Global Business Basics -- Strange Tastes

Dec. 21, 2004
Traveling abroad means dining abroad. Be aware that cultural cuisine may not always be palatable.

During President George W. Bush's recent visit of to Seoul, reporters from all over the world converged on South Korea. Visitors unfamiliar with Korean food faced a challenging cuisine. Koreans traditionally serve kimchi -- a fermented dish usually made with cabbage -- at every meal. Kimchi is often too spicy for foreign palates. (Antacids can take care of that.) But the dish visitors react most strongly to is dog, which is another popular food in Korea. Aware that many foreigners look askance upon this practice, restaurants that serve dog were asked to take it off the menu during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This time, however, canine cuisine remained available, as it will during the upcoming World Cup soccer matches, which will be co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Of course, South Korea is not the only country where "different" foods are eaten. Many world cuisines contain things that others consider inedible or off-limits. This prompts a dilemma for the globetrotting executive -- what do you do when served something you find repulsive? The adventurous, iron-stomached traveler has a simple solution: try it. Plenty of foods that seem vomitous on first glance turn out to be quite palatable. If a knife is provided, cut the meat into thin slices and eat the interior -- that often disguises the taste and/or origin. (Yes, most unfamiliar meats really do taste like chicken.) What about the rest of us who get queasy at the very thought of eating things such as dog, whale or insects? For the most part the revulsion is mental. Indeed, one U.S. professor of sociology describes enjoying a mystery meat in Morocco until he discovered the meat was dog. He promptly threw up. Realize that when you turn down food you risk insulting your hosts. Food is central to any culture's identity, and people are very defensive about what they eat. Sharing their food is one way to create good will, which is a necessity for doing business overseas. What if you taste a food and find it inedible? Fortunately, you are not usually required to consume an entire serving of comestibles. (The exception to this rule is alcoholic drinks: in most cultures, you are expected to drain your cup.) After trying something dubious, if you don't like it, leave the rest on your plate. In fact, it is advisable to leave some uneaten food on your plate in many parts of the world, especially Asia. Leaving food indicates that you are sated, and demonstrates to your hosts that they served an abundance. If you clean your plate, this may be taken as a sign that you are still hungry, and more food may be pressed upon you. Also, be cautious about eating only a familiar, easily recognizable portion of a dinner. If you fill up on identifiable cuisine, such as shrimp, the host may serve the entire family's portion of shrimp to you. Obviously, it is impolite to consume all the shrimp meant for a family. The solution is to at least try some of everything. For travelers who cannot bring themselves even to try eating odd foods, there are a few acceptable excuses for turning down food. The best excuse you can give for turning down food or drink is medical. (If you want to use this excuse in your travels, learn how to say "my doctor forbids me to eat/drink this" in the native language.) Once you get this point across, you are safe. No one purposely wants to make a guest ill. But, as any experienced prevaricator can tell you, it is important to keep your lies consistent. You can't dine on beef or pork with your hosts today, then turn down dog tomorrow with the excuse that your doctor doesn't allow you to eat meat. Related to the "doctor's order excuse" is a genetic inability to eat certain foods. Most of the world's adult population lacks the enzyme to comfortably digest milk products. Cheese and diary products are not found on the dinner tables in most African or Asian homes. Some Mediterraneans also are lactose-intolerant. This allows a visiting Thai or Nigerian businessman to turn down cheese or ice cream. Unfortunately, the average Anglo-American has no such excuse. People of Northern European descent can, in theory, consume any cuisine on earth. Another way to politely decline curious cuisine is to explain that your religious beliefs prohibit such delicacies. Jews and Muslims have extensive food taboos. In South Asia, the Jains eat no meat and Hindus do not eat beef. Buddhist dietary practices are complex, but many observant Buddhists are vegetarians. Even religions that do not have general food taboos may dictate fasts at particular times or days. Roman Catholics are expected to fast before taking communion at church and on certain holy days of obligation, such as Good Friday. Naturally, people vary in their adherence to their religious beliefs. (My staunchly Catholic parents made this exception to fasting: If you are a guest in someone's home, eat what they serve you, even if it happens to be a Catholic day of fasting.) But in general, religious strictures are an acceptable reason for avoiding certain foods. What if you limit your diet for other reasons? Unfortunately, non-religious, non-medical reasons are not widely understood in other cultures. It is only recently that many Western nations have accepted vegetarianism as a non-religious choice. (Until the 1990s, vegetarianism was virtually unheard of in beef-producing nations like Argentina and Uruguay.) Remember that in much of the world meat remains a rare treat. You will probably find that your vegetarianism will be accepted more if you couch it in religious terms. One thing not to do is to criticize the food choices of other cultures. One expert in this area is author Marvin Harris, who wrote on food preferences in his book "Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures" (1991, Vintage Books). He claims that food preferences are traceable to culture and geography. For example, India has a food supply insufficient to maintain herds of cattle. Consequently, the predominant religion, Hinduism, declared the cow to be sacred and off-limits as a food source. Such food preferences need not be sanctified by religion. The vast size of the United States made the horse a necessity for travel in pre-industrial times. As a result, a taboo arose against eating horseflesh. Even though few of us depend upon horses nowadays, the taboo remains. The eating of insects follows similar patterns. Scientists have measured how many calories it takes to gather insects and compared that to the number of calories provided by ingesting those insects. In most of North America, it takes more energy to trap and gather the native bugs than would be gained by eating them. According to theory, this is why North Americans generally find eating insects repulsive. The lesson from this? When offered food you find distasteful, don't denigrate the offering as "disgusting" or "unnatural." If they eat it, it is natural and efficient for them to do so. And be aware that the locals may find your culinary customs to be equally distasteful. Wayne A. Conaway is the co-author of five books on cross-cultural business issues, including the best selling "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in 60 Countries." He can be reached at 610-429-8910 or at [email protected]

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