Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

The little differences: Cultural delicacies

A letter from somewhere. In which is described apparently ‘exotic’ food and discussed cultural trained eating habits.

Fall 2014


today I’m not really writing to tell you of a a peculiar destination or journey, but to discuss one of the basics of travelling and culture I was pondering these days. So, I hope you don’t mind a few reflections on exotic food; you surely remember how curious I am about trying local cuisine abroad and that I am indeed open-minded even then it comes to rather … well, unusual food. You know, these things which might seem a bit bizarre at first glance. Actually I am of the opinion that a lot of hesitation and disgust towards certain food has to do with cultural socialization and nurture. Modern day food taboos like the ban on pork in the Near Eastern world or cattle in India may come to your mind for example.

But also in our everyday life, we’re confronted with cultural constraints regarding food. When, for instance, did you have a good snack of grasshoppers lastly? They are not indigestible or in any other way hazardous. Yet I can certainly see you shiver my friend – we just don’t eat them, because we learned that we really do not eat bugs. Considering insects for alimentation purposes may be a serious step in solving the world hunger problem, though, as a recent UN report suggests (I just looked it up for you). And indeed, crickets are nutritious and they really do taste not that bad (one advice though: you should make sure to remove the hooked legs before eating, they can be pretty scratchy in your throat – I learned this the … well, scratchy way).

It is important to distinguish between culturally obtained (i.e. acquired) and natural disgust. While the latter is essential to save your life (like preventing you from eating decaying things, and yes – that fermented Swedish herring is a different story), the first one can (and in my eyes should) be overcome easily. Especially when travelling. Local food, customs and rituals connected to diet can be an important and comparatively easy way of accessing foreign cultures, I think. By sharing and accepting food, you signalize respect and interest for the people and their way of living (of course, it’s never wrong to keep some standard rules in minds regarding health and hygiene – like the good old “Cook it, peel it or forget it.” – but come on, don’t let fear of the unknown prevail). As I mentioned above, in a lot of cases the first feeling of disgust may just be owed to our cultural education.

Others are definitely way too exotic to please our palates, nose and stomach (not to mention they eye – you certainly agree the meal should be a feast for the eye, too; well, sometimes it becomes part of the feast as well), but that’s – again – a different story. Personally, I have no problem with sipping some jellyfish or noshing chicken claws, as you know of course (both without any real ‘own’ taste actually, by the way). But I think, I’d be gulping twice when confronted with Balut – boiled duck embryo still in the egg. In this case, instinct might have a chance to win, I assume – the natural disgust raising an alarm.

Balut may be a rather special and pretty exotic example. But there are other, less extravagant meals one encounters en route. The whole variety of meat dishes. Variety of meat sources. I do not want to delve deeper into the debate on principles regarding a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Of course you do know very well that I am no meat-dispraiser. And honestly, wouldn’t you agree that in the end meat is meat? Gazelle or zebra or kangaroo has to bleed for a steak like any cattle or pig or chicken has to. No question, if it comes to cats and dogs, things are getting tougher, since they can be so cute playmates. This is where moral gets involved into nutrition and the question of ethics arises. Which meat is okay? Whose meat is okay?


When we were travelling Greenland, we did so close to its deep rooted culture and tradition (You do remember that letter I wrote from Greenland, don’t you?). On the water, among the ice – by kayak. And since a kayak apparently seems to be a rare sight even in Greenlandic waters these days (the more practical, quicker and more comfortable motorboat took its place in the meantime), it was not hard to get some attention from the friendly locals, and some interested (and really competent) looks onto our boats.

So, it was only a question of time until we met the first seal hunters. Quick and pretty with a shot, these guys need a sharp eye and fast boat. And just for the record (since I can almost see your raised eye brow here): Greenlanders hunt for subsistence (economy of rural villages is highly dependent upon seal hunting – just try to get any other fresh food in one of the smaller villages, or better: anything you could afford) not for commercial reasons – though the sale of these seal skins was a welcome auxiliary income to the hunters (until the market broke down due to a ban following the campaign against this so-called clubbing (which is actually not practiced in Greenland) – you probably still remember the disturbing pictures which went around the world).


