Food Culture Shock: From Tarantulas In Cambodia To Pork With Dried Pig’s Blood In Ireland
Picture: Chicken’s feet anyone?
I’ve eaten some pretty strange stuff in my time travelling abroad.
Stuff that would make most people a little squeamish.
But you’ve seen the headline.
You have been sucked in.
And there’s no turning back now.
We’re going to go on a cultural adventure around the world to explore some of the strangest, quirkiest, and fascinating culinary idiosyncrasies.
It’s Raining Crispy Cats And Dogs
If I had one quote to describe where we’re going with this, it would be this local Chinese proverb:
“Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.”
Having lived for 6 months in Asia, including one trip to China, I saw for myself the wide range of taste buds there, including dogs and cats.
Did you know at least 10 million dogs and 4 million cats are eaten in China every year?
Of all the local delicacies I’ve eaten, I just couldn’t bring myself to try these.
But what is interesting here is that if you are from Ireland, where I’m from, you’ll look at this and I’m sure you’re saying to yourself how utterly disgusting, cruel and inhumane this is.
Picture: The humble Irish breakfast.
But if you were from the Middle East, a predominantly Islamic region, then you would not be too impressed at how much pork local Irish people eat (Note: Pork is forbidden to be eaten by Muslims for religious reasons, as it is seen as a dirty animal and is specifically mentioned as forbidden in the Quran).
One particularly egregious example of this is a local Irish dish made up of a fried mixture of pork meat with dried pig’s blood. Otherwise known as black and white pudding, which is a crucial component of the famous full Irish breakfast.
By the way, I love pork, but the point I’m trying to draw out here is culture is not just about “what they do over there.”
Maybe if you look in the mirror, you might appreciate that it is just as much about “what we do here” especially if someone is visiting your country from abroad.
The Itsy Bitsy Spider Climbed Down The Oesophagus
Anyone with arachnophobia should probably look away now.
Because it’s time to move from 4 legged felines and canines, to eight-legged arthropods.
Or more precisely, tarantulas.
Picture: John eating fried tarantula in Siem Reap in Cambodia.
In Cambodian culture, spiders are a regional delicacy especially in the town of Skuon which has so many spiders, the locals eventually decided to start eating them by deep frying them and serving them with touch of local herbs and rice.
I actually gave these a try during our recent trip to Siem Reap, and it wasn’t too bad at all. Once you got through the crunchy outer shell, you were met with meat which tasted a little like shredded chicken.
Picture: John getting ready to polish off some scorpion.
Less inviting was the fried scorpion I tasted, which has an outer shell like an armoured tank and which tasted much less appetizing.
So the lesson here is if you’re going for something adventurous for your next dinner party, stick with the fried tarantulas, unless you’re trying to poison your poor mother-in-law.
Sheep’s Head Anyone?
I have not actually experienced this one, but it’s certainly one that is on my bucket list.
Basically in Turkmenistan, if you’re lucky, you may be treated to some exotic local delicacies.
And one of the most prestigious of them is sheep’s head which is often served if you are a guest of honour.
It’s a big deal, so refusing it is not an option, otherwise you’re going to seriously offend your local hosts.
I’m not an expert in what part of the sheep’s head is the best, but I’d suspect the brain is the most tender.
I leave that to you to decide for your next trip to Turkmenistan.
Where Food Is More Dangerous Than Sex
“Britain is the only country in the world where the food is more dangerous than the sex.”
The UK is home to the most dangerous food in the world, if you are to believe this quote from American comedian Jackie Mason.
What do you think?
Or to turn it around, perhaps the Brits amongst us might argue that the sex is most definitely more dangerous than the local cuisine?
Either way, I feel this quote is a little harsh on our neighbours, who have some delicious cuisine and hardly a herb-crusted tarantula or fried scorpion in sight.
Supersize Me Baby One More Time
“Like Hollywood movies, MTV and blue jeans, fast food has become one of America’s major cultural exports.”
This quote by American journalist and author Eric Schlosser pretty much hits the nail on the head when it comes to one of America’s most famous food culture exports.
