The Question: To eat or not to eat
Disclaimer: This blog post deals with the issue of stereotypes related to cultural foods. Several overgeneralizations are made without any intent of offense to any particular culture or race. If you find any of the arguments to be unacceptable, please be mindful that it is not intended to cause harm.
Most of the food examples come from the author’s own culture, and thus the author can write with reasonable certainty about their composition. Below is a list of foods that are mentioned in this blog post. If you believe these to be unacceptable examples for discussion due to religious or cultural reasons, please stop reading now.
The potentially controversial foods to be mentioned and described are chicken feet, silkworm pupae, pork intestine/tongue/ears, and fermented tofu.
After an entire morning of elementary school, I settle down in the common lunchroom for a much-earned meal. I am vaguely aware that today is a special occasion, and excitement courses through my body as I retrieve my lunchbox. Mother has prepared a special treat for me today, but she has kept its identity a secret. So, as I open the lunchbox lid, I purposefully close my eyes.
A whiff of heavenly fragrance reaches my nose. I detect a faint trace of fermented beans, along with the unmistakable scent of chicken. Gently, I pick up a piece of food with chopsticks. Steadily, I begin delivering it towards my mouth.
At this point, I have been meaning to taste my food carefully, first exploring the outer texture with my lips before biting to release the hidden treasure that lies within. But my tongue, already eager from brief contract with the viscous sauce, has already wrapped around the entirety of my specimen. The mystery is uncovered. Too soon.
But instead of an anticlimactic conclusion to my food exploration, what follows is a new wave of surprise and excitement. After determining the identity of my food, I become even more eager than I was before. It has been too long since I have last tasted this delicious dish. Too long…
Before I can even stop myself, my eyes open, taking in the sight of my lunch in its entirety. The texture – both slippery and tough at the same time, challenging the teeth while soothing the tongue. The sauce – with the perfect consistency, wrapping the meat in a flavorful morsel. The color – warm brown decorated with sprinkles of red and green, like the vegetation that grows before a spring shower, filled with the promise of growth and nourishment.
I rapidly devour my food. Were it not for the bone, I would likely have suffocated from the speed of my swallowing. But instead of being a nuisance, as it would normally be, the bone is very much an integral part of the dish. For it slows down the pace of my chewing.
It also allows the final traces of my bite to linger in my mouth, an aftertaste to remind my taste buds of the decadent meal that came before.
“What is that?”
I am broken away from my blissful trance into reality. I turn to see a girl staring at my lunchbox.
“This? It’s chicken feet,” I reply curtly, a little unhappy to have been interrupted from my meal, if only for a moment.
“Did you say chicken feet? How is that even edible?!”
At this moment, I realize that I have made a mistake. The girl’s face has transformed from an initial respectful curiosity to a disdainful sneer. Her last exclamation has been particularly noisy, and had attracted some unwanted attention from others in the lunchroom.
“Dirty food…Disgusting…Stinky feet…” The murmurs spread like a contagious cold, and soon, virtually everyone in the stuffy room has turned to stare at me.
Being only a recent immigrant, this is too much for me to take. I run out of the room, with tears in my eyes.
To eat or not to eat – this has become a painful question.
For in that taste of bliss what judgement may come
When we have eaten off this unconventional meal,
Must give us pause.
— Adapted from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Ever since that day, I am careful about the meals I consume in public: nothing strong-smelling, nothing foreign, and definitely no chicken feet. Gradually, I begin to merge into Western culture, eating only what is acceptable. It is only in the comfort of my home, when no suspicious eyes are watching, that I occasionally ingest something “strange”.
What makes a meal “strange”? My relatives from China ask me when they come for a visit. The first few times, I just respond bitterly with “you’ll find out when they stare at you weirdly”. But as time passes, I begin to really question what constitutes a socially unacceptable meal.
It really boils down to three characteristics: uncommon animal species, unfamiliar body parts, and unacceptable food treatment methods.
- Uncommon animal species
Beef, chicken, lamb, even pork is generally acceptable. Donkey, rabbit, snake, and frog, however, are less common. And when someone mentions eating insects, the reaction from some individuals might very well be to shudder in fear.
Insects are a very common food source around the world, especially in non-Western countries. I have only ever eaten one type of insect – the silkworm, which, try as I may to denounce, is actually rather delicious. Once, I had attempted to discuss various food options with friends from my junior high school, and when I suggested consuming insects during periods of starvation, they remarked that they would very much rather die.
