This week’s Economist has a fascinating piece on what Chinese tourists seek out in Europe.  And at just the point where you are beginning to think the author is being a tad condescending about their apparently strange choices (Trier for Marx´s birthplace, Metzinger for Hugo Boss suits), he (or she) restores our confidence by pointing out that eighteenth-century Brits doing the Grand Tour behaved in much the same way.

That’s not the point of this post though.  It’s about this particular paragraph.

Tourism is certainly not about discovering new food. A 2006 survey of Chinese coach travellers found that 46% had eaten “European” food only once, and 10% not at all, during holidays on the continent. Clients at Ansel Travel are typically offered foreign food once in each country: seafood in Paris, ham knuckle in Germany, pasta in Italy and so on.  After that, “it’s Chinese all the way.” Many stay in suburban hotels and eat noodles.

This is because excitement and acquisition are prized over pleasant, relaxing experiences.

What the author is assuming here is that eating foreign cuisines is a natural, pleasant, relaxing part of tourism.  And that has certainly been the default assumption in, say, Britain and the United States for the past 70 years.

For most of history, though, and still for much of the world it is not the default assumption. Quite the reverse.  Eating foreign food is unnatural, unpleasant, tense-making and disgusting.  History is replete with Greeks who detested the way Scythians ate, Byzantines who loathed the food of Gaul, Jesuits who hated tofu, Spanish who had no use for corn tortillas, Japanese who thought French haute cuisine horribly oily, English who believed Americans only ate canned food, Americans who knew (know) that there was nothing decent to be had in the British Isles.  And that’s just the beginning.

Now before we decide that we are the first enlightened generations in history and that before us there was nothing but unwarranted prejudice, it’s worth remembering two things.

1. Traditional nutritional advice was that the healthiest food for any individual was the food of the place where they grew up.  The further you moved away, the more dangerous the food.   And it was not just that it might make you sick but that it might change your whole personality.  Northern Europeans were adjusted to butter, meat, etc and to eat a diet rich in olive oil and vegetables, so they were warned, would upset their stomachs and change their temperament to one more ready to anger, for example.  The reverse was true: it was dangerous for those born in the Mediterranean to begin eating a northern diet.   You changed your diet very much at your own risk.

2. Travel did make people sick (often it still does) and they had no idea why.  The historian Philip Curtin did a fascinating study of British military records in the nineteenth century and in every overseas posting (except New Zealand and the Pacific Islands) soldiers died at many times the rate of their colleagues in the British Isles.  We might now put that down to malaria, cholera, typhoid, and lots of other nasty diseases.  But given the nutritional advice above, it was natural to assume that food had a lot to do with these problems.

So back to our Chinese tourists.  I suspect two things are going on, neither of them having to do with excitement and acquisition.

First, I suspect they still take traditional nutritional theory very seriously.  I have known many Chinese who say surgeons for broken bones, aspirins for headaches, but traditional nutritional theory to keep the body generally balanced.  Not a crazy way to go at all. And that would mean stick to Chinese food when you travel.

Second, the Chinese are proud of their own culinary tradition and enjoy eating their own very varied dishes.  Not necessarily odd at all.

To conclude.  Our search for culinary novelty, our belief that trying new foods is part of travel, perhaps even a reason to travel, is the oddity, not the default position.  It’s a sea change in attitudes to food that is very recent. In part it has to do with modern nutritional theory, in part to the fact that we now attribute many diseases to germs, in part due to the fact that we usually have access to safe water or soft drinks, and in part to political and social attitudes, though the latter is for another posting.

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