I will never forget my first time going to the US, ordering a medium soft drink from the local fast food joint, and receiving what looked like half an oil tanker worth of cola.
I was 12 years old, and my parents were in for a rude awakening.
There was so much sugar in it, I don’t think I slept for 3 days straight.
All joking aside, there’s a lot more to US food culture than fast food, but it does go to show how much global cultural trends have been embedded into our daily lives.
So anybody that says culture is not important just needs to think of the last time they ordered fast-food, it’s probably more recent than most people think.
Balancing The Yin and Yang Of Global Cuisine
So what was the one country that really surprised me, in terms of how delicious the local cuisine was?
Picture: A typical market in Vietnam, full of spices. This one was in Hanoi.
Like so many aspects of life here, there are regional differences, with for example the North having more salty food, Central Vietnam being more spicy, and Southern Vietnam having more of a sweet taste.
As for the origins of Vietnamese cuisine, many people point to the influence of Chinese and Thai culinary traditions.
But what I was intrigued by was that one of the defining pillars of the local cuisine is its balance of the five Asian elements; spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet.
There is a also a deep reverence for the principle of yin and yang when preparing dishes, to provide contrasts in spiciness and sweetness for example.
Just take a look at the local village market (a must-do when visiting here) and you’ll immediately see why, where you will be immersed in the vast array of colour of diverse spices throughout.
Just wander through Vietnam’s street food stalls which are rated by many to be one of the best in the world.
All of this serves to underline why Vietnam is considered one of the most delicious, finely balanced cuisines of all of Asia.
Not only that, it is considered by many people to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world!
While The World Becomes Flatter, Our Food Becomes Spicier
While we’re having some fun exploring different dishes around the world, I think there’s a more important theme here to explore.
“The World Is Flat” is a book released by Thomas Friedman 2006 which talks about how the world is becoming flatter and more interconnected than ever before.
It’s a fascinating book if you ever do get the time to read it, but if the world economy is becoming flatter than ever before, what is happening to the world’s cuisine?
As I see it there is an explosion of different tastes and spices which have been welcomed into our world and finally made their way into our local supermarkets.
When I say “finally”, I’m referring to the fact that ancient spices have been traded around the world for centuries, as far back as 3,000 BC in India, but it is really only in the last 40 years that they have made their way into our kitchens.
If I look back to my own experiences growing up in Ireland, 30 years ago Italian pizzas and Indian curries were only beginning to become an important element of our daily cuisine. Think of how many times in the last year you had Japanese sushi or Thai curry for example, and you’ll quickly appreciate that the influence of other cultures in our cuisine has been amplified, in a very positive way, in the last few decades.
What Food Tells Us About Culture
“The Germans in the stable, the Czech in the kitchen and the French in bed.”
First off, I want to be clear that we here in CultureMee don’t believe in stereotypes.
But this Czech proverb was too good to resist!
The Czechs in this case might say they have the best food, but try telling this to the French or the Germans, who will argue their local cuisine is the best in the world.
The bottom line is that food is a huge part of the local identity of wherever you go to.
Think about your own experiences around food, and what it means to you.
Think of the dishes you used to have at your grandparents when you were younger, and you’ll instantly remember some of those delicious local meals that brought a smile to your face.
So why not indulge yourself in the other cuisines of the world.
Who knows, many of them might bring a smile to your face and leave their own lasting impression on you.
They certainly did for me.
A Final Note: Give The Local Cuisine A Try
Almost without exception, I always tell people to send your palate on an adventure and give the local cuisine a try.
My best piece of advice?
Whether you’re looking to sample the local cuisine or see the hustle and bustle of the local culture in action, I always suggest visiting the local market.
If you don’t make it that far, then simply ask the local waiter or waitress what local dish they’d recommend, and aim to try at least one local dish in every country you visit.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Thank you for reading.
Note: If you want to understand more about dining etiquette and food culture from around the world, then download our free CultureMee app at www.CultureMee.com or in your local Apple or Google Play store.
To see John eating a tarantula, see this CultureMee video:
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