Perhaps people in more “developed” countries no longer consume certain species of animal because it is no longer necessary. When one has enough land to raise cattle and sheep, what is the point of catching frogs to eat? At first glance, this does seem like a convincing argument. Because beef is much more nutritious and tasty, there should be no need to eat insects once society has progressed to a certain stage.
But is the argument really flawless? Many animals contain micronutrients that cannot be found in beef or chicken. Some may even require less energy to raise. In terms of taste, I doubt that people can taste much of a difference if they ingest frog meat with closed eyes.
Furthermore, by consuming more species, we may diminish some of the problems of food-borne illnesses that occasionally spread through poor meat processing. Poikilotherm diseases are less likely to transfer to humans, and less meat processing is required for insects. We may also avoid some of the problems with outbreaks of E. coli and other bacterial pathogens, as insect meat does not need to be chopped.
Of course, there must certainly be some issues about which I am not aware that are associated with eating unconventional animals. So I will move on to discuss the next topic before coming to a definitive conclusion.
The pig intestine, when properly washed clean, can contain the most fragrant proteins ever encountered.
- Unfamiliar body parts
My mother has once invited her workmates to a new years party. She prepared a dish that would surely have been the masterpiece of the meal, with its aromatic scent and irresistible flavor – but one quality prevented its consumption. The dish was an amalgamation of pig tongue and ears, which automatically repulsed over half of the attending guests.
When carnivorous animals catch prey, they often consume the visceral organs first. If interrupted during their meal, this becomes the only part they eat. It is likely that our ancestors are the same, desiring the high lipid content of such body parts. But in a world where the overweight outnumber the underweight, surely we no longer need to partake in such diets?
Intestine, liver, kidney, heart, these organs are often removed during meat processing. In many Canadian grocery stores, they are never seen or heard of. Perhaps they are packaged into sausages, or sold as pet food. Perhaps they are simply discarded into the streets.But here, once again, comes the controversy.
Not only is it true that the pig intestine, when properly washed clean, can contain the most fragrant proteins ever encountered, but it is also true that it can, in certain conditions of nutrient deficiency, be beneficial. North Americans have often credited themselves with humanitarian aid to impoverished places, but their wasteful lifestyle has become a major source of criticism in major years. Why do we not eat all of our meat to become less wasteful?
Why eat mouldy food? Because controlled fermentation can significantly increase nutritional content, of course.
- Unacceptable food treatment
A few years ago, I read a small online article listing the top ten most disgusting foods in the world. Surprisingly, the Number One food was not from either of the aforementioned categories. Rather, it was the preserved duck egg.
What is wrong with preserved duck egg? To this day, I still do not really know. The preserved duck egg is prepared by covering fresh duck eggs with a strongly alkaline salt and allowing the proteins to denature over the course of several weeks. This increases the transparency of the egg white, turning the egg into a beautifully gelatinous orb. The egg yolk also loses its powdery consistency, becoming fluid and palatable. Since the egg has a relatively high pH, it can even help control excess stomach acid.
Perhaps the reason why such a food is considered disgusting is because of the process of its treatment. But have we not all eaten salted fish once upon a time? I can easily think of many examples of food much less palatable than the preserved duck egg. The strangest of which is maodoufu, which is prepared through controlled fungal growth on the surface of tofu.
Fermentation has been a common practice in the past in both Western and Eastern cultures. Sauerkraut had once saved thousands of sailors from dying of scurvy over long voyages across the Atlantic ocean, and cheese remains today as one of the most consumed dairy products. Why eat mouldy food? Because controlled fermentation can significantly increase nutritional content.
If such practices as fermentation are common across almost all cultures, why should any such product be considered disgusting? Is it because unfamiliar food is dangerous? But if a food is truly dangerous, then no human civilization would have survived digesting it. Even the mouldy tofu pictured above is edible, but not when raw. Like the extremely poisonous pufferfish, the tofu is not to be consumed as is. It must be processed through frying under hyperboiling temperatures. The end product is depicted in the last photo of this blog post. Take a look and see if you can identify anything you dislike about it.
Almost any food, when treated properly, is edible. Why then should anyone be judged on food preferences?
People should be free to eat what their stomachs desire without judgement. Even chicken feet, that seemingly dirty, stinky body part that is often in contact with the muddy ground, is no exception. For have we not all taken pleasure in sucking on our fingers as children once upon a time?
In immigrating to a foreign country, one’s meal choices are often questioned. But one should not despair. If a food is truly delicious, there should never be reason to doubt, or question like I once did, in that lonely school lunchroom.
To eat or not to eat. There never really was a question.
About the author:
Alice is the Vice President of Events for MEL and one of its initiating founders. She has a passion for tasting all sorts of unfamiliar foods.