Global Business Basics

Dec. 21, 2004
Business travel can mean daunting dining.

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), author of Physiology of Taste In virtually all cultures, business relationships are enhanced by people breaking bread together. Time-pressed North Americans are likely to discuss business at any meal -- breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In other cultures, talk about business may be acceptable at some meals but avoided at others. (South Americans, for example, usually keep dinner a social occasion). But, whether a culture's preferred business meal is a brunch, a banquet, or a barbecue, dining is an integral part of doing business. The globe-trotting executive should expect to dine often with foreign clients. This leads to the problem of cross-cultural food preferences. We've all heard the aphorism "One man's meat is another man's poison." This may not be literally true (except in the case of food allergies), but it is correct in essence. What one culture finds delectable another may find disgusting. Consider the horse. Many Europeans -- especially the French and the Belgians -- eat horse meat. Although meat eaters generally find horse meat tasty, many U.S. citizens refuse to eat it. In the history of the United States, the horse was too valuable to eat. Americans depended on the horse to push back the frontier. Furthermore, the United States had plenty of land to raise other meat animals, such as cattle and pigs. As a result, the horse entered the American mythos as a noble animal, not to be eaten. Europe, on the other hand, was awash in surplus horses every time large armies demobilized. European horse meat consumption peaked after World War I, probably because modern armies have little use for horses. Consider milk. In the United States, we promote milk consumption with high-priced ads featuring celebrities sporting milk mustaches. Yet most of the world's population is indifferent (at best) to dairy products. This is understandable, since a high proportion of Asian and African peoples are, to some degree, lactose-intolerant. The next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, look for dairy products on the menu. There won't be any (with the possible exception of ice cream for dessert). Consider pork and beef. Pork is immensely popular in both China and the United States. However, the consumption of pork is forbidden to observant Muslims and Jews. Similarly, the cow is revered by many Hindus, and beef is not popular in India. Consider the preparation. Sometimes it is the preparation of a dish that foreigners find objectionable. The Japanese consider sushi a delicacy, but some foreigners gag at the thought of eating raw fish. The people of Iceland have a notorious dish called hkarl, which is shark meat that has been buried in the ground for several months. This "aged" shark meat acquires a distinctive smell and texture that is prized by Icelanders. (One foreigner described it as reminiscent of "rubbery road-kill.") Consider the location. Many people don't even want to look at spiders, let alone eat them. But spiders are consumed in many places, from Laos to Madagascar to South America. (It seems that it's only worthwhile to eat spiders if there are big ones living in your neighborhood.) In China, competition for food in the world's most populous nation resulted in the consumption of every nonpoisonous creature. After unwinding the silk from silkworms, farmers often ate the pupae rather than let them go to waste. While you probably won't be served silkworms, you might encounter cooked scorpions or thousand-year-old eggs. Other delicacies on the menu in China include such unlikely items as Bear Paws Braised in Brown Sauce, Fish Lip Soup, Jellied Red Duck's Feet, and Eggs Soaked in Horse Urine. Elsewhere in Asia you may encounter a fruit called a durian. This unique spiny fruit has an interior with a delicate flavor, protected by an outer covering that smells revolting to most foreigners. (In Singapore, you may see "No Durian" signs in places that want to keep the odor away.) Visitors to the Philippines are sometimes offered a delicacy called a balut, which is a hard-boiled duck's egg with an incubated duck inside. Faced with such dubious dining delights, how can you make your overseas eating adventures easier? One technique is to learn something about the local cuisine before you travel. Eat at local restaurants that specialize in the food of your destination. And ask for advice from fellow executives who have traveled to that country. However, other seasoned travelers eschew such preparations. They claim that, when served an unfamiliar meal, it's better not to ask what it is. Just pretend that it's something familiar. Slice it thin and swallow it quickly. And don't forget to pack a Bromo Seltzer. Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway are the coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America, and their newest book: The 1999 World Holiday and Time Zone Guide. For further information about Getting Through Customs' seminars, online database, and books, phone (610) 725-1040 or fax (610) 725-1074. E-mail: [email protected]. Mail: Box 136, Newtown Square, Pa., 19073. Enter their Web site book contest at

Popular Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!