Every culture has some foods that others will deem to be strange, even revolting. But human beings are omnivores – which means that we can eat anything and everything – and we do!
By Jeremy Ryland
I have just returned from a trip to Sri Lanka and Malaysia. They say that “travel broadens the mind”. Apart from seeing new places, you meet new people, experience different cultures and try new foods. Sri Lanka is famous for its curries based around rice, coconut and spices – aromatic, colourful and full of flavour. Served with hoppers and rice & coconut crepe - sambol and dahl. A fabulous experience.
Food and travel are intimately related. When we eat a new dish, we “travel” to its origins. And when we travel, we can try new dishes that may often be unfamiliar and strange.
Human beings are omnivores, which means that we can eat anything and everything, and our digestive systems are adapted to cope with foods of both animal and vegetable origin. Whilst we may get sick when eating foreign foods, this is mainly about immunity: the Balinese do not get “Bali Belly”. So one should take care with water and un-cooked foods, but that does not mean we can’t eat it or be adventurous.
Food is all about culture, and different cultures have their own likes and dislikes.
"Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head and say, 'Where's your haggis?' and the Fijian would sigh and say, 'Where's your missionary?" Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), 1835-1910
Munster, for example, is a cheese that has a strong smell that enchants people from Alsace and anyone else who has grown up with it – but most others find it disgusting… And most westerners would fine steaming hot monkey brains a challenge. But neither dish poses any danger to our health.
People go hungry around the world, even though there are edible vegetables, grains and other things close by, because they are not part of their diet and food culture.
The reason we do not eat everything that is available to us is that our culture often prevents us from trying unfamiliar things. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese authorities banned the sale of dog in restaurants to ensure that “Western sensibilities” were not challenged and that foreigners felt welcome and safe! But adventurous gastronomes could still choose from a dazzling array of culinary delights in Beijing – from seal’s penis and spiders to deep-fried scorpions and brains in hot pot.
At home, we generally serve our guests dishes they recognise in order to please them. We are social animals; and if we wish to prepare and share a meal that our friends will enjoy, we serve a dish they are familiar with, such as a leg of lamb with green beans and new potatoes!
Indeed, some simple dishes, such as rabbit, can cause consternation, although it was once very popular. Others like horse meat and sheep's eyeballs, which can make us sick at the thought! Even butter is foreign to people used to olive oil.
The “omnivores paradox” is that we are happy to seek out and sample new foods – neophilia. But new, strange foods could be dangerous and should be eaten with caution – neophobia. We have cultural, social, religious and historical means of eating safely and there is always some conflict between neophilia and neophobia.
Every culture has some foods that others will deem to be strange, even revolting. They say that the person who tried the first oyster was very brave! Here are just a few “strange foods” to think about.
Spotted dick (Britain):
A traditional "nursery food" pudding made with sweet suet pastry rolled and filled (spotted) with raisins, currants and sugar. Sometimes known as "spotted dog" when the fruit is mixed into the pastry.
Black pudding (Britain, Ireland):
Try some congealed pig blood that's been cooked with oatmeal and formed into a small disk. It doesn't taste like blood; more like a thick, rich, beef pound cake.
A seasonal dish from northern Sweden, this rotten fermented herring has an extremely pungent smell. Even the Swedes rarely open a can of it indoors.
Jellied eels (England):
When in London, grab a jellied eel from a street vendor. It tastes like pickled herring with a note of vinegar, salt and pimiento, all packed in gelatin.
The famous dish made from sheep's innards mixed with oatmeal and boiled in the sheep's stomach. Safety-minded haggis chefs suggest poking holes in the stomach so it doesn't explode when the oatmeal expands.
Despite precise preparation by specially qualified chefs, this toxic puffer fish delicacy kills about 300 people per year. The emperor of Japan isn't allowed to eat fugu lest it be his last meal. For all that work and risk, it still tastes like fish, but you have to respect the chefs: to prove their skills, they must cook and eat their own fugu.
Durian (Southeast Asia):
Common in Sri Lanka and Singapore, this football-size fruit with spines poses one of the weirdest contrasts in the culinary world. It smells like unwashed socks but tastes sweet. It can now be enjoyed as ice cream, a fruit juice as well as fresh.
Most visitors to Australia cannot understand why we like Vegemite - "yeast extract" - a brewery by-product that looks like chocolate spread, smells like B vitamins and tastes overwhelmingly salty.
Some foods have even been banned… for example, we don’t think twice about eating mouldy milk in the form of blue cheese etc. – but casu marzu is illegal…
Casu marzu (Sardinia):
It's illegal in Italy to sell wormy cheese, but locals still make their own by leaving a round of sheep's milk cheese out for a couple of months so flies can lay eggs on it. The larvae produce enzymes that break down the cheese into a tangy goo, which Sardinians love and enjoy, larvae and all.
Foie gras (Europe):
Literally means "fatty liver," it is a traditional French delicacy made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened, in a process known as “gavage”. It has been banned in many countries due to the gavage force feeding production methods which are considered cruel and inhumane. Whilst there are now some more humane production methods, they do not conform to the French legal definition.
It is another controversial gastronomic treat eaten by the aristocracy of France. Once captured, this small bird is blinded and force-fed until it is about four times its normal size. Traditionally, it is drowned in brandy, roasted and eaten whole. Whilst the bird is now a protected species in France and its capture is illegal, it is estimated that hunters still kill about 50,000 birds per year.
So remember, one man’s meat is another man’s poison and what we consider to be “food” is largely about our upbringing, culture and perceptions – and to experience different cultures we need to travel. As Mark Twain said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”