Don’t Eat That !
Food and the eating of it is something that we as humans all need to do. Or at least something we must do if we wish to remain healthy and continue to exist in a mortal form. The Thais are well aware of this fact and celebrate edible matter by eating everything imaginable. In fact, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark if you said that eating was one of Thailand’s great national pastimes – right after that of seeking sanuk. As proof, all one need do is take notice of what’s on offer whilst out and about. In general, the Thais don’t seem to care if their food (in its former incarnation) scuttled, crawled, slithered, hopped, swam or flew. It matters not if what they masticate was dug from the ground, dangled from a tree, plucked from a shrub, pulled from the water or found under a rock. All that matters is how good it can be made to taste. And in that regard, the Thais have been more than successful. Well, okay, there are a few exceptions, such as giant water bugs, pork blood jelly and ant eggs to name but a few. That being said, Thai cuisine and Thai street food can easily be integrated into the average Westerner’s diet. Sadly, whether one is a temporary traveler or a full time expatriate, too many foreigners turn their nose up at the edible bounty that the Land of Smiles has to offer. One of the primary reasons for this, other than the myth that all of Thailand’s fare is overly spicy; is that foreign interlopers suffer from the phobia of contracting a food borne illness.
Those of us who have not been medically trained typically refer to the above mentioned intestinal eruptions by uncivilized nicknames like, ‘The Runs’, Montezuma’s Revenge’, or if it happens to be the result of too much spice ‘Flaming Liquid’. Regardless of the colorful slang name used to describe our gastro-intestinal woes, they all fall under the very broad umbrella of “Food Poisoning”. Food poisoning is caused by the consumption of contaminated food. The contaminants are infectious organisms comprised of bacteria, viruses, parasites or other toxins. Each of which can sully the food at any point during the preparation, cooking, serving and eating process. Food poisoning, as you may already know, is the colloquial and less scientific term for what a physician might call:
Staphylococcus Aureus – which often lurks in meats, prepared salads, cream sauces, and cream based pastry fillings. It’s also the fastest acting form of food poisoning. It can hit you from as little as 1 to 6 hours after consumption. Victims will experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps and a mild fever; the duration of which can be anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.
Hepatitis A – This is usually the result of eating contaminated shellfish. Its symptoms often won’t show up for approximately 15 to 50 days (the average being 28) after consumption. Symptoms for this food borne malady include diarrhea, dark urine, jaundice, nausea, headaches, abdominal pain and a loss of appetite. The duration of Hepatitis A varies from 2 weeks to a whopping 3 months!
Salmonella – whose ill effects will show up some 12 to 72 hours after it enters your system is caused by bacteria capable of contaminating meat, poultry, produce, fruit, and dairy products. Its symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. It can take between 4 to 7 days for it to run its course.
Shigella – is a direct result of the bacteria by that name coming into contact with a food product – usually as a result of the food handler not properly washing his or her hands. The symptoms of abdominal cramps, diarrhea and fever normally begin to appear roughly 12 to 24 hours after exposure. If infected, one can expect Shigella to stick around for 2 to 7 days.
Escherichia Coli or E-Coli – is a gastro intestinal nuisance that can be contracted by the consumption of undercooked food, unpasteurized or raw milk and juice, soft cheeses that are made from raw milk, and raw fruits or vegetables that have not been properly washed. The incubation period is between 1 to 10 days. You’ll know you have it when you begin to experience severe diarrhea which is often bloody, severe abdominal cramps, and vomiting, all of which are accompanied by little or no fever. The unpleasantness of E-Coli can last approximately 5 to 10 days.
Sorry It’s Unavoidable
Statistics show that some 30 to 70 per cent of all travelers (depending on their destination) will be subjected to food poisoning at some point during their journey. No matter where or what one eats, it’s impossible to avoid contracting food poisoning in one form or another, especially when eating out or travelling. That is of course, unless everything you consume remains in your complete control from the time it was harvested until to the moment it enters your mouth. My personal history here in Thailand tells me that I can expect to suffer the adverse effects of food poisoning about once or twice a year. In nearly every instance it was of the Salmonella or Shigella variety as I made a full recovery within 24 hours. However, on the two occasions in 14 years when I experienced a severe and prolonged bout of food poisoning, both cases could be traced back to a local high priced, posh hotel restaurant. What this means is that food poisoning can strike anywhere. It matters not if you subsist on a diet prepared only in five-star restaurants by the world’s finest chefs or if you routinely feed yourself from the most forlorn of street food stalls. What’s important is the degree of hygiene that is practiced in the kitchen of the eatery in which you eat.
Boil It, Cook It, & Peel It
Sadly, food poisoning is unavoidable when one is entirely at the mercy of restaurants and street food vendors. There are however, a few things that can be done to mitigate the chances of leaving with an unwanted hitchhiker in your gastrointestinal tract only to erupt hours or days later in the form of a very unpleasant food borne illness. As a rule of thumb, most experts recommend that you, “Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.” What that means is:
This is a no brainer, but stay away from any form of liquid refreshment, such as iced tea, lemonade or iced coffee that has not been made from water boiled for a minimum of three minutes or from bottled water. The same rule applies to baby formula and brushing your teeth.
Skip the buffets where the pre-prepared foods have been residing for an unknown amount of time. Instead, always order hot foods that have been thoroughly cooked. Experts further suggest that raw foods like sushi, cold cuts, boiled eggs, and dairy products that have not been properly refrigerated also be avoided.
When it comes to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, stick to the ones you peel yourself. Pre-peeled and pre-sliced fruits and vegetables present a greater risk for food poisoning because they may not have been washed properly or sliced under hygienic conditions. Any bacteria lingering on the skin or rind can be transferred onto the edible flesh within via the blade of the knife as it cuts through the tainted skin. Textured fruits that are not peeled, like strawberries should be thoroughly washed prior to consumption because their dimples and crannies provide a safe harbor in which bacteria can linger.
It’s also wise to inspect the premises of any unfamiliar establishment in which you are planning to eat. If you can’t see into the kitchen, check out the tablecloths, floors, condition of the menus, as well as the appearance of the staff to determine if its hygiene standards are up to par.
Finally, don’t infect yourself. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating any food, especially when travelling abroad.
In the event that your stomach does start to feel a bit queasy or a little off, or worse, if you suddenly experience the urgent need to find the nearest toilet, I strongly advise that you memorize the following Thai phrase: Hông nám tee-nai? Mee mai gaan thaawng deern! Which means, “Where is the toilet? I have diarrhea!”