When you come to another country food, in my opinion, should be absolutely top of your reasons why you came. The luxury of living in London is that we have every world food within walking distance or even within finger distance via deliveroo. While this is excellent for your mouth, it does mean you have certain expectations when you go abroad. The foodies will arrive fresh of the boat with a checklist of their favourite foods to gobble. With a sense of knowing everything about everything, they steam past the hordes of unworldly tourists to find the most authentic version of their idea of the local foods. For example in Vietnam there is banh mi and pho, in Thailand every colour curry, massam, penang, the list is endless. The same goes for China, Spain, India or anywhere else. In England we have restaurants serving up the food from around the world enhancing our palettes and making us think we know other countries cuisines.
While the dishes exist in the UK from abroad, they are missing a lot or are just completely different. A lot of the time our home dishes have just been made a little safer, a little less exotic, or less organy (not the big piano thing though). All of the animals used for meat walk rather than slither or crawl. We just don’t eat the flubbery, chewy, funky insides of the animals, and don’t have a partial taste for insects. While there are also the vegetables that we just don’t have access to, I think it’s mostly the funkier flavours and textures we are missing. I don’t think we know foreign food at all.
My first banh mi experiences at home was a baguette filled with roast pork belly, asian herbs, pate and lettuce and chilli. Nothing at all not to like. To be honest, this was one of my favourite sandwiches ever. However, come to Vietnam and the pate is much thicker, the meat is full of tendons and other stranger hams are added – an absolute porking. I still loved it, but it wasn’t what I thought it should be and it was definitely funkier.
Everything at home has been westernized, made a little less spicy, weird, chewy, more appetizing, and quite often removing the sight of the animal or original raw thing it came from.
In most of the world outside the UK, the US and some of Europe, the butcher’s will have the entire animal out being prepared next to a stand selling the same meat but cooked. For them, the sight of the raw meat shows the quality in the finished product, and so it should. If anything it could be argued it is more humane to see where the meat comes from, quite often the butcher’s also slaughter the animals in store. The amount of meat we consume is definitely too much, but a little sight of where it all comes from and how much we waste, may help us prize what we are eating more.
There is of course a lot that just doesn’t suit a palette unused to organs, tendons, feet or fermented vegetables, but it does maybe open questions about whether we should be claiming we know others cuisines. Indian food is famously different back home with the Indian population in the UK adapting the dishes to suit our tastes and to use the products available. These dishes are national heroes, but they are UK dishes not Indian.
You may know your bhuna from your bhaji, or your tortellini from your tagliatelle, but every country has a wealth of incredible dishes that you only get to see when you travel to the country and look for where the local community eat. It’s not just the dishes we think we know that have been changed, but entire national dishes, loved in the origin that have never even reached our little island.
We need to embrace the different and spread our tongues over different flavours and textures of foreign food, like greedy children do to ice creams. Get some more funk and parts of animals you didn’t think were edible. If you are eating meat we might as well make sure we are trying to eat everything and use the animal as much as possible. In regards to insects, of course some are only there to allow alpha males a chance to show off to anyone who might be impressed by eating a scorpion. However, some insects have real use within dishes and carry massive amounts of flavour.
Having recently tried ants mashed and cooked into a paste I can truthfully say their existence in the dish was essential rather than superficial. The fragrant, citrus taste that they carried from the leaves they eat made a unique but delicious sauce. Having had these, I’m far more interested in seeing what other insects could impart on a dish. I’m not going to be scooping up worms are putting them in my spaghetti like The Twits, but if I see them on a menu used in a way that sounds like it isn’t just for show, then why not?
While chicken feet and deep fried tendons might not end up as the next food fad they are both delicious. Mashed feet on rye, or cricket milk could be the next trending food… So when you can try one thing from the menu that looks a bit weird, see how much you really know/ like about the foreign food you think you know and give it a try?