Imagine this: While visiting a Yao village in the mountains of Northern Thailand, the headman of the village prepares a feast, and begins passing around a plate filled with a local delicacies. Excited to try the native cuisine, you pile your plate high—then realize that it’s stacked with fried bamboo worms.
What? Do people really eat that?
Well, yes, they do. And if the villagers are sharing them with you, they’re also sharing their abundance and pride in their culture. You’re probably not going to want to just scrape those worms off your plate.
Eating around the world can be daunting and sometimes complicated. So if you have dietary restrictions—or simply can’t stand the thought of lamb eyeballs or a cow stomach—here are some ways to avoid cross-cultural mishaps and still remain a respectful guest.
Smile Like You Mean It
No matter how different the food on your plate appears, don’t play with it or show disgust. Body language is universal, and your hosts will sense that you're upset. Instead, a nervous laugh or a curious smile will ease the tension.
Know the History
In Burma, wild dog is a common protein source for people living in the jungle. In Thailand, 1,000-year-old eggs are not really 1,000 years old—they’ve just been preserved in the ground. So, ask about the food you’re eating. Discovering its history and meaning can make it less intimidating.
Take Just Enough
Is this the only food your host has to share to show his hospitality? If so, take a small heap and be sure you can finish it. If food is plentiful and your host encourages you to take more, or begins piling food for you, eat slowly and strategically to ensure that too much food doesn’t get piled on your plate or in your stomach.
Don’t Be Afraid of Getting Sick
Afraid of Delhi Belly or some freakish parasite entering your system? Let it go. If families and villagers are eating it, you’re probably better off than you are in a tourist restaurant. Hosts usually serve food that is grown locally, and most local food is naturally “free range.” Plus, if you travel with the fear of getting sick, you’ll miss opportunities to taste incredible new foods.
Of course, unfamiliar foods, particularly if they’re greasy, spicy, or raw, can occasionally cause you to get sick. So be prepared: Stock your suitcase with Imodium to stop an upset stomach, activated charcoal in case of vomit, and fresh ginger to cure nausea. Also, a good travel trick is to eat the local yogurt as soon as you get off the plane. This way, your stomach will have good local bacteria to fight the unfamiliar germs in your digestive tract.
Know Your Limits
Eating abroad can make us consider our own values and beliefs about food. Ask yourself how far you’re willing to go based on your unique dietary requirements. In many cases, if you have restrictions because of religion or personal belief, people will be understanding, especially about pork and beef. Learn the local words for “vegetarian,” “cannot eat,” or “without” so you can try to explain your dietary needs before the meal and avoid inconveniencing your hosts.
But, in rural areas, food may also be scarce. A friend of mine who was a lifetime vegetarian once had to eat goat, because there was no other food in the countryside. Before you go, know your flexibilities and limitations and try to find out what you can expect at your destination—you may want to adjust your travel plans accordingly.
Say No Politely
There are times, say, when someone serves you a still-beating cobra heart or a slab of monkey meat, when for your health and your well-being, you just have to say no. You can explain that it is simply what you are not used to, or that you feel ill. Be gentle but firm about your stance.
Or Just Eat It
If the food is absolutely stomach-churning, but you have to eat it, pretend you’re on Fear Factor. Seriously. Close your eyes and chew that tripe, imagining you are eating a cupcake, and know it will be over in a few seconds. (And make sure there is some good water nearby to wash it down.) A smile and a gulp may save you a lengthy explanation in broken language, and the hurt feelings for your host, too. Plus, you may be surprised at what sounds scary, but tastes delicious.
Throughout my travels, I’ve learned that bamboo worms taste like Lay's potato chips—and also that cobra will always taste like metallic reptile. But no matter how scary a new food might seem, it’s better to try it and experience it yourself. If it’s delicious, you’ll have a new favorite food. If it’s awful? Well, at least you’ll have a good travel story to share when you get home.
Photos courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski and Natalie Jesionka.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author