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Posted by Thomas Crampton

A friend is heading to Southeast Asia and asked advice on food.

I find that travellers are often obsessive about the wrong things. They are very aggressive about - for example - making sure that the water has actually boiled in their soup, but then order a salad as a starter.

Basically, I never eat anything that has been washed in tapwater (like lettuce) and avoid anything that has milk products (pies with cream or other milk products that can go bad in tropical heat) but you can eat almost anything that has been peeled (fruit) grilled (meat) boiled (soup, noodles, curries, etc). Always wash hands before eating and get in the habit of carrying purell in your pocket. Be wary of cutlery in the sense that you should rub it down with a napkin before using it.

One of the greatest pleasures for me in travel is sampling the local cuisine in street stalls and small restaurants, so I probably push the envelope, but rarely get ill. (Perhaps I have built up resistance)

Medicines I use for rare occasions when digestive issues arise? Peptobismol and - if needed - immodium. Some people take peptobismol before eating, but that such a waste because it ruins the taste.

Also, there is no need to buy water purification tablets. Never in more than a decade of travel through developing countries have I been out of reach of clean water. That said, make sure to keep yourself hydrated in tropical heat. Drink small amounts constantly rather than gulping once every few hours.

Most important: Don't obsess on it! Enjoy your holiday.


while clean water might available everywhere in bottle form it's important to make sure the tap-water is clean. I've gotten every stomach virus possile everywhere it seems from tap water. maybe i need to bring some of those african drinking straws =)


What about the food in the US?

When I lived in the states, I couldn't drink milk. I assumed that I was "Lactose Intolerant," but apparently, it was something else. Dishes made from eggs often were followed by an evening of discomfort and meat frequently left me sick. Usually it was restaurant food that had this effect. (My "weak stomach" made going to restaurants on dates a challenge.) Now I wonder if it might more likely have been a lack of basic hygiene habits on the part of restaurant staff.

Here in Japan, I can and do enjoy milk and even cheese, as long as it's from Japan or Europe. Eggs are safe and never bother me, I would guess because so many Japanese people eat them raw, over rice with soy sauce, especially older people. They demand a higher standard, even going as far as to make sure they are always kept pointing a certain way in the package, so the air bubble is positioned to minimize bacterial growth. (Have they started doing that in the US? They should.) I frequently make Caesar salad using *raw* eggs, only coddling them if they've been in the fridge a while.
Then there's bacon, which can be served here cooked normally, rather than incinerated the way they serve it in the US. (Somehow they've convinced Americans that pigs naturally carry trichinosis, rather than it only occurring in animals kept in unhealthy conditions.)

A friend who travelled back to the US told me that they sell things like "24 hour" acid indigestion medicines. If you need something like that, there's something really wrong with what you're eating.

What means "purell"?

They have a basic rule I use when in some countries dealing with fruits and vegetables:

boil it
cook it
peel it
or forget it

#2: I had a few friends in the egg business in Japan. They said after seeing conditions on the egg farms, they'd never eat eggs in Japan again.

That's lovely, amida. What were those conditions and how do those conditions differ with those on egg farms in the States and/or Europe?

#6: Couldn't tell you-- as I said, they worked in the egg business (and lived) in Japan.

if you've grown up in a country where people eat lots of hawker food, you can digest anything without having to live on a diet of imodium and peptobismol

hell, if you can scarf down oysters and believe that tabasco sauce kills all the germs .. and lots of people do .. you really shouldn't have too much of a problem eating anything else.

Purell is a liquid, non-greasy antibacterial soap. Put it on your hands and it kills bacteria. They use it a lot in hospitals in America. A lot of germophobic friends in the US use it too. (They also avoid things like holding doors, shaking hands, etc.) You shouldn't use it too much. There is a concern in the US that the rise of excessive use of antibacterial soaps and ointments is forcing the evolution of much more resistant strains of bacteria.

In relation to Purell: I reached my height of germophobia while covering SARS in China and have never really recovered. During the height of the outbreak the tranmission means was still not known and people were falling ill shortly after briefing us in press conferences. Concerned for my safety (and that of other journalists) I asked the World Health Organization what could be done to minimize risk. They didn't know at that time, but said handwashing is one of the most powerful public health tools that could eliminate diseases if everyone made sure to do it more often.

Jim: Yes, I, too, have become ill when arriving in the United States after living in Southeast Asia. Strange experience. Perhaps the food was overprocessed or contained something my digestive system was not used to. (I will spare you the details...)

C'mon guys, it's 80% water bourn bateria. Face it, it's everywhere. -But it's also different in each location. You grow used to it over time, but the initial shock is what upset you. Try spending three months in any one place then go back to the US. You will get sick from the bacteria in the water. I just thought I would point this out before some "Egg and Milk" war breaks out b/w Asia and the USA.

I'd have to agree with Seth. I spend about six months in a country at a time, and no matter where I end up next, I encounter some food related adjustments. It can be bottled water in the US, milk in Hong Kong, or a coke in the UK. Your body becomes accustomed to certain things and when you change them, there are changes inside.

God forbid we get into a "my water is better than yours" arguement.

Bob: Yes, gradual adjustment to food and climate is not something we can enjoy in the jet era. There is a real graciousness in arriving somewhere by train or ship.

About 10 years ago, a physician specializing in travel medicine recommended taking Pepto Bismol prophylacatically (in advance of symptoms) as a way of reducing the likelihood (by perhaps as much as 50%) of stomach problems while traveling. Like Thomas, I hate the pink goop, but found that there are Pepto Bismol caplets that are comparatively tasteless and you can take them a couple of times a day without screwing up your taste buds.

The odd side effect from this practice, is that the bismuth in the Pepto Bismol may make your tongue turn black. Jeff Greenwald, in his round-the-world travel book "The Size of the World", encountered this side effect (as have I), and, after thinking he was seriously ill, found out that it was only the Pepto Bismol.

I'm headed to Bangkok next month, armed with my pink pills (even if only for their placebo value). I'll be the one with the black tongue sweating from the Thai chillis.

Re: Comment #9.......

There is no risk to overusing Purell or Purell-like antiseptic hand sanitizers. You are confusing them with anti-bacterial soaps and foams - two separate things. Also, what you see in hospitals near doors, nurses stations, etc. are foam sanitizers (almost 100% alcohol)-- NOT the anti-bacterial soaps which CAN cause future problems with resistant strains. It is important that people understand the difference.

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Eating food in "developing" countries from - The curse of Sanfermin
September 13, 2005 1:58 AM

I smiled when I read Thomas Crampton's (Thomas, you have no idea who I am. ;D ) post on Joi Ito's blog this afternoon about eating food in Asia, and developing countries (but I think this can be applied to most countries). I have to say, I agree with ... Read More