There often comes a point on a travel adventure when you arrive at a culinary crossroads: the decision whether or not to try the local delicacy endemic to that culture. Sometimes that’s an easy choice to make when it takes the form of a sweet pastry, such as a Portuguese pastéis de nata for example, but for trickier options, particularly those that involve once-living creatures, the decision can become stomach-turning and morally defiling. And not just for vegetarians.
Out of all local ‘delicacies’, dog is arguably the one that causes the most repulsion; such animals are normally the receivers of treats as opposed to being the subjects of them. Dogmeat – an ugly, evil-sounding appellation – is something which I myself have never had the audacity, will, or even desire to eat, though for a long time I was curious as to the taste. A friend of mine travelling in Asia tried dog stew while in China and reliably informed me that it’s a ‘bit like beef, on the way down and on the way up’, which was enough to allay my interest. I have, however, about a decade ago, eaten a creature that in most countries is similarly sold in a pet shop rather than a restaurant, and that was the Peruvian cuy, better known to outsiders as the guinea pig.
My experience took place one lunchtime in a little restaurant in Cusco with an archetypal Peruvian atmosphere; mountain view, farmers in tall, wide brimmed hats walking past with alpacas, pan pipes piped through the stereo. And an offering of a typical menu. It felt natural at the time to serve my tastebuds with an equally Peruvian-styled experience.
I’d not had an encounter with a guinea pig since childhood. ‘Snuffles’ was owned by my school pal Bradley who kept her in his garage. What I remembered of the little fluffy thing, living in a straw-filled cage on a workbench, was its twitching face and the funny chutting and squeaking noises it made as it rummaged around looking for stray shreds of carrot. It was, in its way, adorable. And this memory made me feel guilty about my menu selection. I then justified the decision based on the assumption that my lunch had never been given a name. (Or had it?)
This in turn made me think about other factors present in the to-try-or-not-to-try decision-making process. I’d like to share them with you in case you find yourself in a similar situation, with whatever delicacy you may be confronted with, be it snails in France or Snuffles in Peru.
Experience is what travel is all about, insofar as you can’t travel without gaining it. And a big part of that experience is what you eat. Food stimulates all of the senses, and as eating is something we do regularly, trying local foods brings you closer to the country being visited. Had I gone to McDonalds in Cusco and not tried any local offerings then I would’ve been limiting my experience of Peru (unless a McCuy was on the menu).
Excursion into taste
Often typical food delicacies are offered in a local restaurant, but the opportunity to try them could also form part of an excursion. That might for instance be tasting coffee on a visit to a plantation in Colombia, or going on a tour of a jamon factory in Spain and sampling the cured meat there. The physical tasting of the food is only part of a wider experience, and one that teaches you more about the place and the people.
Learning can also happen in a metaphorical sense. If you’re eating something that the indigenous population eat – a delicacy alien to you and not to them – for that moment you are matching your tastebud sensibilities with that of a local, and by so doing, you experience more of what it feels like to be a local. It adds a deeper layer of understanding, regardless of whether or not you like the taste. You are what you eat and for a brief moment, you are the culture that surrounds you.
Albert Camus once said, ‘What gives value to travel is fear.’ The largest driver of fear is the threat of harm. Travel provides a whole host of opportunities to face fear, conquer it even, which can produce a euphoric feeling of success and a change in ourselves. Trying a local delicacy could provide one such opportunity. An extreme example might be the Japanese fugu or pufferfish, which if prepared incorrectly leads to death after ingestion. Less severe might be crunching on fried cockroaches in Thailand and trying not to retch. In either case you are standing up to the threat of perceived harm. Feel the fear and eat it anyway.
Choice and our virtuous selves
You have the choice to try the local speciality or not, and that in itself is important. That choice indicates something about you. If you’re vegetarian you clearly won’t be choosing guinea pig; the unchoice underlies your core values. My decision to eat guinea pig was influenced by place and time. If guinea pig was offered to me today in California say, I would refuse it as it’s not a local delicacy there. But, for all the reasons above, it felt ok to eat a farmed cuy in Peru, at that moment at least. The act highlighted my desire to embrace local culture, and to experiment. Would I eat cuy again? No. I’ve tasted it now (ham, by the way, in case you’re wondering).
But that’s not to say I would eat any local delicacy, just for experiment’s sake. For a variety of reasons I have not, and would never, as I mentioned, eat dog in China. Or whale in Iceland. Or chilled monkey brains in The Temple Of Doom. I’m not a vegetarian but I have personal limits and will refuse a local delicacy when my morality gauge kicks in. Such a gauge is set at different levels for different people, and determined by factors ranging from empathy to the environment (and for many after watching the farmyard animal movie Gunda that dial is likely to point towards veganism). In this way, the decision whether or not to try the local delicacy is a stoic one, teaching us something about the virtue of ourselves as well as highlighting our freedom of choice.