Delhi Belly, Goa Guts, Mumbai Misery… Let’s face it, if you’re travelling around India, or even if you’re a local returning there from time abroad, it’s fairly inevitable that you will come down with some kind of stomach bug after a few days of consuming the local cuisine.
Having visited the area 5 times in the last 2 years, and only managing to totally evade some kind of food poisoning on just one of these trips, I’m not exactly an advertisement for rude health. In fact, I had never imagined being able to say I had something in common with several notable medieval monarchs before I came down with amoebic dysentery after my second trip to Kashmir. Needless to say, I survived it, as well several bouts of run-of-the-mill food poisoning.
The silver lining is that I am now always fully prepared for all possible gastrointestinal eventualities, and I can mostly identify and therefore avoid high-risk foods. I’ve also had all the vaccinations I can get to protect against food-borne diseases – which, while absolutely necessary, does not include a vaccination for common stomach bugs. So, after personally experiencing a plethora of Delhi Belly varieties, let me share with you the best possible – although not entirely fool-proof – ways to avoid them!
1. Go Vegetarian
This may seem like a strong one to start with, especially as the Indian subcontinent is renowned for its richly spiced and flavoursome meat-based dishes. However, of the times I have been able to identify exactly what made me ill, it has always been meat, to the extent that I have almost completely cut it out of my diet even when in the UAE or the UK. Everywhere I have visited India and Kashmir has extensive vegetarian options due to many followers of the local religions choosing not to eat meat. So try opting for the equally delicious paneer, potato, lentil, or kidney bean dishes instead of chicken or lamb. If you’re really craving a meat fix, choose a restaurant carefully. From my experience, larger restaurants and cafes aimed to cater more for tourists than for locals are a much safer bet than a stall in the street.
Pictured above: cabbage salad with aloo paratha, masala dosa, and vegetable biryani – three delicious meat-free dishes!
2. Use Bottled Water for Everything
And I mean absolutely EVERYTHING. Brushing your teeth? Wet the brush with bottled water and rinse with bottled water. Making tea at home? Use bottled water. Going for chai or coffee? Find somewhere that makes it with bottled water. Ordering water at a restaurant? Make sure the bottle is opened in front of you or is delivered to the table sealed. Ice in your drink? Don’t even think about it. Grab a drink from the fridge or consume it at room temperature. I’m fairly certain I caught dysentery from contaminated water used to make tea at a roadside café in Kashmir. It may have been highly effective for weight loss, but 10/10 would not recommend. DO NOT underestimate the importance of bottled water!
3. Say No to Street Food
You’ve gone for a sunset walk around the market in town and get drawn towards the savoury smells innocently wafting down the street from an unknown yet deliciously inviting source. You follow your nose towards an eager street vendor hovering over steaming pans of vibrant curries. You’re offered samples and discounts, and your taste buds cry out in longing and desperation. You reach into your pocket and begin counting out rupees. Then you put them back in your pocket and walk away. Fast. Plug your nose if you have to. Resist the temptation with all your might. Resist. RESIST. Deep breaths. Well done. You have just successfully avoided food poisoning! Now, I know there may be people reading this who have indulged in Indian street food with no explosive consequences, but those lucky folks are few and far between. Most locals even avoid street food – which leaves me wondering, how do those vendors ever make any money? My guess is that they have a deal with the local Immodium dispensary.
On the left: a home-cooked Goan feast; on the right: Kashmiri delicacies including the decadent lamb meatball dish, “gushtaba” – one of the reasons why I’m not a strict vegetarian!
4. Try Some Home Cooking
Preparing a meal yourself, if you have the facilities to do so on your trip, is probably the best way to eat safely while travelling. Although it will consume some of your time, it is reassuring to know exactly what went into the food that you’re eating, and that it was prepared hygienically. If you have any friends or family in the place where you’re staying, from my experience it’s also a safe bet to eat with them. While at the retreat where I stayed the first time I went to Kashmir, I was lucky enough to be invited to a local’s house to dine on the traditional Kashmiri “wazwan”, a banquet style meal with multiple courses and dishes which is usually reserved for the most honoured guests or for very special occasions. I also ate home cooked food at my fiancé’s family home. I was slightly apprehensive on both occasions but didn’t even suffer a smidgen of stomach upset. So if you can, hit up the local grocery store, and if you don’t have the facilities to prepare a meal, go and make some local friends!
Above: The preparation and end result of my Kashmiri wazwan experience
5. Be Prepared
Ultimately, you can follow this advice to a tee, but sometimes it’s just not possible to totally avoid the dreaded Delhi Belly, especially on longer stays. You never know the cleanliness of the water used to cook rice or wash vegetables, or if the knife used to slice meat was cleaned before it was used to dice potatoes. From my experience, it’s better to arrive fully prepared so that if the worst does happen, you can alleviate any symptoms and keep yourself hydrated. This is what I usually bring with me on my trips:
- Rennies: Treats indigestion and the mint in it settles the stomach
- Rehydration salts: Any brand will do, you’ll just need to get some nutrients and hydration into your system!
- Immodium: Needs no explanation…
- Buscopan (or equivalent): Relieves those nasty abdominal cramps and spasms
- Paracetamol: A good all-rounder!
Add to that list copious amounts of BOTTLED water (hydrate or “die-drate”) and you’re good to go!
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to avoid Delhi Belly completely if you’ve got a sensitive stomach already and you’re spending longer than a few days travelling around that part of the world. Don’t even think you can rely on fast food outlets for hygiene instead of local restaurants either – one of my worst experiences and one which has put me off chicken for life was thanks to a very bad decision to eat from KFC in Delhi Airport. The best thing is to be prepared and to be cautious, although not overly cautious to the extent that your holiday is ruined by you not feeling safe to eat anywhere. At the end of the day, while it is certainly unpleasant to be ill, if you’re otherwise in good health you’re not going to die from a stomach bug in this day and age. Take it from the pardesi girl who picked up the disease responsible for the deaths of Sir Francis Drake and King John of England and lived to tell the tale!