Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.28.8: A TASTE FOR TRAVEL, Part 1

Taiwanese menu board

Taiwanese menu board

Knowing a little something about a culture’s food can help in understanding something of their history and character.   One doesn’t find a lot of people dashing off to Scandinavian countries for delicacies like herring in cream sauce, which goes some way toward explaining the high suicide rates there.   It wasn’t until I visited Germany many years ago that I think I understood the reason for their historic bellicosity. You just can’t ingest that many calories and that much meat without wanting to invade Poland or France just to work some of them off.


For some travelers going abroad is as much a gastronomic as geographic adventure.   Consuming foreign food is anticipated with eagerness and terror, parameters broad enough for a multi-volume treatise on the subject.   Indeed, there are numerous books on the subject, and cable cooking shows and magazines for gourmands share an overlap of boundaries with travel publications.   Special tours, designed just for “foodies,” offer cooking at Cordon Bleu to fine dining on barges plying French rivers.   Life aboard a cruise ship is regulated as much, if not more, by meal times than by the ship’s destinations, and it’s varied cuisine and pampering to specific tastes serves to insulate the traveler from the difficulties and uncertainties of obtaining sustenance in alien cultures.


These days, at least on the main tourist routes, it is possible to avoid having to submit to the vagaries of foreign cuisine.   With the “Cococolinization” and “McDonaldization” of the world, the familiar signs and logos of American-corporate-chain-food offer the succor of familiarity to the squeamy palate and wary G-I tract.   (Although it must be admitted that two main competitive features of such establishments abroad can lure even the most intrepid anti-American-fast-food traveler: air-conditioning and clean restrooms.)   Thus, it must be confessed that these creature comforts, along with a bit of self-conscious munching on a Mc-This or Mc-That (with super-sized fries, of course), and then exiting into the streets of Paris, Madrid, or Hong Kong, creates the curious sensation of having been teleported from a mall in Orange County.


Yet, such backsliding on my part has been rare [1] or out of dire necessity.   Sometimes a “taste of home” tastes better the further one is away from home. [2]   Much rarer have been any voluntary encounters with the sorts of foods that I like to call “adventure cuisine.”   This is the kind of food that used to be ingested at college fraternity initiations or at carnival shows, and is dished up to the human dung beetles who will do anything for the money and momentary celebrity of Survivor shows.   But just why anyone in their right mind would want to voluntarilydine at the bottom of the food chain on locusts, grubs, scorpions, silkworms, and other such crunchy critters, or a bit further up the chain on roasted lizards, or stir-fried snakes, is beyond my comprehension or any level of inebriation to which I am willing to descend.   True, it’s possible to get some guys will eat week old road kill if it is reputed to give them the sexual energy of a rutting goat on Viagra.   Hence, dishes based on tiger penises, bull testicles, rhino and deer horns, washed down with cocktails of snake blood and bile, are considered Big Macs for the satyr set.   Never mind that rather sleeping with a guy who ingests this stuff most women would prefer to eat a bad cut of the lethal, but highly prized Japanese fugu fish.


There are places that you just don’t travel to for their cuisines unless your gluttony is for self-abasement rather than gustatory.   Mongolia and Tibet, for example; they base their cuisine on the yak, a beast that looks like it was designed by a stoned Rastifarian.   Yak butter, and we must be talking serious cholesterol and trans fatty acids here, seems to appear in everything on the menu, proving that one person’s delicacy in another person’s regurgative.   They even like to put it in their tea.    It was a real nasty thing the Chinese did when they took over Tibet, but at least the conquerors might bring some better food there. [3]   Have a cup of yak butter tea and the vision of Mongol hordes rampaging all over Asia starts to make sense; these people must have been after some decent victuals and they would rip apart anybody’s country to get at it.


