To Eat or Not to Eat, That Is the Question

by Craig Thompson on December 18, 2015

Have a look

I need your help to crowd source this post. Let me explain.

In every culture, there are some foods that those on the outside don’t understand. In fact, many on the inside don’t understand them either. Maybe they were first eaten during a time of shortage, and then, after that time had passed, they were handed down from generation to generation, not because the need was still there, but because they had become a part of the people’s identity. (Edit:) Of course, in some places, that “time of shortage” is happening now.

Maybe they are terrible-tasting things that we eat because they’re supposed to be good for us. (Maybe we think they’re good for us because they taste terrible?) And then there are those things that years ago, before refrigeration, were fermented—or prepared in some other way—to keep them from spoiling. And now, even after electricity, we still have them. Maybe it’s because over time our tastes just develop in different directions. Or maybe it’s because of extravagance: we’re wealthy enough to eat something odd and rare, just because we can.

Regardless of what put it on the menu, what food in your home-away-from-home gives your palate pause? Or, on the other hand, what have you tried that now has become part of who you are?

In the comments section below, tell us what it is, and let us know what you think about it. To make it easier, I’ve provided the scale below. All you need to do is give the name of the food followed with a number 1 through 6. (Adding places, comments, and experiences are optional but welcome.)

1- Absolutely no way!
2- Never again
3- Maybe someday
4- Actually not so bad
5- Think I like it
6- Love it! Love it! Love it!

For example, here are a couple from me that I know from my time in Taiwan—

  • Durian, 2 (but the smell is more like a 1!) The Taiwanese say that the first time you eat durian, you hate it; the second time you like it; and the third time it’s your favorite.
  • Stinky tofu, 4 (ditto on the smell)

Of course, this isn’t a look-at-those-crazy-people-over-there post. I’m from the US of A, which has introduced me to

  • Rocky-mountain oysters, 6 (as I recall, but I was pretty young at the time)
  • Head cheese, 1 (just the name’s too much for me)
  • Fruitcake, 4 (it is the Christmas season, after all).

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But enough from me. Now it’s your turn. Have at it!


[photos: “Have a Look,” by Malte Vahlenkamp, used under a Creative Commons license; “I have a fruitcake . . . ,” by John Brian Silverio, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • Prue Scott

    We work in Germany, and though most of the food is quite “normal” compared to some countries, I just can’t do leberkäse (translated as “liver cheese”) – it’s a meatloaf type dish, but it looks awful raw, in the fridge section of the supermarket. I have eaten something cooked that was probably what I turn my nose up at when raw in the supermarket, and it tasted fine (I’d give it a 4), but the look of it raw….. *shudder*.

    • Craig Thompson

      Yay! Thanks for being first. Head cheese, liver cheese – That’s not cheese!

  • HisFireFly

    Zambia here – and it is the start of rainy season when the “inswa” appear – huge flying ants that leave their wings everywhere. The ants are collected and dry fried. Ate my first one eyes shut – give them a 5. After the first I was able to look at them and consumed lots more. Only issue is the somewhat laxative effect if you eat too many. Very high in protein so much needed here.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks for the reminder that some places are in need now. See my edit above.

  • Victoria Parsonson

    Madagascar: fried locusts – 4 (really not so bad once you get over the fact you’re eating insects). Pig stomach – 2 (or a 1 if it’s reheated for breakfast at 4am after you already forced some down the night before. After learning how to butcher a pig in the village I now realise how enormous pig entrails are and why you might not want to waste them . But it’s rhat awful film it leaves in your mouth which is wven worse when it’s reheated / lukewarm. Cat – 1 – the taste really was just generic meat – but hard to het your head round what you’re eating. The locals were very matter of fact about it (“it was eating our chickens so we killed it and cooked it, job done”). Fish head soup – 1 – mainly because the type of small 3cm fish we have, have enormous eyes. And they fall off. So basically it’s fish eye soup. Fish eyes floating round my breakfast? No thank you!

    • Craig Thompson

      For those of us from the US, cat may be the strongest 1! on this whole list – though I don’t think I’d have a big problem with it. Really like the explanation (it was eating our chickens so . . .)

  • Denise in Kenya 2

    Kenya–Matumbo (goat, sheep, pig or cow intestines without being washed)–that would be a very high 2–once was enough. Maasai version of goat gut stew–with hair, eyeballs, feet, tongue–again a 2. Samaki-very large tilapia fried whole (after being cleaned) definitely a 6–I just don’t do the eyeballs or the gills.

    • Craig Thompson

      Matumbo and goat-gut stew – probably not coming to a restaurant menu soon. Thanks.

  • PeruvianNomad

    I live in Peru, We eat Guinea pig here, sheep brain soup, and in the jungle (Where I often travel) Ants, a flying type of beetle, and a slug called “Suri”. Never know though, I’ve had Rocky mountain oysters, Sheep brain, etc. I don’t like Sheep brain soup. Guinea Pig is actually pretty good.

    • Craig Thompson

      I want to try Suri. It makes me think of Lion King.

  • Lori Hershberger

    Thailand… ok, so I am NOT as brave as I thought after reading some of the comments below. Sheep brain soup????!!! Anyway, fish eyes in a roasted fish are a delicacy here (3), and I’ve eaten 5 year old fermented fish (4). I’ve eaten pig entrails in China (4) as well as pig feet (4). Otherwise, the other crazy stuff I’ve eaten, I just don’t ask what it is.

    • Craig Thompson

      I agree. There’s quite a bit of bravery here. I don’t mind the fish eyes in roasted or fried fish, but floating in soup is a different ballgame.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Hilarious Craig! While Cambodia offers many great things (ginger and lemongrass, passion fruit and pineapples, various stir-fried dishes, etc, all of which I rate at 6’s), it also offers items strange to the American palate (fish head soup, fried spiders, durian, and prahok, which is the fish paste stuff they spread on everything — and all of which I rate at a 1). They also eat coagulated pig’s blood as a source of iron in their soups. I do love the wedding porridge and some of their sticky rice/poppy seed deserts. I think the more “exotic” a dish gets, the less I usually care for it, and the more generalized Asian-ish it gets, the more open I am to it. How’s that for a failure to integrate my tastebuds after 4 years?? 🙂

    • Craig Thompson

      We once hosted a group of college students and took them to a hot-pot restaurant. Which soup base should we order? We chose one that seemed OK but when we got our pots, each had cubes of coagulated pig’s blood in them. We apologized and sent them back. That’s a 1 for me. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  • Dave Lewis

    Northeast Thailand (Isaan): water buffalo afterbirth. A great delicacy that they shared only with very honored guests. A solid 6 in my book.

    • Craig Thompson

      Oh boy. This one is kind of in a category of it’s own. Got to say I’d at least try it – if I were honored enough to be served it. Thanks, Dave.

  • Jackie

    I lived in the Andes in Peru. Guinea pig is a definite 6 for me! Goat meat is more like a 4. Fish head soup is fine until you eat the eyeball. I will never do that again.

    • Craig Thompson

      I’m guessing the guinea pigs are deep fried whole with the feet, head, etc. There are some great photos on Flickr (including one where someone, as a joke, sat a pet guinea pig on top of a skillet of vegetables).

  • Chloe Q

    I have a question rather than an experience–how do you deal with being offered food that’s questionable in safety? I am from the US, but my husband and I feel called to missions work abroad (eventually?) and I’ve often wondered about this. I can deal with gross, but I also tend to think that what doesn’t kill me may in fact cripple my immune system for life. (Note: My dramatic tone is a joke, but there are some serious, nasty bugs out there…)

    • tuga

      In regards to being served something, I think most foreigners go for it. Especially when you are invited to an event, into someone’s home or humble situation. If you are planning on working with impoverished people then you will expect to be invited into their lives. Saying no to gifts of food and drink from people who have little to give, would be rude and inconsiderate. It would also prevent you from forming significant relationships with people who will desperately need you. Yes, it might make you sick. That should be something you consider when thinking about the missionary field. Mostly, people understand that foreigners have “sensitive” stomachs. However, depending on where you serve, you will find that fairly quickly your stomach will adapt, strengthen and your heart will grow in ways you never thought possible. Despite having diarrhea for days, stomach cramps and vomiting. Those shared meals will be forever transforming. If you had children, I would have other recommendations. My son had salmonella in central America, it was a stressful experience.

      In regards to the blood. I think your mindset will have to shift some before making such a cultural leap. Christians in other cultures do practice Christianity within their cultural norms. For example, I visited a Christian church in Malaysia. They speak English and Malay plus various other languages. In Malay, the word for God is Allah and when the English came, the allowed them to continue using that word in the English they taught them. Now, they are fighting the government to continue to use the only word they have known for God because the Muslim government is afraid they will more easily be able to convert Muslims to Christianity because they are using the same word for God, Allah. This word is important to Malaysian Christians, they know the word God and have feelings towards it as we do, but their word is Allah. I missed out by not buying a bible there… as Allah replaced the word God. Could you accept and help other Christians with a fight like that? Even though for us culturally Allah means something so much different? Also something to consider.

    • Craig Thompson

      Both of your questions are good ones. I agree with tuga, below, that fending off mild-to-moderate food-born illnesses is part of missionary life in most places. Some more than others. If that is an issue for you, then you might want to consider a place where there is less of a risk. It’s a big world.

      On Acts 15, that’s one of the reasons I sent the soup back at the hot-pot restaurant (see my comment below). Not eating blood is something I’ve stuck to, though I’m not legalistic about it, and wouldn’t judge someone who’s come to a different conclusion. Being in a large city, where most meals I ate as a guest were at a restaurant, it wasn’t so difficult to navigate. Among the Christian community in Taiwan, the question of eating food sacrificed to idols was a bigger issue. Regardless of your location, I think it’s important to walk through these issues with fellow missionaries and local believers. Some have tackled these issues before, and you can learn from their conclusions. And those who haven’t will benefit from coming to thought-through solutions with you rather than being handed black-and-white answers from “outsiders.” You will benefit from those conversations as well. Blessings as you explore your calling.

  • Mindy

    Indonesia, South Sumatra specifically. They do durian here too and I’d give it a 3, I can eat it without making faces but still don’t enjoy it. What’s interesting is that someone thought fermenting it would improve the flavor and smell, they turned it into a dish called tempoyak, of which they are very proud. I don’t think it’s much worse than plain durian, but certainly isn’t any better. Eating beef skin with the underlying fat is popular and a 2 for me. Thankfully I haven’t come across any 1’s yet, but the’s comments are letting me know they’re out there.

    • Craig Thompson

      I know in a lot of places the fat is considered the best part of the animal. Really hard for me to stomach. Adding the skin doesn’t help any. Given the choice that would be a 1 for me, but if I were served it as an honor, I’d do my best.

  • tuga

    Oaxaca Mexico, grasshoppers a 5 or a 6 on the smallest size. Even though the larger kinds tasted the same I just could not do it.

    Chengdu China, dried yak meat. 6, delicious!!

    Malaysia, durian… had to give the durian a positive review 🙂 Smell is for sure a 1 but the fruit and all things durian (especially ice cream!) get a 6 for me. Yum!

    Pachuca Mexico, goat blood soup flavor a 4 to 5… it tasted good, but I would never eat it again… the texture and visual was a 1. Too much weird texture for me to eat it again.

    • Craig Thompson

      I’m not sure, but I think I’ve tried durian ice cream. There’s an ice-cream shop in Taipei with a lot of odd flavors – including durian, wasabi, and pig’s foot. I’m sure I’ve had the last two. Wasabi, interesting; pig’s foot, beyond interesting – only tried it so I could say that had.

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