Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Weird Food - or cultural biases in food appreciation
Guinea Pig? Yes. Tarantula? No.
What's for dinner? The answer can vary wildly around the world. When traveling, keeping an open mind can be difficult when presented with options far removed from those I grew up with. I have eaten a Guinea pig in Peru but couldn't wrap my head around eating a tarantula in Cambodia.
As a third and fourth generation American of eastern European descent growing up in white-bread America, foreign food was chow mein or pizza. The cultural biases in the food of my own family, mostly eaten during special occasions, included bagels, lox, kugel, and pickled herring.
As a teenager, traveling to Tijuana and West Berlin exposed me to the idea that "normal" varied from place to place. College, with students from all over the world, visits to my older sister living in Boston, and travels in Europe exposed me to even more options. But it was only when I started traveling to third world countries and developing nations that I started to question my perceptions of what food really was.
Chewy steamed buns and the bland rice porridge eaten salty or sweet in China are much better than their descriptions would lead you to believe. It took no imagination to understand that these were food. If you ever have a chance to try them, they're well worth the taste.
In China, however, there were other times when I was eating what was put in front of me without knowing what it was. I was dependent on groups I was with to order and I had no way to communicate with them. I could only hope those puppies I had seen being sold in the markets as food weren't on the menu.
There was one bus stop market in Laos where I declined having meat in my bowl of soup because it was being sold right next to the roasted rats on a stick. If I hadn't just seen rats scurrying through the disgusting bathroom, it might not have bothered me quite as much. Elsewhere, I would choose chicken in my soup.
Here in the US, we commonly eat beef, chicken, fish, and pork. Less commonly goat, deer, sheep. I've also eaten curdled cows blood, eel, and alligator. In France, rabbit, snail, and horse aren't unusual. In Australia, kangaroo, emu, and crocodile. What's the difference making the jump to dog, cat, and rat? I certainly saw dogs for sale in the markets of China and trucks filled with dogs on their way from Laos to Vietnam. I've never seen cat for sale as food but that doesn't mean they weren't there.
Here are a sampling of the foods I've either eaten or seen in my travels:
Cultural variations and political situations can also affect the foods people eat. The witchetty grub is valued as food by aboriginal peoples of central Australia. War time difficulties in obtaining traditional foods can lead to the acceptance and taste for alternative foods. This is true of horse meat which gained acceptance during the Siege of Paris from 1870 to 1871 and for tarantulas, now eaten in Cambodia since the policies of the Khmer Rouge caused mass starvation in the mid 1970's. In the United States, the "cockroach of the ocean," better known as lobster, was once only served to the help. It's only been since the 1950's that it has been considered a delicacy.
It's not just sources of protein that vary from place to place. Fruit varies worldwide though varieties once unheard of in our large chain supermarkets are now readily available: star fruit, ugli fruit, dragon fruit.
Cultural variation comes into play with varieties like durian. Native to southeast Asia, it's banned in many places such as hotels, airports, and other public locations due to its odor, often compared to raw sewage. Personally, while I don't find the flavor of durian offensive, I don't particularly like it either. Plus, I think jackfruit, another fruit from southeast Asia smells worse than durian.
How people eat also varies from place to place. These variations can be as subtle as whether or not to switch fork and knife hands when cutting a steak, or whether to use fork and knife at all. In the United States, many of us learn to switch hands. As a child, I thought that inefficient so often didn't. It was during my first visit to Europe in 1979 that I realized that most people there don't switch hands.
Further travels continued to educate me. I learned how to use chopsticks from a Chinese friend who grew up in Hong Kong. When I went to China, many were surprised that I knew how to use them. Later, another friend of Chinese heritage showed me how he had been taught and while similar, it was a different way of holding the chopsticks.
In Thailand, I was surprised to find a fork and spoon at my plate. There, it's customary to eat with a tablespoon and use the fork to push the food onto the spoon. The fork is never used to put food into your mouth. It was King Rama IV who, wanting to modernize Siam in the mid-1800's, adopted the western utensils, albeit in a slightly unconventional way.
Chopsticks are also used in Thailand but only in the same situations we might use them here in the United States. Primarily at Chinese and Japanese restaurants and also sometimes when eating noodles or eating rice from an individual bowl. Basically, using whatever utensils are provided are what's most appropriate.
In other places, people eat with their hands. This is not just for burgers and pizza, but also for messy stir-fries and curries. Grab some rice or tear off a small piece of bread and then scoop some curry or whatever else is being eaten with that rice or bread. Use your thumb to push food into your mouth. It's a messy way to eat so some restaurants have sinks in the dining room. In cultures where only hands are used, it's appropriate to use only one's right hand to eat. The right hand is considered clean. The left hand, not so much and use of your left hand might garner looks of disgust.
Food varies from place to place. Sometimes it's different preparations of the same food we're used to. Sometimes it's different foods completely. Traveling (and sometimes just seeking local ethnic restaurants) provides an opportunity to get to know something of other cultures.
Avoid restaurants where food from endangered or threatened species is served. This is true for anything from whale meat in Norway, to bird's nest soup in China, to many different kinds of bush meat in Africa. In many cases, people have no idea their dietary habits contribute to threatened species status. Those who can educate and provide alternatives without criticism may do so. The rest of us should do what we can to avoid contributing to the problem without offending or passing judgment.
If you travel enough, you get a new perspective on all parts of life and how cultural variation has an affect on how people eat. With few exceptions, one way isn't better or worse than another, it's just different.
Last updated, February 26, 2014.
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