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Food and Culture: 3 Bizzare Food Practices and their Origins

Some of the stuff you are about to read may not appeal to the faint-hearted;

If you still think you want to go on, make sure you absorb and understand the first paragraph completely before you do.

The influence of culture as well as environment is very deep in terms of the way it impacts the food habits of the people who belong to those particular conditions. The food items which are indigenous to one particular culture may be seen as completely repulsive to other cultures which have not been exposed to the same environmental conditions and cultural backgrounds that the people of the former culture are privy to. For example, the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea consider animals like tapirs to be a delicacy, while Western society may feel repulsed at the sight of freshly carved tapir flesh which the tribes would happily gorge on. On the other hand, a tribesman from the jungles of Papua New Guinea may feel sick to the stomach when confronted with a cheeseburger with large French fries and a glass of Cola, which the members of the Western Civilization gorge with utter abandon.

So you see, foods that may seem to be bizarre and repulsive to some may in fact be the staple meal for another culture which has been following the same diet over centuries of traditional and cultural references. With this neutral overview, let us delve into some of the so-called “repulsive and bizarre” foods that are considered as delicacies in cultures around the globe:

A Serpentine Lunch

Picture yourself at a restaurant in Vietnam as you waft in the ambience of bright lights, vibrant sounds, laughter and good company. Suddenly, the waiter comes over with a sack which strangely seems to have something long, slimy and alive inside it. Your heart jumps a beat as the waiter takes out a 3 foot long rat snake out of the bag and holds it in his arms as it wriggles and struggles to let go of his grasp. Your heart skips another beat as the waiter takes out a knife and cuts the snakes belly in a skillfully delicate way and pours the blood into a glass of rice wine as the red liquid oozes out freely.  

As your insides squirm at this peculiar sight, not unlike the snake squirming in the arms of the waiter, the waiter now proceeds to take the still-beating heart of the snake and places it in a side dish for you to savour. He further opens the cut up to the gall bladder of the snake, which he pulls out and squeezes open and lets the green bile flow into another glass with rice wine in it.

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As squeamish as you may get at the sight of this, the Vietnamese consider snake to be one of their most preferred delicacies. They use every single part of the snake, from the blood to the bones for a myriad of culinary preparations. The different parts of the snake are also said to be endowed with various medicinal properties. For example, the bile of the snake is said to cure ailment such as Asthma.

So sit back and enjoy the serpentine delicacy, or stick to chicken wings.

The Nectar of the Beasts

You enter the dimly lit room at a winery in the outskirts of Vietnam, and find it filled with huge jars of different colored liquids. Due to the low lighting in the room you cannot make out what the jars contain exactly. But as you move through the room, someone behind you turns on the lights and opens your eyes to what exactly surrounds you. You observe, to your utter shock, that these jars contain all manners of animals inside them, from Cobras to lizards, and mountain cats to endangered species of bears. You stare at the room of horrors that you have entered, which looks more like a taxonomist’s workroom than a winery.

As you feel almost paralyzed by the sights around you, you are taken aback by the intense horror that strikes you when you observe your host pouring you a glass of the liquid contained within a jar with a Cobra in it. He hands over the glass with the Cobra wine and the smell of fermented flesh and brine fills your nose as you slowly and uncertainly tread the path beyond your culinary comfort zone.

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The importance that such wines have in terms of their medicinal values is very renowned among the Vietnamese, especially or the medicinal properties that they are said to be endowed with. Different wines, on the basis of the animals that they are made of, are said to cure diverse ailments as well as help in increasing one’s virility, stamina, sexual prowess and so on.

The Feline Festival

You are welcomed by the blaring sounds of drums and singing as women in colorful clothes dance around in gyrating movements. The level of energy and celebration that is accompanied by the myriad colors and sounds is unparalleled as the people of this small town of La Quebrada in Peru come together to celebrate the ways of yore. As you walk through the streets you come across a man cooking something in a large pot. You walk towards the pot full of broth and pieces of some delectable looking meat, as the sweet aroma fills your nostrils. The cook offers you a taste of the meat, which is tender and has a texture and sweetness like nothing you have tasted before. Savoring this foreign meat as curiosity knocks incessantly at your head, you turn to ask the cook about what meat this exactly is.

You stop midway through the questions as your eyes widen at the sight of something in a cage a few feet away. Your stomach rumbles with a psychological repulsion that runs throughout your body as you look at the fur cute felines sitting in the cage. Welcome to the cat-eating festival where people from around Peru come to feast on the feline delicacies that the festival has to offer.

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The origin of the cat-eating festival is still debated today, especially the quintessential question of “Why Cats?” Of the many speculations, one of the most widely accepted one is that the slaves that used to reside in this town used to consume cat meat as a staple delicacy. This custom that is followed is just a way to acknowledge the rich past that is a part of their heritage and culture.

The inherent repulsion associated with these types of food essentially stems out of our repulsion of the “thought” of eating them rather than the taste or the intricate palatable aspects related to the same. This is by no means to say that consumption of the meat of these animals is a good thing. The important aspect to remember here is that our inherent beliefs and cultural backgrounds have a huge influence on what we deem as suitable for eating as well as what we classify as inherently repulsive.

Ask yourself this; just because we consider cats to be household pets, does that mean other animals have a better reason to be killed and eaten?

Further Tripping…

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3

About Ashwin Ramesh

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