I get a lot of questions from first time travelers about what foods to avoid when traveling in foreign countries. I would love to be able to provide an all inclusive list, but, like many things “it depends.”
It took a whole chapter in my book Choose Adventure to adequately cover the basics. If you want my best advice, see the chapter “Eating and Drinking (Without Dying).”
Until then, let me stress that in many places you can break all of the “food rules” for international travel and still be safe. Here was my lunch yesterday. It was a big dish of ceviche and a Caesar salad with shrimp.
The food Nazis would be very unhappy with this meal. It breaks a lot of “The Rules.”
Lets start with the salad. Everyone knows that it’s unsafe to eat salads in foreign countries. The cooks wash the lettuce with local water which may be contaminated with bacteria and viruses. Except in the high end restaurants that cater to tourists. Those folks know to wash the produce with purified water instead of tap water so that all their guests don’t get sick.
Would I eat raw unwashed produce straight from a market in Bolivia? Probably not. But at the high end Mexican resort where I’m staying this week, it’s likely fine. If you have any doubts, ask your waiter.
The next taboo is eating any dairy or cheese. My salad had both cheese and a creamy dressing. That’s supposed to be bad. It is bad if it is stored un-refrigerated on an island without electricity in Nicaragua. At a nice restaurant? You are going to be fine.
Finally, we get to the ceviche. It’s uncooked (but essentially “cooked” in citrus juice) fish, shrimp, and octopus. Raw meat and seafood breaks all the rules. Again, context matters. I’ve eaten raw sushi all over the world. I wouldn’t choose the sushi in a land-locked country without reliable electricity, but in a coastal town, that fish is far more fresh than most of the fish in your home supermarket.
Take a look at the photo above. That’s kudu carpaccio that I ate in Zimbabwe. Yes, it’s raw antelope meat. Yes, I’m in a country that has been undergoing a complete financial and societal collapse for the last 20 years. The hamburgers on the street there are cut with sawdust to make the patties bulkier. I wouldn’t eat those.
Why did I eat the raw antelope? Because it was in the country’s best restaurant and it likely had good safety practices. Kudu in Zimbabwe is like fish in coastal Mexico. It’s likely to be very extremely fresh and some of the safest food I could eat.
Sometimes you can relax the commonly touted “food rules” for international travel. Sometimes doing that can cause horrible issues. You have to be smart enough to know the difference.
Excuse me, it’s time for me to get a second helping of that ceviche.