The Eating Habits of Human Beings
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
A remark by Indian filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar, namely, ‘If Adam and Eve were Chinese, we would still be in paradise because they would have ignored the apple and eaten the snake,’ prompted me to delve a little further into the eating habits and customs of us humans. I was also reminded of another similar story told by Swami Suddhananda of Chennai during his visit to Mauritius a few years ago, in the course of one of his talks at the Octave Wiehe auditorium.
Some time before Swamiji had gone to Hong Kong. He had delivered an address, at the end of which the floor was open for questions – any question. Those who have had the pleasure and privilege of listening to Swamiji would remember that he invariably has a plausible, cogent answer to any question about the human condition. But he confessed that this time round he was foxed, and owned up to the questioner in the Hong Kong audience when the latter asked him ‘to what race did Adam and Eve belong.’ He started off by loudly reflecting that the notion of race came much later, and then thought hard, but gave up and requested the person to illuminate him – and the answer was most interesting:
‘I do not know what race they belonged to, but of one thing I am sure: they were not Chinese, because if they were’ – you guessed it! – ‘they would have ignored the apple and eaten the snake.’
A late Chinese colleague and friend whose wife was from Singapore told me once that in some restaurants there you can choose your snake and have snake soup prepared right away. When I was a medical student in India, I had a friend whose brother was a squadron leader in the Indian Air Force, whom I used to meet when he would come over on holidays. During a conversation about their training, he told me that this included being left to fend for themselves in the deep jungle for a number of days, and amongst other things, they were taught how to catch, kill, skin and cook a snake in order to feed themselves should the need ever arise.
In a spectrum from the ant to the ox, and spanning all categories (human as well), sizes and shapes in between, there is no animal that is not consumed by human beings somewhere in the world. What determines which animal is consumed depends of course on many factors, among which those that come to mind are availability and means to procure within a given environment and habitat, personal tastes, mode of eating: raw or cooked, and therefore also cooking ingredients and gastronomic repertoire if any, and religious practices or cultural taboos. But from a biological point of view, there is no issue about eating any kind of animal – if your system can take it, that is.
Personal experience aside, there are any number of sources of information on this fascinating subject, including the vivid documentaries by intrepid seekers who go to the ends of the earth to find out, learn and appreciate how others live and survive, and possibly enjoy at least some of what would be exotic fare for them. Sometimes there are seemingly ugh! scenes shown that may put one off — either in wonder or in ignorant disgust – but there you are, it’s only another human doing things differently, and our eyes are not used to witnessing those customs. In one documentary I saw many years ago, fried ants – among which the notorious marabunta from South America (anyone remember the 1954 film Quand la marabunta gronde, with Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker?) – were being served as a special delicacy in a restaurant in New York, and were a craze!
More recently I saw a documentary in which natives in the Amazon jungle were shown to be digging into the earth, picking up what looked like finger-sized, yellowish wriggling maggots which they ate straightaway with obvious relish after shaking off the soil particles from them. In Mauritius of course, we are not too far – who hasn’t heard about, or may even know a friend or acquaintance who has enjoyed a gajak of moutouks from wasp nests?
It gets weirder still (though my gaze is conditioned by a sentence I read in one of my medical textbooks long ago, ‘to the doctor or the anthropologist, nothing human is unusual’): on a winter evening in the hostel in Kolkata, when creepy crawlies tend to swarm – like the local carias – around the lights, I came upon a friend from Laos who was crunching on what we call here bebete dibois. When I expressed surprise and some repugnance at what he was doing, he told me that this is a routine habit in his country. ‘It’s protein,’ he added, ‘just protein.’ I did not respond to his invitation to try out his meal of course!
Moving up the scale, besides the yukky escargots à l’ail drowned drown with (white?) wine by the French, who are also connoisseurs about another of their favourites, frog legs, we find that other small animals go to make up one of the essential components for survival in remote parts of the world. Big-sized rats, for example, are the principal source of protein for some tribes in India. The same pertains to some tribes in a few Indonesian islands, who cook them wrapped in leaves without so much as even skinning them if I remember correctly from the film that I saw.
Locally, tangue is a favourite with some people, and one of our nurses at a clinic, who was from Rodrigues and had come over in the mid-fifties, gave me a detailed account of how the meat must be marinated in, among others, cinnamon so as to conceal its strong pungent smell. Which reminds me of the one occasion when I was invited to a 7-star restaurant near Toulouse, and the plat de resistance was a spherical pie of gibier, served straight out of the oven. One had to make a hole in the top part of the sphere, which let out steam, and scoop the meat from the lower half. I took half a spoonful and brought it to my mouth, and as soon as I tasted it I almost puked! My kindly host realized that I wouldn’t be able to go through with the rest, and excused me for abstaining. I ended up having some bread and butter, rounded up later with the desert of ice-cream.
When it comes to seafood, the picture that I recall is the blood-spattered mouths and hands of an Inuit – Eskimo — family in the Arctic. They had just hunted a seal, and gathered around it as it was cut up and eaten raw, with the blood dripping. Practically no part was left uneaten. The consumption of shark fins, prized by the Chinese for making soups, is now being challenged by environmentalists and conservationists.
Similarly, whale-hunting by the Japanese has long been strongly condemned in an effort to preserve the species, but that was much after I was offered whale pickle by my Japanese friend in Kolkata. Takashi Nakata was his name, and he was doing a PhD in geomorphology. Whenever he and his other compatriot in the hostel were invited for dinner by the Japanese ambassador, they would come back with plenty of take-aways, and they would lay it all out the next day at lunch and invite their close hostel mates.
Thus was the occasion when he said, ‘come, come,’ as he led two of us towards the end of the table, ‘this is vely vely special. It’s whale meat, vely vely expensive. Come, have whale pickle.’ The smell as we approached the open small jar was, to our nostrils, atrocious, and we pulled away abruptly, bringing our hankies to our face – to the great disappointment of Takashi! We counselled him that if he ever got married to an Indian girl, never to propose whale pickle to his wife! But who knows, things may well be different now!
And then there’s this one about the operation theater sister in the UK, with whom we were discussing our forthcoming trip to Costa del Sol in southern Spain, and she strongly recommended that we must absolutely have the paella before coming back, which she herself had enjoyed a few times. One of its main ingredients is small squids. After we’d come back, we told her we did not find it anything too special, because the rice was a bit gooey and so on, and then we told her that we preferred the taste of octopus which was regularly consumed back home. ‘What!’ she exclaimed almost in shock, ‘that thing which has these dangling tentacles?’ Yes, I answered, they are only a much larger version of the squids in the paella that you liked so much! As Jeeves kept telling his master Bertram Wooster in P G Wodehouse’s memorable books, ‘It’s the psychology of the individual!’
Eating human flesh
And, lastly for this article, I end on a medical note, about a disease of the nervous system called kuru, which caused the patient to shake violently and eventually leading to death. It was discovered in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s/60s, and traced to the transmission of the particles (called prions) causing the disease by eating human flesh – cannibalism – which was infected. Research carried out had ‘conclusively demonstrated that kuru spread easily and rapidly in the Fore people due to their endocannibalistic funeral practices, in which relatives consumed the bodies of the deceased to return the “life force” of the deceased to the hamlet, a Fore societal subunit. Kuru was 8 to 9 times more prevalent in women and children than in men at its peak, because while the men of the village took the choice cuts, the women and children would eat the rest of the body including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated.’ Concerted medical and health efforts followed to stop the practice and thus prevent the disease.
But of course there’s much more, and interested readers may pursue their own research…