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Eating Abroad: The Cultural Resonance of Food

Be Ready for Some Real Taste
cheese brie camembertYou may find that even some familiar foods are far more pungent and powerful abroad. For example: Cheese in the United States is processed to the point where one cheese tastes pretty much like another, and pretty much like nothing. Not so around the world -- with less aggressive processing, cheese will retain the taste of the dirt that grew the grass that fed the cow that gave the milk that made the cheese.

Be Ready for Unusual Sights
As with the pot of filth I had in San Sebastian, you might be surprised by what your food looks like when it arrives. Strange colors, unusual garnishes, odd textures, heads and tails left on fish -- try not to sweat it. Just buckle in and pick up your fork.

Who knows, the look of a Philly cheese steak might turn the stomachs of some visitors to the U.S.

Changing Your Taste Buds
In the extreme, this is tricky, and perhaps not even worth doing -- the day I eat a dog I'll have to be damn hungry going in.

But in most cases, the rewards of forgoing a search for "someone who just sells a bagel, for cripe's sake" are worth it. Over a few days' time, you'll figure out what you like and what you don't like, and by the time you get home, your own daily breakfast will seem pretty boring.

The Dangers of Going Too Big
I know there are some gastronomic adventurers out there who want to sample everything and anything of the world's cuisine.

There's a bit more to the squid story. After the first time I ate squid in its own ink back in the 80's, I tried to get the same thing at an "authentic" Spanish restaurant in South America a few years later. Although I speak a fair amount of Spanish, the usual language barrier problems applied -- especially since I didn't know the words for "squid" and "ink" off the top of my head. When I had finished ordering, I thought I knew what was coming my way.


octopus plate rubbery foreign foodWhen the dish arrived, it was a plate of barely scalded octupi -- no sauce, minimal garnish, stiff, off-white, rubbery, quivering on the plate. Ugh. Going against every signal my gut was sending to my brain, I stabbed one, popped it in my mouth and closed down. When it crunched and sprang back against my teeth, I wasn't having any fun, to put it mildly. In fact, it felt like the octopus was doing everything it could to get back onto my plate.

I didn't finish that meal, but it still comes up when talking about it.

Even after the octopus tried to climb out of my piehole, I still say go for it -- at least you'll have some stories to tell. But if you're not the adventurous type, be careful about what you order -- jellyfish, for example, might not be your speed.

The Cultural Resonance of Food
I've been told that the eating of jellyfish at the start of a meal in some Asian countries is rife with symbolism; the gesture of eating just a small portion of jellyfish acts as a remembrance of leaner times when the population was forced into a subsistence diet of which jellyfish was a staple.

Examples of this type of cultural memory abound in food traditions. The Australian Vegemite is an example of this type of the longevity of an abundant and inexpensive foodstuff. And this is not unheard of in American culture -- the Hawaiian love of Spam comes out of the same type of tradition, as does continued regional embracing of scrapple, grits and many other treasured regional staples with a not-so-glorious history.

Do some homework in this regard so not to offend your hosts, and if the time is right, by all means feel free to ask; learning these things is part of what travel is all about, and I'd rather learn by living than by reading an etiquette book.

A reference for global cuisine and table manners: Global Gourmet. And don't miss our tips on Food Safety.

To discuss this and other Traveler's Ed articles, visit the Traveler's Ed Message Board.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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