Food is a physical manifestation of our identity. What ingredients we use, how we cook them and how we eat them, are all clear cultural markers that help clarify group identities.
This means that we often judge people by what they eat. All cultures have food taboos. Sometimes these are contained in religious codes, and sometimes in personal, social and even political codes.
We organise food items and ingredients into conceptual boxes – or food baskets if you like – and then label some appropriate and some inappropriate.
When we come into contact with cultures that eat from the inappropriate baskets, we quickly judge them as culturally, and thus morally, inferior to our own. From there the leap to cultural condemnation (racism) is a very small one.
When we look at the way we organize our world of food and food taboos, one is struck by certain clear patterns.
Firstly, we seem to limit taboos mainly to animals and not to plants.
Second, we seem to inform our judgment of what is edible based on our own personal relationships with specific species. Those with whom we are close are considered taboo, such as horses, cats and dogs for they are pets, not food.
Third, those species deemed impure or filthy are also off-limits. These include the obvious such as pork, which for some are a religious no-no, but also, most insects, reptiles and rodents.
Finally, humans are off-limits period. And so are those that show close resemblance to us: monkeys, baboons, chimps and other primates.
Yet the world is not a big lump of food homogeneity. Having travelled extensively, I have seen and eaten a lot of dishes that would not be seen as food in our part of the world.
Pidan or “Thousand-year-old” eggs in Hong Kong – eggs cured for one to six months till the whites become a translucent brown jelly and the yoke a semi-solid jade; a variety of freshly killed snakes in Taipei – with the still beating heart and blood served separately with sake; pork womb in a light broth in Vietnam; duck fetus in soup in Cambodia; grass-cutter in Ghana, and insects by the bucket.
I found none of these unpalatable, and since people have been eating these for centuries, I knew they were perfectly edible.
The truth is, not everyone employs the same conceptual scheme when classifying ingredients and as a result, do not have the same taboos. The Chinese and Vietnamese, for example, do eat dog and cat and keep them as pets, and in their conceptual framework, there is no clash as there is in ours. But not all Chinese and Vietnamese eat dog, and it does not form a real substantive part of their diet. It has become a very niche-orientated ingredient and you have to search for venues that specialize in this.
The point is this, next time your dog or cat goes missing, don’t automatically blame your Chinese neighbor or builder because you ascribe to the over-simplified, offensive notion that “all Chinese eat dog, and they will steal to get it”.
Eating these strange ingredients stem from times when food was hard to come by, and that which was plentiful were used to provide much needed protein to ensure survival.
When people lived according to the rhythms of the seasons, they learned to preserve the bountiful and supplement the insufficient. They learned to waste nothing, not even the heart and blood of a snake.
Today, the world of food is for most one of convenience. If you need something, just pop into your local supermarket. We are no longer restricted by what is seasonal, and we do not have to scavenge to find cheap sources of protein.
We can afford to buy only what we want, we do not have to think about using the bits we do not need (read tripe, offal, intestines, blood etc.). We don’t eat dog, or cat, or dolphin, or whale, or insects or snakes because we do not have to. We can buy steak, sausage, chicken breast or thigh.
And as we have become more distant from these original ingredients, we became more intolerant and judgmental of those who still eat them.
So next time you meet someone with a strange food basket, ask them if you could take a peak, have a little taste. Experience the wonderful world of food and the people who produce it. To entice you, here is an Asian recipe with a local twist: a Korean dish called Ssäm made with Namibian crocodile.