The customary salutation in greeting a Chinese is nihao (sort of “hello, how are you”). But Chinese often greet one another with the phrase chi fan mei ah (have you eaten yet?) Westerners may joke that forty-five minutes after a Chinese meal one is hungry again. It may well be that the Chinese developed their cuisine to actually produce that result: the Chinese love to eat, anytime, anywhere, and often. And pretty much anything. China recently dispatched hundreds of thousands of civet cats that had the misfortune of being fingered as the little varmints who brought SARS to the country. It matters little, since they would have been eaten in any case, pretty much like any other wild critter that is tossed into Chinese woks. The wilder the beast the more coveted (and expensive) it is to the Chinese palate.   So much for the ecumenical Chinese palate.   Moreover, the Chinese will also eat parts of animals that most Westerners didn’t know existed. This may owe less to the Chinese palate than a history that has included many famines.   Thus, eating Chinese can be a real adventure, and for fussy palates and finicky intestines such as mine, the “lazy Susan” on a Chinese dining table can seem like a torture rack.   Enough picking on the Asians. [4]


So I’ll pick on the Egyptians.   Well, just for a moment, and then a particular subset.   One of the terrors I have is of having to ingest something that the very thought of tends to turn my stomach because I do not want to give offense to my foreign hosts.   I once had to eat tongue (langue) at the home of some French acquaintances and survived it by slicing my portion so thin and into such small morsels that it took me so long they finally removed my plate so they could begin their dessert.   At a restaurant a French friend also once ordered me an andouillete, [5] which announces its arrival at the table with an odor of putrefaction that makes you wonder if the door to the alley was left open.   But my worst food terror was goat’s eyeballs.   These were what another friend told me I might have to ingest to avoid offending the hospitality, that goat eyeballs are a delicacy where I was going to interview some Bedouin goat herders in the Western Desert of Egypt.   I obsessed about it for days before, wondering if one chewed them, or swallowed them whole.   I could almost make myself vomit just thinking about it. [6]


I’m not finished with the Egyptians just yet.   They were responsible for a visitation of the other terror of eating abroad.   You guessed it:   in this case called “Pharaoh’s revenge”.   I had a group on a Nile cruise some years back and there was hardly a day when there were not a half dozen of the puking and fearful of being more than a hop and a lunge from a toilet.   Sooner or later, even for the most veteran of travelers, you will ingest, stupidly or unwittingly, some tasty vector for those intestinal parasites that churn your bowels into WADs. [7]

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.25.2006)

[1] OK, the Mickey D’s in Shanghai does sell the ice cream cone as a loss leader for the equivalent of two-bits and I went there a lot.   So does that make me an ugly American?

[2] Other things fall in this category.   I have sometimes found myself when abroad engaging Americans in conversation that I would make every effort to avoid when at home.

[3] The reverse effect took place when the the British conquered India.  And speaking of the British, how about their “hearty English breakfasts.” 

[4]   I’ve done that enough in these pages.   See “Eating Chinese” I and II

[5] Sounds like a French word for cufflink or those little rubber things they make to massage your gums, but it’s a sausage stuffed with grisly chunks of half-cooked innards of various cloven beasts.

[6] Did they blind living goats to get their eyeballs?   I didn’t want to ask.   Chinese fishermen just cut the fins off sharks and toss the sharks back in the sea—which is why I refuse to eat shark fin soup and launch into a polemic about it (screw the hospitality factor).   Anyway, it turned out that the goat eyeball delicacy was not served by the Bedouin headman.   Aren’t you glad you bothered to read the footnote?

[7] No, you figure out what WAD’s are.   But I will say that I had a situation where almost my entire entourage of 35 was afflicted and confined to their beds with a really nasty intestinal bug.   After every pharmacological preparation failed to work on them my local guide prescribed a concoction of Coca Cola (non-diet, and not Pepsi) and canned evaporated milk worked miracles on them,.   Regrettably, my chances to become the highly-compensated CEO of a new pharmaceutical company were lost when I forgot to write down the proportions.