And no, although we were indeed able to witness the hunters pursuing their business, seal did not make it on our menu. But … well, I confess: we had whale. Yes, I know – it’s a sensitive topic. And yes, I also appreciate the beauty and majesty of these animals which accompanied our boats now and then, suddenly appearing, blowing, and – after a last wink with the fluke – disappearing again. Truly majestic, I don’t have to tell you this.



But – I may have mentioned it already, didn’t I? – I’m pretty curious. Also when it comes to food. You know me, I want to learn these details of a place’s culture. I … somehow want to live it. That is not meant as an excuse, though. I’m far from promoting whaling,  you know me better. But I’d like to plead for some differentiation; would you follow me here? Commercial whaling is condemned for good reason – variety and population of these most giant living mammals are endangered, without a doubt. Of course you are well aware that there’s a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, which – however – knows three exceptions: 1. hunting by indigene population, 2. hunting for scientific reasons, and 3. hunting by nations, formal objecting to the moratorium. I admit, I never consulted the statistics before, nor did I really care for the figures (but I include them here for your own consideration). Looking at them right now, I can see that Inuit are mostly hunting those smaller species, ‘scientific’ and ‘objecting’ hunters are not interested in and vice versa, and that total numbers of the latter two still are exceeding the indigenes’ quotas. Of course, there still is a considerable number of whales hunted in the course of so-called aboriginal whaling, aboriginal *subsistence* whaling that is, allow me to be underline this. Because that is the point: hunting to meet cultural and nutritional requirements (whereupon emphasizing the second aspect) without actually endangering the stock.

In particular ‘muktuk’, the whale’s skin and blubber was (and to some degree still is, I guess) an important source for vitamins C and D – actually, often it was the only available source. Muktuk does not only look like rubber skin, it also smells and tastes like it. It’s said, the fat develops a nutty taste if chewed. I tried it. ‘Nutty’? Well, maybe, but ‘taste’ leaves quite a scope, I can assure you.


Well, nuttily ... yes, maybe. But "not bad" would leave a large wiggle room.

The crucial question, however, which came up while I was writing this letter to you, is if this should also sanction the curious traveller’s interest. Sure, you may say I am covering it all behind cultural engagement, but can the limiting factors be any different for some all-inclusive tourist? And if so, why? Sorry, but I honestly don’t know and would leave you without an actual answer. But maybe this is something to ponder about until the next letter?


6 comments on “The little differences: Cultural delicacies

  1. Pingback: Scenes from a Greenlandic supermarket | Vagabond's Log

  2. Derek4Real
    January 2, 2015

    Awesome article, I completely agree with everything you said. I have no qualms about eating anything *except* for shark fin soup. And that’s purely for moral reasons, because of the process people go about acquiring the fins and the resulting disruption of the food chain. Balut, grasshopper, dog, turtle, stingray, bull penis, pigeon brain, chicken feet, scorpion, balut, goat tongue, horse, raw cobra heart, octopus etc etc etc…there is almost nothing I won’t try once. Whale and seal are still on my list but guess I’m currently in the wrong corner of the world right now for that hehehe. Of course from the way you describe it — not to mention that face hahaha — I have a feeling it will make me gag. It will also probably be one of those things I only eat once. But still I’m curious enough to go for it. Anyway I could ramble on forever about this topic but I’ll spare you all that ranting hahaha. Cheers!

  3. The Barefoot Backpacker
    September 15, 2015

    I’m pretty much in agreement! I’ve eaten more-or-less everything I’ve come across, as I feel if the locals eat it, it must be fine.

    I have decided though that I don’t like fish eyes. Not because I’m squeamish about eyes (I actually am; hate the idea of contact lenses even), but simply because I tried one and I found it to be absolutely disgusting!!

    • Jens
      September 15, 2015

      Fish eyes?! Not been there yet (and not sure if I look forward to). But then again … you’ll never know until you try, right? ;-)

  4. Pingback: Scenes from a Greenlandic supermarket | Sincerely yours, Jens

  5. Pingback: More Cultural Delicacies: Adventures in Baltic Cuisine. | Letters From The Field

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on January 31, 2014 by in Cultural Anthropology and tagged , , , , , .

Enter e-mail address to receive new dispatches directly.

%d bloggers like this: