Mmm… scorpions on a stick

Published Jul 27, 2011


Quite a few years ago I was sent by an editor on what seemed like a dream assignment. The magazine had teamed up with a travel company and would offer readers a trip to experience “the best” of what Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore had to offer. I would go with the travel company honcho to preview the sights, the sounds, the smells – and the tastes – for an article. A complete flavour package, if you will.

Imagine my surprise when the man I would spend 10 days with told me, within minutes of our meeting at the airport in Johannesburg: “I leave my stomach at home when I travel,” boasting that he had lived for two years in Hong Kong, “and I never ate Chinese food”.

I was aghast.

And after our third French restaurant dinner in a row, this one at Gaddi’s, the famous haute cuisine restaurant at Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel, I put my foot down. I said I would go directly to the airport and take a plane back to South Africa if he took me to one more French restaurant.

Don’t get me wrong; I like French food. But we weren’t in France.

Wasn’t it logical that if you were in a place planning to write a “best of”, you’d want to eat the food? After all, how better to get to know a country, a city, a culture, traditions, than through what (and how) the people eat (and drink)?

After that we had memorable Chinese in Hong Kong, mouthwatering Thai in Thailand and I subsequently returned to Singapore several times to enjoy more of the famed food stalls that I ate from while my travel companion looked – hungry.

That particular “best of” trip took place before 1998, which is when the term “culinary tourism” was coined by a researcher at Bowling Green University in the US. Five years after that, in 2003, a canny American with an eye for a trend founded the International Culinary Tourism Association (ICTA).

In 2006 the United States Travel Industry Association, researching the eating habits of leisure travellers, came up with three classifications. They found that for one in 10 people, food or wine was a major factor in choosing a destination. These, they called “deliberate culinary travellers”.

Those who claimed to occasionally seek out culinary activities while travelling, they called “opportunistic culinary travellers”. The ones who reported randomly stumbling upon the odd memorable culinary experience, they called “accidental culinary travellers”.

Given how food has come out of the kitchen and moved into the public arena and made household names of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Rachael Ray, I’d happily bet 10 servings of Beluga caviar that, were they to repeat the 2006 study now, the “deliberate culinary traveller” category would have jumped several hundred percent. In fact, culinary travel has evolved into one of the fastest growing tourism niche markets.

In its broadest sense, culinary travel is defined as the pursuit of unique and memorable culinary experiences, often while travelling – although also at home.

Talking about home, when I was growing up in Durban, cheap Chinese (remember the Phoenix?) was about as foreign as you got.

Now we can go, if not right round the world in KwaZulu-Natal, at least on a long and winding culinary journey of East meets West. In addition there are the many exotic local experiences to be had, from bunny chow and Durbs curry to authentic “colonial” Portuguese to the Bovine Head Market on Warwick Avenue, where you can buy a few slices of boiled cows head with some flour dumplings.

Talking about exotic, self-proclaimed cultural anthropologist and Travel Channel Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern has eaten flying ants in Uganda, porcupine in South Africa (ag shame), armadillo in Bolivia, raw camel kidneys in Ethiopia, scorpion in China and Hunan-style rooster balls in Los Angeles.

He summed up the reasons to make food a focus when I interviewed him for a California-based magazine. “Food is a primary avenue to discovering what is most authentic about cultures everywhere,” he said. “I can learn much more about a people, a place, its history and traditions in a jungle market in Thailand than at the antiquities museum in Bangkok.”

And, Zimmern added, “One man’s weird is another man’s wonderful. The raw meat dishes of Ethiopia, for example, may seem strange to some, but it’s what they eat every day. Think about it. We’re all products of our culture.”

Zimmern does not advocate extreme for extreme’s sake. And to be a culinary traveller no more requires one to eat strange foods, except maybe once in a while out of curiosity, than it requires one to eat at famous gourmet restaurants – except also maybe once in a while out of curiosity. “If people eat from across a broader buffet, it’s good for the planet,” said Zimmern. “Think of overfishing (caused by over-demand). Think of foods that have become extinct (under-demand). Think of traditions that are dying out. By becoming aware, we can reverse trends.”

If I had space, I could share volumes on what I’ve personally been served up on plates around the world. I could go into great detail about the day in Venice I ate the pizza that defined – and reduced – all the pizzas I’ve eaten since; and partaking in a 700-year-old Maori tradition where mussels and prawns were cooked in “the lizard”, a bubbling natural geothermal cauldron in New Zealand; and buying the freshest organic heirloom fruit and veggies at one of San Francisco’s must-visit attractions, the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; and the carnivorous delights of Madrid bars; and visits to Princeton-by-the-Sea south of San Francisco in Dungeness Crab season.

And what about the sheep’s milk yoghurt with honey eaten for breakfast on a Greek island; and the cheese fondue devoured while a gigantic storm raged over Lake Lucerne in Switzerland? Both of these was with my daughter for company when she was 13 and I took her backpacking through Europe for three-and-a-half months. You have to eat, right? Why not make it an adventure?

The only thing I still get the creeps thinking about is a serving of sheep’s testicles at a nightclub with belly dancers in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. The small roasted animals impaled on wooden skewers that the Ivoirian children were selling along the roadside? They may have been delish, but those, I didn’t try.

Exploring tastes, traditions and cuisines while travelling – and savouring how other cultures eat, drink and make merry even in restaurants close to home or in one’s kitchen – opens up a whole new world. Of course, being aware of what we eat and preserving culinary traditions are politically correct right now. But I vote we just do it because it’s delicious.

You’re a culinary traveller when…

• Whether it’s a day trip, a weekend escape or a round-the-world vacation, what and where you will eat and drink is a highlight of your planning.

• Returning from a holiday, it’s not tchotchkes that weigh down your suitcase. It’s things you can eat.

• Even it it was a business trip, you’ve made it your business to spend some downtime indulging in the culinary pleasures of the place.

• Your travels excite your inner chef. You return from Spain itching to invite friends for a tapas party; you get back from Munich dying to serve them sausage and beer.

• You consult the library, read books and use Google to inform yourself on the defining foods and culinary traditions of a country before you visit.

• You may not watch the Food Channel but you’re curious to learn, probably subscribe to a couple of food-focused mags and most likely have an enviable selection to cookbooks.

• You care about where your coffee was grown.

• You could get very excited about a holiday built around a cooking class anywhere in the world.

• You return from your trips with more pictures taken in restaurants than in museums.

• You see food as a delicious adventure. - Sunday Tribune

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