Indian Street Food vs. My Digestive System

I really thought after over fifteen months of living in India, my stomach would be fully prepared to battle and vanquish any invisible parasite or bacteria it found swimming in the delicious pani puri I absolutely adore eating. I seriously thought I had already suffered every shade of digestive issue possible, I won’t go into details, I really don’t want to open that can of worms. How very wrong was I. Last week, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I came down with dysentery. 

The only thing that I could recall about this hideous affliction was that several English kings, several hundred years ago died from dysentery (thank you, history class). I thought I was dying too. I was in agony and passing, what seemed to be, litres of blood. How could you lose so much of your volume and still be alive? We went to the doctor as soon as possible, nearly ten days later I still feel pretty weak. Is pani puri worth it?

My husband never has digestive system problems, his Indian stomach is as strong as a bull. I want a stomach like that! I never want to have dysentery ever again, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but can I live a life without the deliciousness of Indian street food? Pani puri and dahi puri and pav bhaji, oh my! I’ve tried to make these dishes in my kitchen, but it’s just not the same, it’s missing something (viruses?). I have noticed that franchised outlets are opening up selling hygienic “street food”, but I am torn because I feel it is good to support the street vendors, but at what cost?

If you are travelling to India, here are some tips to maintain a loving relationship between you and your gut:

  • Always drink bottled water, avoid the water served from a jug in restaurants (I’ve fallen victim to that water).
  • Avoid ice in your drink. I know it’s really hard, especially in the Indian heat, but you can’t be certain that the ice isn’t habouring some frozen nastys.
  • Avoid salads in restaurants, you don’t know how safe the water is that it has been washed in.
  • Avoid street food. Sob. I have seen first hand that the hygiene standards are extremely low (sometimes they don’t exist at all, again, I won’t go into details). Yes, the pani puri tastes like bliss exploded inside your mouth, but there is a high chance you will suffer later.

So, if like me you have a foreign belly in incredible India, be extra careful. Drink lots of bottled water and seek medical advice if you don’t feel right. Also, research further than this post, this is definitely not a definitive list of health safety travel tips.

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63 thoughts on “Indian Street Food vs. My Digestive System

  1. Oh I am hoping that you’re now fine Lauren. I suffered myself this month from street food ( as I was living for 50 days in a hotel and couldn’t cook for myself.) Of course every single dish is delicious and pretty much affordable, but what it does to your stomach is really disgusting sometimes. I was thinking same like you. I had already like 3o days street food and I was even like ” Thank God, all is fine with me” and then I had some baked toast with tomatoes and suddenly I got Diarrhoe for about two weeks. It was not nice at all, I was thinking I must die…. not even one single medicament was working against that kind of disease.

    I am happy, I’ll get my food in hostel and college from June… so no street food anymore ( Yaaaaay <3).

    God bless you and stay strong Lauren.

    Jai mata di!

    Liv ❤

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    • Thank you so much, Liv!

      I am feeling much better now, but still my stomach is weak.
      Eee, I hope you are feeling better now too! I really could eat street food daily if it was safe, I haven’t had any since! It is so cheap and delicous, but really we have to be careful because sometimes there are really really nasty things in there!

      I hope you enjoy your hostel honey!

      Lots of love xx

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  2. Lauren, thats an horrendous experience. Your compatriots who travel through Delhi and then India have already coined a name for this. Delhi Belly.

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  3. I buy street food, but from the same selected places. Another tip – buy early in the morning, when the oil they deep fry in is not over used and flies are not there yet 🙂

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    • That’s a good tip! I must find a trustworthy place!
      I’ve only ever had street food at night so now I am thinking of all the flies eeee!

      I hope you guys are well, lots of love xx

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  4. A travellers ultra violet light stick can be very handy, i think they’re called steriopens, no good for pani puri but good for jug water, and even bottled water can be a cunning refill, you just swish the stick around in the water for a bit. Hope you are better soon.

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  5. i have an Indian friend. He told me that he is suffering from typhoid these days. I was surprised to hear that this is the 3rd time he got it, but he seems to be so ok with it. Aren’t there good hygienic places where you could buy the same food? surely there should be.

    however, i have my own experience regarding irresistible Indian food, specially Laddu. I wrote a post 2 weeks back, in my blog regarding my Indian friend and some Laddu he gave me in his visit to SL , sometimes back then. (but you will not able to read it, as it was written in my language

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    • Oh dear, I hope your friend is okay! There are some hotels that do it but we rarely go to these places.
      Laddu is very nice, there are lots during festivals!

      I hope all is well in SL!

      Take care 🙂

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  6. I am sorry you faced that. I can’t imagine. I did seem to get worms while living there and we treated again when we came home, just in case.

