Quirky food traditions from around the world

In Australia we are lucky to not only have a wonderful variety and quality of all types of foods, we also have an eclectic mix of cultural traditions and influences on our cooking from around the globe. While we know that there is great diversity in these influences, experiencing those cultures at their source can sometimes uncover some extreme examples in what people eat and how they eat it.

Be careful with your manners!
Depending on what county you are in you sometimes need to be quite careful in what you do at the dinner table. In Thailand, for example, using a fork to pick up food is considered somewhat crude. They use the fork to push food onto a spoon instead. Maybe a case of lost in translation?

While we may frown on slurping, the Japanese consider it quite acceptable when eating noodles and soup, due to the way it enhances flavour.

In the Middle East and India, the custom is to only use the right hand for eating food. The left is used for more mundane tasks (to put it nicely). In China sticking your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl is a big no no, as is waving your chopsticks at another person or leaving it on the table pointing at a fellow diner. Tapping your bowl with them is also taboo.

Freaky food festivals
La Tomatina is an annual festival in the town of Bunol in Spain, where massive crowds gather to celebrate the ubiquitous red fruit by tossing over one hundred tons at each other in a massive food fight. It may sound crazy, but it has become such a tourist magnet that they have had to limit access and ticket the event in order to control the numbers. Fortunately there are also more productive aspects to the festival, such as the famed paella cooking contest.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival in the USA attracts over 100,000 visitors, who chomp through two and a half tons of garlic. The festival features cooking demonstrations, cook-offs and lectures to promote the health benefits and innovative ways of using the precious bulb. This includes delicacies such as garlic ice cream and soft drinks, as well as more traditional cooking applications.

In what seems like an odd combination, Waikiki is home to a Spam festival that attracts over 20,000 devotees of the processed spiced meat. Creative uses of this sometimes maligned product are on show, as well as other cultural activities that have been inspired by Spam, such as Spam dancers and Spam theatre productions. The origins of the festival can be traced back to WWII when fresh meat was scarce in Hawaii and Spam was used as a substitute. The locals have maintained their love for it ever since.

Tunarama in Port Lincoln, South Australia has a 50 year history of celebrating that town’s prolific fishing industry. It has the largest fishing fleet in the country and they certainly know how to throw a party . . . and a tuna, thanks to the signature event – the tuna toss competition.

Flamboyant food foibles
Japan is home to many weird and wonderful cusspam festival toms, not least of which is the eating of a seafood delicacy known as the fugu fish. Its claim to fame is its high toxicity, which requires meticulous preparation to remove the offending parts where the poison is concentrated. Apparently a small amount of the poison actually adds to the enjoyment, but too much can be lethal.

Haggis is not so lethal, but can be best described as an acquired taste. It’s the national dish of Scotland and comprises chopped up sheep’s offal, such as heart, liver and lungs, mixed with onion, spices and oatmeal. This is packed into a sheep's stomach and boiled. Haggis is traditionally eaten with a stiff scotch on the side – presumably to give the diner some dutch courage to face it!

Contrary to its name, head cheese is not made from dairy products at all. This ancient European dish is actually made from the head of a sheep slow braised to tenderise the meat, which is then removed, chopped and put back in the cooking liquid. Once it cools, the marrow, which has been extracted in the cooking process, solidifies like gelatin so the end product can be conveniently sliced for salad or sandwiches.

Back home in Australian we have our own gastronomic oddities in a wide range of bush foods. While these delicacies exist all around us, it is only in recent times that the general public has come to appreciate them in the same ways as our country’s first inhabitants do. Fruits such as quandong, Davidson's plum and finger lime are now receiving recognition from top chefs, while lemon myrtle, mountain pepper and warrigal greens are also emerging on menus. The macadamia nut is a great example of how such bush foods can eventually become mainstream.