The other day I found myself in an intense staring contest with a quail.

It was dead, of course.  And fried.  And part of my lunch.  But that didn’t change the fact that its vacant eyes were staring up at me, unblinking; a steady reminder that even in death the bird had a deep and abiding contempt for my species.

If dead quails could speak, this one would be saying, “How dare you?”

While I was contemplating my own role in the demise of this majestic creature, someone suggested I take a bite. Because I always say yes, I picked up a piece with the head still attached, ripped off a bit of meat from the neck and chewed.

It tasted like chicken.  It felt like murder.

When I was offered some dried fruit in a random village shack, of course I couldn’t refuse!

A Picky Eater

So here’s the real question: how in the world was I able to eat deep fried quail neck in Cambodia without barfing all over the wall?  Or for that matter, how did I even work up the courage to take a bite?

I mean, I used to be a super-picky eater.  Six years ago I couldn’t eat anything with a bone still on it, much less a face!  Brussels sprouts made me nauseous.  Seafood made me gag.

Let’s just say I didn’t have a very discerning palate.  If a restaurant served Italian food, I ordered pizza.  If it served American food, I ordered a hamburger.  End of story.

So how did I get from that point to last week, where I swallowed a spicy Mekong river snail (one of the most vile-tasting things I’ve ever eaten) with a smile?

Culinary empathy helped me take at least a few bites of tarantula. Yes, the ones on my shirt are alive. But no, the one I ate was dead.

Embracing Culinary Empathy

Well I didn’t know the answer until a few days ago…

Because I am not naturally adventurous or iron-stomached, I’ve had to draw on a different skill to get me through these culinary challenges.  Something that isn’t usually associated with cuisine…

And no, I’m not referring to my ravishingly handsome physique.   I’m talking about empathy.

You see, I’m usually a pretty empathetic person.  I am aware of the feelings of others, able to put myself in their shoes and see the world from their perspective.  Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I’m doing World Next Door in the first place.

The other day, as I was debriefing my most recent culinary exploits with my parents, I put two and two together and realized how empathy plays a role in my eating.

“Whenever I have to eat something weird,” I told them, “I just remind myself that people here eat this.  That this is normal to them.”  Looking at the weird food from their perspective, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so revolting.

This, for example, is how I was able to take my first few bites of tarantula…

Voluntarily

The coolest thing about all of this, however, is that it has begun to expand.  Now it is more than simply saying “yes” when weird foods are put in front of me.  To my own surprise, I’ve begun to try new things voluntarily...

After spending the night on the floor of a one-room house (more on that in a future article), I was served a breakfast of porridge with chunks of liver in it. Although my culinary empathy was going full-blast at the time, I still thought as I took my first bite, “Oh please let this be chocolate, oh please let this be chocolate…”

I recently took a five hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang.  At about 10am, the bus stopped at a rest area for a few minutes.  Being the only white guy around, and not knowing what bus-stop etiquette is in these parts, I had to watch what everyone else was doing and simply follow along.

“Ok, looks like everyone is walking over to the toilets… Yep, I can handle that.  Flushing the urinal with a ladle from a nearby basin?  Ok… And now everybody is walking over and buying noodles and some sort of soup.  Hmm, well I am hungry…”

As I walked up to buy some noodles, my older, more practical self began to protest.  “Uh oh.  Those veggies were washed with unclean water… She just touched those noodles with her bare hands!  What exactly are those round, stringy things floating in the soup?”

I was about to walk away when my culinary empathy kicked in.  I looked around, saw a ton of other people eating noodles and realized, “If they are all eating them, how bad can they be?”

I paid for the noodles, took my bowl to a nearby table and started chowin’ down with a pair of chopsticks.

I am finally able to show my food who’s boss. I’m looking at you, rice…

It turns out, they were delicious.

More Interesting

Between my India and Cambodia trips, I spent a day hanging out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Having absolutely no idea where to eat lunch, I let my culinary empathy be my guide.  I wandered through crowds of people in KL’s Chinatown, eventually winding back through a dark, crowded alleyway market.

In the back of the alley was a tiny stall selling something called curry laska.  There were a ton of people eating there, so I just went for it and ordered a bowl, laughing about how far I have come over the last few years.

As I ate, I realized that pointing to the first thing on the menu in a back alley restaurant in a city far from home may not be quite as safe as ordering a hamburger at McDonald’s…

…but it sure makes life more interesting!

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Steve H. said... 

    Reply

    December 15th, 2010 at 8:56 am  

    Barry, “things floating in the soup” reminded me of our NYC Relief Bus trip!

  2. Curtis Honeycutt said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 10:29 am  

    Dude, you’re out of control. I don’t even know what to say…

  3. kristina said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 2:37 pm  

    NYC Relief Bus? I’ve been there and worked with them over spring break about three years ago. What a small world!

  4. Blake said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 3:09 pm  

    You should serve tarantula at the next world next door event !

  5. Dave Rod said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 3:09 pm  

    What have you done with my son?

  6. April said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 3:28 pm  

    AH! I can’t believe you have eaten some of these things!!

  7. Whitney said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 4:12 pm  

    Haha…totally reminds me of an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. He always says that if you’re not sure where to eat, find the restaurant/street vendor with the longest line and go there!

  8. Bonny Yegon said... 

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    December 15th, 2010 at 11:49 pm  

    Barry.you have guts men…i salute you

  9. Tanya B said... 

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    December 16th, 2010 at 5:21 am  

    What to say… you are my hero :)

  10. Jim. M. said... 

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    December 17th, 2010 at 10:42 am  

    Serving a big cooked spider at the next WND event…I don’t think so. Toy spiders for the kids, sure…cooked spiders for the adults probably not a big demand for that. See you soon stay well.

  11. Kristen said... 

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    December 17th, 2010 at 11:13 am  

    Noooooooo way could I have done that. Cuddos to you. I could barely watch you do it.

  12. Denyse H said... 

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    December 21st, 2010 at 4:47 pm  

    I actually shuddered watching the video ha!

  13. Rob said... 

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    December 24th, 2010 at 1:26 pm  

    Culinary Empathy. I like it, but I wonder if there’s an even deeper phrase that describes the overwhelming passion and compassion you have for people that has swung open doors, er intestinal tracts, in ways that were unimaginable to you (and still are to me).
    Thanks for taking us on this global cultural journey.

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