn down the ketchup—or any other condiment recommended by locals. Ansel Mullins, co-founder of the Culinary Backstreets food walks in Istanbul, learned this the hard way. His favorite Turkish street food is nohutlu pilav, the assembly of which he describes like this: “Moist rice studded with chickpeas is spooned into a small plastic dish. Chicken is optional, black pepper is added almost automatically, and there are pickled hot peppers, if you are so inclined. Then comes the critical matter: ketchup.” A native Chicagoan, Mullins turned his nose up at this for years. “Ketchup on my pilav? How could I insult this perfect street food snack with such a condiment? I knew better.” Finally one day, at the encouragement of another diner, he tried it. “It really worked!” he says. And suddenly it made sense why every pilav cart in town stocked ketchup. Point being: If the locals are insistent on eating a dish a certain way, put aside judgment and just go for it.
Jason Kai runs food and saké-tasting tours in Kyoto’s Fushimi neighborhood. One rule he frequently sees foreign tourists breaking is eating food on the spot. “Kyotoites prefer to sit and eat, which is very different from Osaka, where standing and eating is very much a part of the street food culture,” says Kai. Kyotoites, in contrast, typically take their street food home. Another important rule when dining out: “Eat all of the food presented to you, especially rice,” says Kai. Not clearing your plate is considered rude. So is breaking apart wooden chopsticks and rubbing them together to get rid of splinters. (Only poor-quality chopsticks need to be rubbed together; doing so implies, however inadvertently, that you think your host is cheap.)
In Malaysia, as well as India and other parts of Southeast Asia, rice and curry is sometimes served on a banana leaf instead of a plate. When you are finished, it is seen as impolite to fold the leaf away from you after a meal. “This is only practiced when one is attending a funeral—it’s a sign that you do not wish to return to such an event,” says Pauline Lee, founder of the Simply Enak food tours in Kuala Lumpur and George Town. “To fold the leaf away from you suggests that you did not like the meal and do not wish to return to that restaurant.” Instead, fold the leaf toward you, or just allow the vendor to clear the table.
When choosing where to sit, be aware of the unspoken “zoning” laws that govern tables in street food courts throughout Kuala Lumpur, especially Chinatown. It’s not a free-for-all, so don’t take a seat at a table in front of a stall unless you eat food from that stall. In other words? No ordering curry laksa and then plopping down at the pork noodles table.
For extra credit as a traveler, familiarize yourself with few of the local superstitions. For instance, the Chinese rule about chopsticks and rice (see: Taiwan) applies here. Or, if you suspect you might be the first person ordering food for the day at a Cantonese eatery in Malaysia, don’t order fried rice. “This symbolizes that the day’s profit will be meager,” says Lee.
Due to its notoriously gridlocked traffic, Jakarta is the ideal city for doing an eating tour on foot. Vera Triyani, founder of Jakarta Walking Tours, takes visitors to up to 20 eateries in the course of a few hours. Jakartans are pretty laid-back, but there are a few rules travelers should bear in mind, says Triyani—many of them just good manners. “Do not blow your nose in front of people while eating; don’t make noise while sipping or chewing; and do not clean your teeth with a toothpick in front of others—do it in the bathroom.”
When ordering rendang, a spicy, saucy meat dish popular in West Sumatra, you may be handed a small bowl of hot water. Don’t drink this! It is for cleaning your hand, since, like in India, many Indonesians use their hands to eat. Also note: Tables are set with condiments such as sambal, chili sauce, soy bean ketchup, and fish or garlic crackers. “The crackers are not free,” says Triyani. Be sure to mention them when the vendor tallies your bill.
Don’t be afraid to eat with your hands. “Some of the best known street foods—like panipuri, small puffed bread stuffed with boiled potatoes and chickpeas and filled with mint water—have to be relished from the hand,” says Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks. “Just pick it up and gobble it into your mouth.”
In rice-centric Indian states like West Bengal and Kerala, locals mix the rice with dal (lentils) using their hands. A word of advice: Though it is not strictly observed in metropolitan areas, Sapra says it is still considered disrespectful to eat from your left hand, noting that left hands are typically reserved for more unsavory tasks like removing one’s shoes.
Like the U.S., China is a massive country with a plenitude of distinct regional cuisines. “Don’t go looking for char sui or xiao long bao in Chengdu,” says Jordan Porter, founder of Chengdu Food Tours in Sichuan. Instead, look for local specialties like dan hong gao, crepes filled with sesame and sugar or pickles, and chuan chuan, which Porter describes as “hot pot on sticks” (beef, rabbit kidneys, chicken gizzards, etc.). Understanding how these foods are consumed enhances your dining experience. For example: “Put your chuan chuan sticks in the right bucket,” says Porter. “There should be one bucket for each person, or on each side of the table. After you are done, the sticks are counted or weighed and that’s how you are charged—so don’t throw them away or leave them on the table. And definitely don’t put them in the bucket of the next table over!”
In China, the time of day you order certain street food also matters. “Baozi [stuffed steamed buns] is a breakfast food in Chengdu, so unless you can actively see the steaming going on and can assure they are fresh, don’t get a baozi after lunch,” says Porter. “It will be a couple hours old and reheated in a microwave.”
And though it may sound contrarian, don’t eat somewhere just because it’s busy. Rather, Porter advises looking for a large but diverse crowd, with a good cross-section of young and old diners.
For Phalkun “Kun” Seng, founder of the Angkor Street Eats tours in Siem Reap, the most important rule has to do with drinking, not eating. When chowing down at legit food stalls, it is not unusual to be handed a glass of beer or whiskey after some friendly banter with the vendor. “After we say ‘jol muay,’ or ‘cheers!,’ it’s bottoms up for everyone,” says Seng. “This is the way locals please each other. You must not say no.”
If you don’t drink—or simply can’t drink any more—politely excuse yourself from the scene, but don’t say “no” and then hang around. This “do as the locals do” approach applies to trash, too. “Even if they’re throwing their rubbish on the floor, just do it,” says Seng. Asking for a waste bin will embarrass you and everyone around you. The one upside to seeing a bunch of trash littered around a street stand? “A lot of people have been there, which means the food must be good,” says Seng.
“Don’t knock on your bowl with any kind of utensils when eating,” says Tina Fong, co-founder of Taipei Eats. “Only beggars knock on bowls, so people believe you will become a beggar if you do so.” The Chinese rule about not sticking chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice also applies here: It reminds people of an incense ceremony performed for the dead.
A word about stinky tofu, one of Taiwan’s most divisive dishes: “The stinkier the tofu, the more appealing it is to diners,” says Fong. Guests on her tours who like stinky tofu compare it to a stinky cheese with complex flavors. Those who dislike it compare the taste to “a men’s locker, forgotten fish in a hot car, and vomit from a reptile.” Fong says hawkers are keenly aware that stinky tofu is an acquired taste, even for some locals, and they’re seldom offended when customers don’t finish the dish. If you’re trying stinky tofu for the first time, ask for the deep-fried version first; it’s less potent than eating it raw.
Burmese street food vendors used to wrap their hot, freshly fried snacks in newspaper; nowadays, plastic bags are common. If you want to save on waste, Phone Myint Aung of Yangon Food Tours says you shouldn’t feel bad about asking for your food to go—it’s perfectly okay to bring your own reusable container. It’s also acceptable to ask for extra broth for free if your mohinga, a rice noodle and fish soup, or Rakhine mone-ti, a clear fish noodle soup, aren’t served hot enough.
BY ASHLEA HALPERN @ CN Travel