Eating across cultures
Would you chop up a sheep’s head, or munch on a piece of rotting fish? Business entertaining can be a challenge if you’re not an adventurous eater, especially when your host is trying to impress and brings out some of the more alarming local specialties. Here are six foods you might want to approach with caution while on a business trip – and a few polite ways to get out of eating them.
1. Japan: Fugu
Puffer fish is one of the most toxic fish and several people have died eating specimen that haven’t been properly prepared. Dining on fugu is both a display of machismo and a genuine pleasure (for some) in Japan. Only licensed chefs are allowed to prepare it and must train for three years. Fugu is normally served as slices of sashimi but consuming the liver, the skin or the ovaries is usually fatal. Japanese connoisseurs enjoy the tingling sensation produced by the toxins on the lips.
Tip: You could view eating fugu as the dining equivalent of Russian roulette. If you do want to try it, check the chef’s certificate; it should be displayed on the wall of the restaurant.
2. China: Century egg, or Pidan
Sometimes this delicacy is called a 1,000-year-old egg, although in effect, it’s an egg soaked in saline for a maximum of a few months. This turns the yolk into a cheesy texture and the white into a slimy, dark jelly. Sometimes clay, salt, ash or quicklime is added to the saline.
Tip: A century egg won’t hurt you, although it is certainly an acquired taste.
3. Singapore and Malaysia: Durian fruit
Known as the King of Fruits, durian is variously described as smelling like sewage, rotting flesh or rancid cheese. It’s banned on many forms of public transport. The custard-like flesh, though, if you can get past the smell, is said to be exquisite and people will travel a long way to buy and sample a good durian.
Tip: Take a deep breath and pinch your nose while trying it.
4. Sweden: Surströmming
Swedes love their fermented Baltic Sea herring, which is preserved in just enough salt to stop it decomposing. It is eaten with sweetened flatbread, almond potatoes and diced onion and washed down with beer and schnapps.
Tip: The herring is kept in cans. Only open one outside as the smell is overwhelming and if you drink, take a good slug of schnapps before sampling.
5. Kazakhstan: Beshbarmak
This is a national favourite, consisting of boiled horse meat served with pasta. Often, a boiled sheep’s head is served to complement the beshbarmak. The guest of honour divides up the head and distributes the parts to the other guests (eyes, brain, tongue and so on).
Tip: Try to bear in mind that eating horse (and sheep’s head) are culturally important in central Asia, where people traditionally depended on their animals for everything from warmth to milk to meat.
6. Cambodia: Tarantula
Spiders and various insects are regarded as delicacies in southeast Asia; tarantula, said to be rather chewy, is fried with chili and lime, while in Laos and Thailand, fried, spiced crickets and bamboo worms are a common sight in night markets.
Tip: There’s an argument that crickets and other insects are a valuable source of protein in developing countries, where meat is expensive and sparse. Tarantula may be an acquired taste – but a lot of travellers say they enjoy crunching on a crispy cricket.
How to make your excuses if you don’t plan on eating any of the above
Refusing exotic foods can cause great loss of face to your hosts, who are most likely trying to impress you. It is polite to try a little of what’s offered but if you really can’t stomach it, there are a few plausible excuses. You could say you are a strict Hindu or Buddhist (or even Rastafarian) and therefore vegetarian – but be prepared to back this up if someone asks interested questions about your religious practice. Another acceptable excuse is ‘My doctor has me on a very strict regime’, in the hope that nobody will ask exactly what is wrong with you. Or tell a white lie and say you have a strong allergy to whatever is being served – this is reasonable in the case of fish, for example. But do try to eat some of what is offered at a business meal, even if it’s only the rice, to give an illusion of participating, and find some way of praising the food.