On Asian food and stereotypes

Ground floor in the lift of my fancy Mekong Delta hotel in Vietnam is level 1. I comment to the guy standing next to me that it’s confusing. ‘That’s your British system for you’, he replies. I say, ‘I’m not British’, and he retorts, ‘It’s all the same.’ I was going to tell him at home we’re building a hospital without a level 1 but decided to get down off my high horse. If I had a dollar for every piece of casual racism targeting Asian people I’d own that hotel.

A day later MONA touted its latest Dark Mofo controversy with ‘Eat the Problem’. Loads of pests were on the menu but it was the idea of eating feral cats that provoked some strong reactions on social media. People love their pets and then it wasn’t long until the predictable Asian stereotype was thrown on the table. BTW the stereotype is dog not cat but why let details get in the way of a racial slur? I took a deep breath and jumped off that diving board.

Stories are generated to sell news and MONA thrives on a thrill. What got lost in the hyperbole was the critical issues of our food values and food market dominance – why some foods and their production processes are acceptable and others aren’t, and how these foods are culturally, economically and socially loaded.

Take chicken for argument’s sake. If you’re a creature-eater, chicken is one of the ‘safest’ right? Well, I have one meat-loving friend who refuses to eat it, calls it a dirty bird with all the scratching around it does. Otherwise it enjoys wide-spread popularity. However, even the RSPCA has been criticised for supporting high-intensity farming practices. That’s not optimum for the chicken and not great for us.

The Lovely Deputy and I keep a tiny holding of hooved animals. They’re not an environmentally-sustainable as a food source. The most common reaction I get from people when they learn that we keep and slaughter animals for our own consumption is dismay, mostly because we name our beasts. The quality of being ‘other’ seems to apply to animals as much as humans and certainly to the Western approach to eating them.

Vietnamese people I met on my travels raised the stereotype in conversation.

For background, there are almost 50 countries that make up Asia, that’s crudely Siberia to Indonesia, multitudes of indigenous and cultural groups and a plethora of food practices. It’s East Asia that gets the bollocking for this one though. An older Vietnamese told me that during the war, the Mekong Delta aka food belt of southern Vietnam was largely destroyed, food was scarce and people ate what they could to survive. Turn up your nose if you must but there’s only three days between hunger and civil war. If you’ve watched a zombie movie you know that for sure. Most of us have been lucky to live without large-scale armed conflict and with exceptions, most of us have no idea what it’s like to be destitute. Instead, we have enough wealth to buy services like takeaway coffees and restaurant meals and enough options to be picky.

True confessions. Not so long ago I served up some calf’s tongue with salsa verde. My guests hoed in and then pulled up short when someone asked what we were eating. Tastes like chicken.

Younger Vietnamese people said it wasn’t part of their experience and they didn’t believe their generation would support the practice because of the domestication of dogs as pets. That made sense too. I did a quick and dirty google search. I found a bit on dog-eating in China where historically the animal served other social and cultural purposes – crudely, the dog was a cow for argument’s sake. I love my cows. Like I said, I name them and I eat them (not Rosie). Imagine a world in five or six centuries though, where cows have a blankie in the lounge room, play with a squeezy toy and we take them to the beach tethered. It would be messy but put the practicalities aside a moment and let’s skip to the Asian sub-continent and remember that in areas, the cow is sacred and not to be messed around with. And I don’t mean turning the steak on the BBQ more than once. In a short geographical distance from our Australian home there is such richness in how cultures approach food production and consumption, historically and currently. It’s true that Australians are travelling more and we are reaching further and further into Asian cuisine for our food inspiration. The only reason I see for a demarcation on what food’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ is to maintain ‘otherness’. With the ‘other’ comes discrimination.

Tongue aside, I’m not overly adventurous with offal and my food experiences are fairly Euro-centric. In Vietnam, it was time to put caution to the wind and embrace the culture I was in. I told myself, if this was what normal eating here was, I should try it, and so I did. Here’s some of the foods I tried.

  1. Scallops – yeah right I hear you say, no biggie. Was for me. I’ve never liked those teabags of the sea but confronted with them on a food tour I battened down the hatches and swallowed a delightful spicy mouthful of seafood, shallots, chilli and cumquat. I’ve waited my whole life for scallops done that way.
  2. Frogs – big deal right? Who hasn’t eaten those tasty morsels at a French restaurant? Popular thirty years ago you don’t see them feature so often on menus nowadays. I ate them two ways – crispy skin and no skin and I mean frogs, not just their legs. What was it like? I went back for more. It was a little overcooked for my liking but tasted like chicken.
  3. Crocodile – you might have tried this if you’ve spent time in northern Australia. It was served in thin slices of steak with a basting of spicy marinade. I can imagine it easily consumed on burgers or tacos. It was a little on the well-done side but good eating.
  4. Snake –  a food that’s not unusual for many Indigenous Australians but again, unless you’ve spent time on community you probably haven’t had a crack. We ate it in a curry and it was delicious. It’s obvious from the cut of the meat that you’re not eating a large animal. The meat was white and dense like an overcooked swordfish and it tasted a bit like…chicken.
  5. Balut – fertilised duck egg in spicy tamarind sauce. Our food tour guide gave us the option to try it and we agreed. I admit I was perturbed when I asked how many weeks fertilised the eggs were and was told about 21 days. Mallards take 35 days and I was thinking of our Muscovy ducks at #Blissfarm. These guys were hardcore but like I said, if this was normal, I should try it. And so I did, after I kicked my travel partner under the table and told her not to over-think it. I was worried she was about to vomit at the table. Balut tastes more like duck than chicken. Duck and egg. I’ve got to admit I was pleased when our guide offered to take the heart out and it was a little err..fluffy, eating the down, but overall it did actually resemble the flavours you associate with duck and egg and the spicy tamarind sauce was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve eaten a lot so that’s a big call.

There’s a lot to be said for entrenched socialisation, even in food consumption, but the opportunity to try new things helps us reach into ourselves as much as make connections with others. It was a terrific experience putting aside fear of the unknown and having a go. I’m not suggesting you eat what you don’t like but I am suggesting you challenge what you think you like. It will be good for everyone. Oh, and if you don’t already, think about where your food comes from and how it’s treated.

We took an XO food tour of Ho Chi Minh City. You ride on the back of a scooter with a female driver and are taken to around five destinations across four or five of Saigon’s districts, some foodie and some cultural, with the promise of all you can eat and drink. It’s a terrific tour and you don’t have to eat the balut if you don’t want to, they don’t judge. But why not try it for no other reason than that tamarind sauce.

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