Controversial issues are not typically things we deal with on our blog and that’s a shame. It’s a fact of life that people have differing opinions and some people are incredibly vocal in their beliefs. It’s natural to shy away from creating conflict. Part of this is due to a gene-deep need to fit into society to survive. The other part is because it’s damn uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, to be the brunt of an attack by people who disagree with something you’ve said or done and want to let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they think you’re an ass. Get those angry comments ready folks. We’re about to stir up some emotion. You may just think we’re a couple of asses by the end.
Controversial Food Around The World
Cultural differences range from the subtle, almost indistinguishable to the stark, brutally contrasting. While travelling, these differences are highlighted time and time again. Sometimes it feels as though there’s a spotlight following us around as we travel from country to country, pinpointing those differences. Usually, it’s other people controlling the direction of the beam: “Did you know they have ping pong shows in Thailand?!” or “Careful when you order in Korea, they eat dog!”. These completely incomprehensible differences then become the fuel for an attack of the morals and ethics of another culture.
Don’t get us wrong, we judge too. Especially when we’re hungry, travel-weary or just plain fed up with navigating the minefield of frustrations that come while dealing with the behaviours of a culture so different from our own. In the end, we get over it and realize it’s all about perspective. We’ve even come to realize that our own steadfast (or at least we thought they were) beliefs in what is right and wrong across cultures occasionally move into a grey area reserved for those who step away from their own ethnocentrism and attempt to view a culture from within. This is especially true when we cross paths with controversial food around the world.
Having said all that, we have done a few things we swore we would never do. Two things we ate in particular that, even after mentally stepping inside the cultural-framework within which it is acceptable, we feel regret and dismay. Alright, we’ll be honest, we didn’t step inside anything mentally with the first one…we were just flat out drunk.
A Night Of All-You-Can Drink Yakiniku
Two hours. That’s how long we had to indulge ourselves and reach epic levels of sloppy, delicious gluttony. And boy did we indulge.
Yakiniku, or BBQ meat, is one of our favourite styles of restaurant in Japan where you cook your own meat over a grill in the middle of your table and get in touch with your inner caveman (or woman). Conversation ensues with the smell of wonderfully marinated pork or perfectly tender steak, and oftentimes the sake is flowing. Our friend in Okinawa decided to take us to a local yakiniku that also happened to be all-we-could-eat, all-we-could-drink, for only $30. And when we say ALL you can drink, we mean spirits, wine, beer, cocktails, sake, you name it, you can order it. And we did.
Needless to say, two hours later our friend’s suggestion to go across the street to an izakaya (tapas-style) restaurant and continue drinking seemed like the best idea ever. What she didn’t tell us was that she planned to order some of their specialty dishes for us to try. Dishes we hadn’t planned on ordering while in Japan.
We followed her inside the narrow entrance, squeezing behind the occupied stools lining the bar and made our way upstairs. Taking off our shoes, we settled ourselves onto cushions on the floor around a table, a traditional Japanese setting, as the owner discussed the menu with our friend. She talked us into agreeing to eat raw chicken.
As the dish of small, light-coloured pieces of uncooked chicken made its way in front of us, we noticed the dark-red, unknown strips of meat set to the side. “That”, she said, “is basashi…raw horse”. Carolann made some inane comment about Black Beauty and Macrae stared, eyes glazed with, er, uncertainty.
The rest happened in a alcohol-fueled haze. The cell phone recording of the experience, a helpful guide to the events that transpired as chopsticks met horse meat and horse meat met mouths. We have different recollections of the taste, neither of us found it overly offensive but then, neither of us went for seconds.
While horse meat is considered a delicacy in at least 9 other countries, including Iceland and France, the taboo of eating it is far more wide-reaching, though this wasn’t always the case. Nowadays, horses are a hugely controversial food, often too closely linked with the concept of a pet to make them acceptable food items and it was this connection that had us avoiding any further consumption.
The raw chicken on the other hand, was a dish we happened to order more than once while in Japan.
That One Time in Korea
They were going to eat it and it was still moving.
Standing in one of the cluttered, busy aisles of the Gwangjang market, the food stalls alight from the overhanging lamps, we watched as the plate of squirming pieces of tentacles was placed in front of the two waiting customers near us. We had stopped at a stall serving sannakji, raw octopus that is cut into small pieces, live. As we watched the bowls of sauce moved ceremoniously beside the plate and the two patrons preparing to dig in, we saw no sign of those tentacles slowing down.
Then it happened. The duo glanced over and noticed us staring, with our eyes wide and mouths gaping, and they smiled. They were either being very nice or very clever in choosing their meal-time entertainment, but they offered their plate to us and told us we could try. With that kind smile and polite offer, we gave a few weak shakes of our head. A second offer, the plate moved even closer and a new pair of chopsticks appeared. We looked at each other and knew we were both thinking the same thing “how rude is it for us to turn this down?”. We finally accepted. Both of us taking turns choosing a piece, taking way too long to think about it, and finally placing that squirming, sliding, tentacle in our mouths.
It’s a controversial practice. Something we both said we weren’t going to do. Unfortunately, that’s not all we did. We also went home and researched the topic of eating live octopus, specifically how an octopus feels when it is being chopped up. Try that kind of research about something controversial you’ve done. It’s a great way to make yourself feel even shittier than you did.
Digesting (excuse the pun) a bunch of research on cephalopod neuroanatomy, and believe it or not psychology, as well as discussions on animal cruelty and welfare, cultural sensitivity and food culture we were left with the bone-deep knowledge that we would not be trying sannakji again. We respect that it is a delicacy in the country, not just a crazy thing tourists do when they go to Korea, but to us it is also an inhumane way to treat a living creature and something we don’t wish to participate in again.
What We Learned
So, have at us! We think we were wrong too, but you know what? In the end, we can say we learned a few things:
1. It’s not as easy as right and wrong. Cultural traditions and ties are a strong force and when you are immersed in a culture, things can start to look a little different than you once thought.
2. We’re a bit stronger in our beliefs BECAUSE we tried these two things. We can say unequivocally that neither are things that we really need to be eating. Granted, if you’re a vegetarian you will say no animal needs to be eaten…so you’ve got us there.
3. We learned another lesson in “not judging others”. After all, we’ve done it too!
4. We’ve learned that we can do some unpredictable things when we drink too much in Japan!