    I left bars of 5 and 10 rupee soap whenever and where ever. Outside my son’s school where office goers would wash their Tiffin, public restrooms, inside rickshaws. Perhaps you can do it too. If everyone uses soap there are fewer parasites. 🙂

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    • Dear Amanda,

      I have treated myself for worms several times after the fact, just in case. It’s a horrible feeling, made me feel repulsed by myself!
      I love that you did that with the soap, I am going to try and do the same!! Very good idea, India will be a less sanitary place without you here :(.

      I hope you guys are all well and settled back to US life!

      Lots of love xx

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  7. Oh no, that sounds terrible! Hope you get well soon!
    When I studied in India (11th class in Jaipur haha I was so young back then) I never usee hand sanitizer before eating and never got any diseases. However my friend got denguefever twice. 😦
    Anyway, this February I was in India to celebrate a marriage of my friend and her Indian husband (you really remind me of each other except that she talks hindi as she studied it two years in university in India to communicate with the scary in-laws) I got so sick and many other people were sick too. I wonder if its because of overuse of medicines in India? Im sure as a pharmaseutist you must be aware that Indian doctors describe alot of unnecessary medicines as patients demand them, you dont always need description even to very strong medicines and there is so many fake medicines. I feel like the overuse of antibiotics make them useless and us foreigners very vulnerable to diseases and poor treatment. Its always scary to go to a doctor in India, its like Russian roulette, some doctors are good and some are just rubbish. Hopefully you have found a good one. And I guess its really good for ylu that you have actual knowledge of medicines. 🙂

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    • Hey Sanii,

      Oh your poor friend!! That must have been awful.

      Antibiotics are really really overused in India which creates resistance, which is extremely dangerous. I have been given antibiotics many times but only take them when I feel it’s really needed. I have also been given an antianxiety medicine instead of a medicine for stomach cramps (the name is similar) I am glad I knew the difference!!!

      I hope you are well! Take care

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  8. I was eagerly waiting to read your article but didn’t expect to read one where u are in pain.. But still, its nice to hear from u.. Be 100% soon..

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  9. @ Lauren

    I hope you are alright. I thought you were sick and as it turns out you were.

    In india the thumb rule is avoid anything raw or with water. Anything which is fried is relatively safe. Haldiram is doing a great job of selling hygienic india street food and the taste is good. Ofcourse the best food is found on the streets and every city has those places which are famous for food. These street vendors use special ingredients which is their trade secret. That is why you cannot replicate it at home. Usually those places where business is brisk are more safe. That is how you distinguish the good from the bad.

    Interestingly the panic puri water was considered a delicacy in olden times but now people are more aware of the pitfalls. There is awareness about hygiene but street food has never been a source of food poisoning on a mass scale so I guess we overlook these things.

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    • Dear Friend,

      Yes, I have been sick in many many ways during the past couple of months. What will be next? Hopefully nothing (Did have some heat exhaustion yesterday).

      I really love the dhokla from Haldirams, I could eat it every day (I try to actually!). I am missing my pani puri fix so will probably go to a clean hotel soon for some!!

      I hope you are well! 😀

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  10. Wow, Lauren! I’m glad you’re feeling better now. It sounds like you had a really rough time with the street food! I’m really careful about what I eat even here in the US because I’ve gotten sick a few times. I’ll do anything to avoid vomiting. My latest incident involved cranberry jelly at Christmas time. It went bad in the fridge and I didn’t realize it because the tartness covered any off taste. I also got really sick in Morocco after drinking water out of the faucet. A stupid move, and I paid for it for at least a month. I know your pain! I hope you’re brtter, and be careful! 🙂 Susan

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    • Dear Susan,

      Oh no, that is such a shame. I love cranberry jelly too, I always put it EVERYWHERE on my Christmas dinner. If I were at your house for Christmas, I would have probably been locked in the bathroom until NYE lol. I am much more aware now so hopefully this incident will save me from something much worse!

      I hope you are well!! xx

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  11. Now a days you can get all the same street food in good hotels which is hygienic and also tasty. You can try that. Indian are immune to street food so they don’t generally fell sick. With time you also will get this immunity. 🙂

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    • Hey!
      Yess, you are right, I have had some. It’s just not the same but I guess it will have to do because I really don’t want to get sick again! Eeee!

      I hope you are well! 😀 take caree

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  12. Ahhh that is terrible! I hope that you are better now! 😦 😦 😦

    I started my street food desensitization project with the safest thing I could think of : fried bread 😀 Yes, bread pakoras outside the FRRO. My stomach felt a little weird for a couple hours but maybe it was psychosomatic. I stuck to veg stuff for the longest time, but by the end of my stay there was having chicken rolls and golgappas with everyone else. It just took a long time to acclimate.

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    • Hey Andrea,

      I am feeling much better now, thank you, but my stomach is still weak!
      Wow, that is great that you could enjoy street food in the end! I guess I didn’t do a desensitization project, I just went in all guns blazing hehe.

      I hope you are well honey xx

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  13. I think slowly you would get that immune system too , I will suggest don’t stop eating it just be more careful with the Place and you can also carry what you call that Powder to make it parasite free .

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  15. Glad you’re feeling better now Lauren. Your experience makes my food poisoning a couple weeks ago seem like nothing.
    In my 2 months in India I’ve eaten lots of street food and never got sick but was horribly sick for a week after having coffee at the mall. You never know what’s going on behind the counters but atleast street food it’s right in front of you to see if it’s clean or not.

    Allyce

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    • Thank you so much, Allyce!!
      That is true. You can see how clean the wallas hands are and the stall, but behind the counter, who knows what is happening. I am sure all sorts of horrible things happens in the kitchens of restaurants all over the world.. eeeak!

      I hope you are well dear xx

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  16. Oh Lauren…. It’s so horrible I can’t help but to laugh a little. I hope you’re feeling a lot better now! ❤

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  17. Good to hear that you are feeling better after the bout of stomach flu; best to avoid outside food for a while. Eating home made plain yogurt is a traditional remedy or if you can get refrigerated probiotic pills (5 -10 strains and atleast 20 billion strength) it may help get your digestive system back to normal. Adult Indians have developed a resistance to these bugs and they have a thicker lining of the intestines making it difficult for the bugs to seep out of the d. sustem.
    This food poisoning can attack anyone anywhere, i was very sick after eating in a New York City restaurant just a few months back.
    Take care,

    Shobha

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    • Dear Shobha,

      Thank you so much for the advice. I love eating dahi, I try to have it as much as possible! I suffered several times in the UK too, but never on this scale!
      I hope you are well!
      Take care

      Lauren xx

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  18. Hello Lauren,
    I usually round it off with chilled yoghurt(curd as we call it here) or milk. You get different flavors ( lassi, buttermilk, milk shakes and what not). It keeps calm my tummy!

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    • Dear Sriram,

      I loveee dahi, especially in the form of Amul’s rose lassi! It’s my favourite, I have been trying to have that daily to keep my stomach healthy!

      I hope you are well! 😀

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  19. Glad you are feeling better, I’m lucky in my five years living here I’ve had only slight issues here and there. I couldn’t manage if I had to adhere to those rules mentioned. They say Indians can live and survive anywhere in the world bc of the amount of bacteria their gastro intestinal tract is bombarded with throughout their lives, I was so super picky when my first child was born but after only a few short months had to give in, they are being raised in India 🙂

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    • Thank you so much, Radhika ❤
      Yes, my husband seems to have the strongest stomach imaginable, I hope your babies will grow a stomach like that too 😀

      I am really missing pani puri lol xx

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  20. @Lauren

    Have you eaten this at Haldiam’s. It is one of their famous dishes. It is called “Raj Kachori”. It is one of the most unique and delicious thing you have ever eaten

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  22. Lauren,
    I’m glad you are feeling much better!! Wow, dysentery! Seems so abstract to someone from the West.. Something I never thought of getting while in India but now I’m a little concerned 0.0 Delhi Belly is bad enough!!.. Will say a prayer for you for Good Health! GodBless

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    • Hey Jen,

      I know, the word dysentery did indeed seem abstract until it was very much actual! Please be careful with water and street food!!

      I hope you are well! God bless, lots of love xx

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  23. I am an Indian and I have faced similar problem during a tour. I ate salad that washed with tap water I guess. And then during train journey from Haridwar to Mumbai I tour bathroom 40 times minimum. And then I decided always try to have bottled water for drink and avoid jug water in restaurant and salad if washed from tap water. Better provide bottle water to restaurant guy for washing salad. My stomach is not too strong nor too weak but still I take precautions while drinking water.

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  24. I believe there is a misconception among westerners that indigestion is caused only because of bacteria in food. Indigestion can also be caused due to inability to digest certain food.

    Foods that are spicy or those which have heating characters like cashew nuts, chilly powder, pepper ( used in Pani Puri ), chicken etc can cause indigestion because they have less fibers.

    I will share my personal experience. Once few US employees had come to our company for a visit. And one of them tasted Indian cashew nuts and he found it very tasty. In a day he emptied the entire jar, which is very bad for stomach, nobody can digest so much cashew nuts. Next day he had severe stomach pain, it got cured however but he started saying that the food was unhygienic

    Im an Indian and inspite of that even today i will have bad stomach if i have Pani Puri, because there is too much of spices in it.

    Best way to cure any indigestion is to have Banana.

    Thanks, hope this helps.

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  25. I totally understand what you are saying. Water is the primary source of health issues for foreigners visiting India.

    BTW, you can try making pani puri at home. You get ready made puri and pani puri masala(you just need to add water). You just have to make the stuffing and the recipe is very easy. I know nothing would beat the street food taste but you can give it a try. We recently tried it at home and it is decent.

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