Keep an open mind and an open mouth
The other day, someone new to Hong Kong suggested that I write about the 'weird' ingredients he saw at some of the shops along Queen's Road West. I asked him, 'What do you consider weird?' He realised that weird is a judgmental word, and apologised.
I wish the people behind the television programme Bizarre Foods would get a clue as to how judgmental the name of their show is. They contacted me about two years ago, when they were planning to film in Hong Kong.
I didn't reply to their e-mail requesting that I send in recommendations about foods I thought would be good for the show - their exact words were 'unusual for Westerners' - primarily because I don't consider anything I eat to be 'bizarre'. Different? Maybe - but it depends on who you ask.
Much of what I eat is not what a middle-American couch potato would expect to buy when shopping in a supermarket in the US, but just because it's not available there doesn't make it weird or even unusual. I would never call the bugs I ate in Thailand, the raw chicken I tried in Japan or the buffalo-blood sausages I tasted in Laos weird - I'd just call them delicious.
To be fair, the host, Andrew Zimmern (above), is quite open-minded and is usually (but not always, unfortunately) polite and discreet if he eats something he dislikes. But what bothers me is that he's catering to people who will probably never encounter these foods except vicariously by watching someone eat them on television while making faces at the camera as if to say, 'Look how brave I am!'
This kind of thing isn't going to make people want to travel in the hopes of trying something new (because if what you see is exactly the same as it is 'back home', then why bother going anywhere?); if anything, it encourages people to travel so they can compare themselves favourably to others in different countries, who, through tradition, economic circumstances and other variables, eat foods that outsiders might consider unusual.
Eating is as much a part of discovering another culture as are museums, places of worship and historical sites. Perhaps even more so because while eating you're interacting with local people.
When I was eating at a street stall in Jaipur recently, the customers started photographing me and three friends as we ate dhal, chutney and chapatis, as we were such a novelty to them. People offer to share their food with me when they see I'm taking an interest in it. If I can do so politely, I decline, because I worry that I'm literally taking the food from the mouths of babes. But if pressed, I'll take a little, even if I don't know what it is, and I eat it with the same open mind I would have towards any other host who's making the effort to feed me.