Bat, brain, reptile, and game. In times of Covid-19, food that should bring us together, is increasingly setting us apart.
Food diversity and an insatiable curiosity have fueled travel to exotic places since the age of Marco Polo. In the old streets of Dubai, for example, where a mix of ancient Arabic, African, and Indian influences perfume the air, food lovers feast on kotaku, a stew of cow brain, goats’ hearts, testicles, liver, and kidneys cooked in a medley of parsley and ginger, red onions, and chili. In the upscale brasseries and bistros of Paris, the elite nibble on snails and frog legs. On the island of Guam, local Chamorro fare features indigenous delights like fanihi – fruit bat and vegetables simmered in coconut milk.
Today, more than ever, feasting, once a pastime that united cultures, is tearing us apart. As Covid-19 reaps havoc, thousands are dying and economic malaise is at a historic high. Purveyors of Chinese cuisine, in particular, have borne the biggest brunt. The disease allegedly originated late last year in a Wuhan wet market where farmed and exotic animals are slaughtered on-site to guarantee freshness. California’s San Gabriel Valley, which houses the largest Chinese community in the state, was affected by the virus even before it started to crest in the US.
“People’s basic instincts come out. They want to blame others… Acting subhuman in some cases,” says food writer Andy Wang. “Here in LA, it’s the type of thing that leads to permanent closures. Since February, my Chinese friends with Chinese restaurants have been reporting a major drop in bookings. Some have already closed for good.”
A xenophobic, racist backlash erupted in Italy when the first cases of coronavirus appeared, emptying Milanese dims hotspots like Ta Hua. Restaurants and stores in the city’s Via Paolo Sarpi Chinatown quickly shuttered their doors after instances of violence against Asians. Ignorance from the uppermost socio-economic echelons of society, in a time of crisis, was at an all-time high.
“China paid a high price in this epidemic… We have all seen them eat live mice,” Luca Zaia, governor of Italy’s Veneto region remarked flippantly, on national television. “Our people overwhelmingly abide by a certain level of hygiene… that of taking a shower and washing our hands frequently,” the politician added.
Food-borne diseases are not just an Asian thing. After all, mad cow disease originated in the UK when British herds were fed remains of sheep injected with scrapie, a degenerative disease. And in 2018, a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian found that 15% of the US population suffer from foodborne illnesses annually due to hygiene oversights in meat production facilities.
So what gives Westerners the high ground to deem Eastern customs repugnant? “We got entitled and spoiled when supermarkets made everything in our food world about convenience,” says chef and writer Andrew Zimmern. He rose to fame as the host of Bizarre Foods and is now bringing political, social, and environmental ills to the fore with a new series, What’s Eating America. “I think we have irrevocably lost our ability to eat exotic animals or wet market fare. The fake news and blame game has tainted that type of curiosity and unfairly denigrated people who consume foods that are ‘different’ and unfamiliar.”
“Eating habits of many small communities here in the US – especially in Appalachia, where folks still hunt for their meals and eat small animals – are often denigrated as somehow being ‘backwards’ when, in fact, they are way forwards and should be applauded,” Zimmern states, reminiscing on his exploration of the heavily forested mountain towns where he retraced a rich history of survival and partook in family feasts of breaded and roasted possum and chicken-fried squirrel.
In cosmopolitan cities, a culture clash endures, rooted in centuries of immigration and boiling territorial tensions. Benny Luo, founder and CEO of NetShark, a media destination targeting the global Asian youth, says his food was often the root of his insecurity. “I was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrant parents in the 1980s. When I was in middle school, some peers would accuse me of being a ‘dog eater’ because of the stereotype that all Chinese people eat dogs. I think many Asians who have grown up in a Western country can relate,” he says.
“We are used to food we grow up with and once we are out of that comfort zone, it may take a lot of courage and curiosity to sample other foods that may not be what we are accustomed to.”
Three-time Michelin-star chef Chan Yan-tak of Lung King Heen at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel says he personally examines deliveries – the shrimp from the South China Sea to canned or dried abalone. Elsewhere, outside of the realm of seafood, pork, beef, and lamb dishes, rarer ones like the “thousand-year egg,” a preserved egg which has a jelly-like texture and a molten egg yolk with a slight odor of ammonia, can easily be dismissed by outsiders. “It might repel some, but if you are a food lover, you would appreciate its creaminess and silky smooth texture. It is an excellent source of iron and vitamin D. It is a high protein snack,” Chan muses, adding that being open in today’s world boils down to your sense of adventure. “I think that it’s about familiarity. We are used to food we grow up with and once we are out of that comfort zone, it may take a lot of courage and curiosity to sample other foods that may not be what we are accustomed to.”
When the coronavirus crisis finally ebbs, the restaurant world will likely have been brought to its knees, due in large part to the projected global recession, as well as changing social habits. Wang suggested “bucket chasers” – who might turn down a meal at a highly rated hole in the wall in the San Gabriel Valley because they don’t trust its meat source or simply because of socio-economic prejudice – wouldn’t think twice about eating at René Redzepi’s Noma Mexico pop-up for its signature dish of ant eggs perched on crispy tostadas. “They’ll eat it as long as it is presented in a certain way,” Wang asserts.
“I consider myself an open-minded foodie. Growing up with an Arab father, one of my favorite foods is still kibbeh nayeh [minced raw lamb mixed with fine bulgur and spices], and I’d bet there are many people around the world who would find that strange,” reflects Iraqi- American Nadia Al-Amir Galatro, managing partner of Wagstaff Media and Marketing, a US-based agency that represents hotels and restaurants around the world. She suggests Covid-19’s wrath will likely render true foodies even more skeptical before risking it with disease-prone foods like bat. However, “Covid-19 is not going to close my mind to new food experiences,” she affirms. “Especially in a time when we should be using food as a way to unite and connect people around the world.”
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia