We say we like to travel, but really this ‘travelling’ we speak of is poorly disguised eating. The Mekong River fades, but the smell of phở and fish sauce remains. The temples of Bali begin to blur, but peanut satay and nasi goreng endure.
And somewhere in between the banal braais of South Africa via the mamaks of Kuala Lampur and the dai pai dongs of Hong Kong, I learned to eat — to receive with a hearty smile something unrecognisable in smell, taste, and texture.
The best food and travel writers have taught us that food is inextricably linked with culture. If you’re willing to try a prized local meal, however unfamiliar, it shows a readiness to learn, understand, and even love a large part of whoever is sharing their table with you.
But we’ve chewed enough fat, let’s get down to business. Here are my six tips to make you a fearless foodie:
1. Avoid “Ugh,” “Eww,” and “That’s disgusting.” (Also, avoid facial expressions that convey the same sentiment.)
Imagine a new friend sat down to your grandmother’s meatballs and said that they tasted like your grandfather’s meatballs? You’d punch them in the ear (we all know you were aiming for their ungrateful mouth, but you’ve never hit anyone before). So be nice, make up a food allergy, or chew that thing like your own granny poured her love and ancestry into it. Because that is exactly what’s in front of you. Someone’s granny is at stake here. Generations of grannies are at stake here. So step up, and get that delicious history down you.
2. Get your drink on.
Ordinarily, I don’t encourage drinking.
But it really does help. A gulp here and there can boost confidence levels, hide a poorly timed retch, and make you forget what you are chewing. Your drink of choice should be the local pairing. Get that wrong and the granny might punch you, but in many places the local liquor will be served by the lady herself. So whether it’s toddy in Sri Lanka or sake in Japan, bottoms up to keep it down.
3. Start slowly (you’re never too big to fall).
On my trails I have tried some pretty unique dishes: barbecued goat, grilled toad, steamed silk worm larvae, ox blood soup, and one balut — an overly incubated duck egg. (Tip two may have had a fair amount to do with that last one). I began to get complacent, arrogant even. I moved to Hong Kong and my new friends suggested ordering fèng zhuǎ (鳯爪), which optimistically translates to “Phoenix Claws.” I was smug. Chicken feet, pah, you mean lunch. Bring it on.
Thai-style chicken feet is a dish served cold (and would make for excellent revenge). It’s wobbly, translucent, full of stringy tendons and small bones, and pimpled with the gooseflesh found on the birds of the same name. When people say “I’d rather eat my own feet”, this is what they mean — and they wouldn’t. Swallowing two, hiding a third in my shirt, and not vomiting on the table is one of my greatest achievements. Point is: stay vigilant. You aren’t news until you’ve eaten a talon without blinking.
4. Try harder. Be better.
Before I left my home country, I was a bastardly fussy eater. I couldn’t take spice, didn’t appreciate anything fermented (unless it came in a bottle and was at least 12% proof), thought that bean sprouts were a threat to our national security (or an accident of human history), and that tofu was something that only Phoebe from Friends ate.
Needless to say, upon first inserting a piece of kimchi in my mouth, I wasn’t convinced. But a good friend simply said, “Try one piece every day, and see what happens.” What happened was that I got used to it, and gradually couldn’t get enough of it. This previously unfamiliar taste — that I started to crave — opened doors to a lot of other fermented foods (rice wine being one of the party starters). Find an entry point to a cuisine, even if you have to start slow, and persevere. When it comes to skydiving, once may be enough, but with food, try everything twice.
5. Remember, it’s all relative.
Whether you believe in cultural relativity or not, an afternoon with the Discovery Channel will introduce you to the idea that one man’s cow is another man’s god is another man’s dog is another man’s dinner.
You think barbecued frog and a bit of duck’s tongue is gross? Okay Britain, we won’t talk about blood pudding, Haggis, and the absolute abortion that is a Full English Breakfast (I mean, I love it, but I’ll eat anything). And lest we think America is exempt, I’ve got three words for ya’ll: deep fried butter. Deep. Fried. Butter. I went to hell just for thinking about eating that.
Cheese is my church, with stinky blue, camembert and brie as my holy trinity, but think about how dairy products are procured and produced. For a good portion of the world cheese is an utterly foreign concept. Too western to believe? Take a look at how it’s made.
And before we claim that the Chinese have a monopoly on the world’s weirdest food, let’s keep in mind that it’s English chef Fergus Henderson who is leading the current culinary revival of nose-to-tail cuisine in the West. Some things seem strange to us, only because we didn’t grow up eating them.
6. Draw your own lines.
Although the above encourages you to respect other people’s grannies, step outside of your comfort zones, and push the boundaries of what you’d call food, you have to draw your own lines when it comes to ethical eating. I did not, for instance, try san nakji (산낙지) in South Korea (live squid served squirming on a plate with sesame seeds). This was mainly because I don’t fancy chewing some poor bastard to death with my teeth. But, given the right circumstances, I wouldn’t decline an offer of dog stew. I’m not under any illusion that pigs aren’t just as emotionally intelligent as dogs, and treated just as badly before they’re turned into bacon.
Food is personal, and something that we all keep close to our chests. But that goes for you as well as your new friends, so don’t feel like you have to suspend your own beliefs indefinitely. If you can respectfully decline, and open up a dialogue about what you stand for, great. (Pro-tip: If you can’t eat a specific dish on the table for whatever reason, pick one you can and rave about it. It’ll show you still appreciate the effort, the flavours, and the experience).
Food has always served as a shortcut to culture. Like music, it is an experience we all share, despite our sometimes vast differences in tastes and tones. So pull up a chair, stool, or piece of pavement. Surprise yourself. Eat something “weird.” You might even go back for seconds.