Culture Guide: Culinary Empathy
By Barry Rodriguez
One day in Cambodia 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.
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.
Click here to read about my “Always say yes” philosophy.
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. 10 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 the point of swallowing a spicy Mekong river snail (one of the most vile-tasting things I’ve ever eaten) with a smile?
Embracing Culinary Empathy
Well, it took me several years to find the answer.
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. That skill? 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.
One day not too long ago, 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 fried tarantula, wriggly oysters and balut (hard boiled duck embryos).
Watch Barry put his “Always Say Yes” philosophy into practice:
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.
The first time I was in Cambodia I 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.
“Okay, looks like everyone is walking over to the toilets… Yep, I can handle that. Flushing the urinal with a ladle from a nearby basin? Okay… 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.
It turns out, they were delicious.
Between my India and Cambodia trips in 2010, 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 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!