Guidelines for Safe Eating in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Street food is okay; you can drink the water in restaurants; salads are safe; and you can even ask for ice in your Coke. There. I’ve said it. But of course there’s more, and expanded explanations are warranted.

So here they are, rules for eating all that Oaxacan gastronomy has to offer, without undue concern about getting sick. Of course it’s still not the same as eating back home, so being a little more vigilant is wise. Remember that, in some respects, Mexico is still developing, and health and sanitation standards and enforcement might differ a bit from those to which you are accustomed.

This is not medical advice, but merely an opinion designed to assist vacationers to the state capital, which may or may not apply on the coast. They are tips that should make vacationing in Oaxaca a richer culinary experience than it would otherwise be, although perhaps adding a little paranoia.

Restaurants in Oaxaca use bottled water, whether serving it plain or as a fresh fruit juice mix (agua del día). The same holds true for making ice cubes, though many establishments buy their ice from a factory. Restaurants prepare produce using a special disinfectant or a bleach solution. Of course things do slip through the cracks and staff can be sloppy…anywhere. Just because you dine in a high end restaurant does not guarantee that staff and management are any better trained or careful than in a small downtown or rural eatery.

If tempted to eat on the street or in a market, watch for the server’s level of cleanliness and food handling. Seeing a 19 liter blue plastic bottle alongside the eatery means it’s fairly safe to assume bottled water is being used. But since a bottle of disinfectant will not be on display, to play it safe order your quesadillas without greens.

With the popular corn on the cob or kernels in a cup sold on many downtown Oaxaca street corners, if the water is boiling or at least steaming, it’s probably safe….but chew the kernels well, since they are not the easiest food to digest even when stomachs are not under stress from unusually rich and spicy foods, or over indulging which tends to be the norm while vacationing in Oaxaca.

If in a marketplace towards the end of the day and tempted to have a meat plate, note that the beef or pork has probably not been under refrigeration. If chicken, again remember the time of day, determine whether it will have to be reheated, and in any event watch to ensure the poultry is well grilled, through to the bone. Does the accompanying salsa contain peppers that have not been cooked?

Rather than buy a cup of peeled mango or grapefruit on the street, peel and cut the fruit yourself. One never knows whether the vendor’s knife has been cleaned with purified water, how long the fruit has been exposed, or whether the preparer’s hands have gone over the peel and then onto the naked fruit. Why trust preparation methods if you don’t have to? You controlling the cutting and peeling provides more assurance. Buy a knife and use it to peel fruit, even if there’s a small sticker noting American produce; others have previously handled it.

Anything with a wrapper, such as ice cream or candy, should be safe, even if purchased from a street vendor.

Locals are also careful since they are not exempt from gastrointestinal problems. So if there are a number of what would appear to be middle-class Oaxacans at an eatery, it’s probably fine to assume that it has a reputation for serving safe fare. Oaxacans, both urbanites and rural folk, flock to specific road-side haunts around the city, as well as to particular market day restaurants.

Of course the foregoing does not guarantee that you won’t get a bug. So, at the first sign of stomach problems, don’t wait to see if they dissipate. The vacation doesn’t have to be a wipe-out. Ask your accommodations host for a recommendation as to the medication of choice, or better yet the name of a doctor accustomed to treating such ailments. Alternatively, some pharmacies offer free medical consultations and the staff doctor can write an antibiotics prescription for you. However, a visit with a recommended practitioner certainly won’t break the bank.

Enjoy visiting Oaxaca, and indulge, indulge, indulge.

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