Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Boiled, the Bland and the Bizarre

(This is a paper I wrote for uni, years ago (third year undergrad to be precise). I loved writing it, and it's kinda relevant to this blog, so I decided to repost it!)


“Latin American food is, by our standards, bland. So bland, that during my 6-month stay in Peru I lost two and a half stone, simply because I got so bored of the food that I stopped eating it. After this plan eventually made me ill, … I suddenly learned the true value of Peruvian cooking. If anything, it is just so much easier and logical. I am now hoping that my host family’s taste of the British food I cooked them was enough to make them understand my own confusion with their food.” (Terrill,: 2001:49)

I know I am not alone in experiencing intense culture shock when it comes to alien eating habits, and it is this phenomenon that this project aims to explore. The questionnaires and interviews conducted aimed to examine travellers’ initial reactions to the food they were offered in Central America and the Andean region of South America. (For reasons of space and a lack of participants, the Caribbean and jungle regions have not been included.) Some foods were obviously more popular than others, and the interviews attempted to inquire whether these foods were popular because they were more recognisable or similar to British foods. What is it about Latin American cuisine that British travellers find so hard to adapt to? Why, when ‘British’ food is so varied and encompasses influences from so many different cultures, do we find it hard to adapt to another culture’s eating habits? Once the extent of culture shock has been established and analysed, suggestions and recommendations are made to help cope with the food in an alien culture.

The participants in this study are all current students or recent graduates who have had some experience of travelling, be it backpacking around several countries, or volunteering in one particular place. The majority have travelled in Central or South America. For comparison, and to give further examples of culture shock, some students who have travelled or volunteered elsewhere in the world but have sampled Latino food have been included as well.

Some information from the participants was collected in face-to-face interviews, other parts in email questionnaires, and some material is semi-autobiographical.

Towards a definition of Latin Food

A possible, if very vague definition of Latin food is that it is a combination of vastly different influences, altered to fit with the restraints of climate, ingredients and ease of preparation. That definition, however, could also easily apply to British food. Possibly the defining point of Latin cookery is simply that it is very difficult to extricate one historical influence from another, and as Luard (2002) suggests, “It would be a very brave ethnologist indeed who could … claim exclusivity [in South America] for the use of the earth oven … a method of cooking, which… is common throughout South East Asia as well as among the aboriginal shore dwellers of Australasia. (Luard, 2002:10)

Central and South America has been colonised by many European groups, the Spanish and Portugese, the French, the English, the Dutch, and even the Welsh in Patagonia.(Hutchinson, 2002). All these groups brought with them their own style of cookery, the Spanish possibly introducing rice dishes as a derivation of paella, and the Portugese settlers bringing the taste for seafood, both presumably also carrying Moorish influences, given the time period. (Luard, 2002).

The New World was, of course, discovered on a search for a new spice route to the Orient and India, with people’s tastes clamouring for the exotic. With the settlers came the slave trade, and consequently some sorts of African influences, such as the Creole and some forms of Caribbean cookery. In more recent times there has been an influx of Oriental settlers, shown by the numerous “Chifa” restaurants in the Andes, mixing traditional Andean food with Chinese and Japanese dishes. All this disregards the traditional cookery from the Aztecs, Mayans or Incas civilisations, or the plantain-based food of many of the Amazonian tribes. In short, the combination of all these peoples intermixing and sharing recipes is what makes Latin food so unique.

International influences aside, cuisine is also enhanced or sometimes restricted by the available ingredients, and cooking and storage arrangements. The Spanish settlers saw that the Argentinean and Chilean plains in Patagonia were ideal for grazing cattle, and as a result beef and red meat is a key ingredient in these areas. Barbecuing is also extremely common, as is salting and drying the meats, which evolved in the absence of refrigeration. (Luard 2002). Unusually, for a long time the cow was seen only as a meat animal, and was not often used for milk and dairy products. (Aguirre, 2003). Finally, the raw fish ceviche dishes on the Pacific coast again may have stemmed from not having a way of transporting fish successfully given the lack of ice and refrigeration in the coastal deserts.

The differing climates in the region (dry, hot coastal desert, cold, hypoxic highlands, and humid cloud- and rainforests) mean a lot of different crops came to flourish. International businesses and slave owners quickly came to recognise the potential advantages of cash crops and plantations with crops of coffee and sugar cane, and more recently the multi-million dollar cocaine industry based on coca crops. In the Amazon, more exotic flavourings such as chocolate and vanilla can be grown, along with a huge variety of nuts and unusual berries. All these crops required indigenous knowledge to process successfully. Finally, the staples of potatoes, cassava and plaintain became encompassed within the cuisine of the settlers as well.
Food from the traditional Mayan or Incan cultures is heavily entwined with their belief system and cosmology as well. The Mayan’s prized their rich, dark, bitter chocolate as food for only the elite in society and it was used during religious ceremonies.(Hutchinson, 2002) Another example is the Incan’s use of the guinea-pig, as food, as a part of Shamanic healing rituals, and in some cases, as sacrifices to the Gods. The name for guinea pig, Cuy, is not, as many suggest, from the noise they make (“Cwee-Cwee!”), but from the Quechua ‘kawe’ meaning ‘life.’(Morales, 1995). The legacy of the guinea-pig continues despite the conquest of the Inca’s as shown by its infiltration of the Catholic religion. The huge “Last Supper” painting in the central cathedral in Cusco, Peru, appears to show Christ and his disciples sitting down to a meal of cuy asado.

Given this extraordinary range of influences and ingredients, it is not hard to see why some travellers are not able to adapt easily to Latin cuisine. What is surprising is the way most backpackers’ overriding impression that Latin food is bland and unvarying.

A Gringo’s Eye View

As shown throughout the interviews and questionnaires, many travellers experience “Gastronomic culture shock”, because the food they receive is either not what they are accustomed to, or not what they expect. Gorden (1988) describes the shock in the following way:
“Often an American guest arrived in Colombia determined to follow dietary customs. He had fantasies of eating unusual foods such as squid, goat, fried grasshoppers… or food smouldering with chilli pepper. … He was usually not prepared for what he found. Instead … he found that the food is very “bland,” “starchy,” “greasy” and “monotonous.” The gastronomic jolt was not in specific strange foods but in a different balance of fairly familiar items.”(Gorden, 1988:78)

The Bland:
No one in the surveys particularly disliked any of the food they were given while staying with a Latin American family; what caused problems was the tediousness of it. By definition, staple foods are bland, and have to be made more interesting and palatable by supplementing them with meats, vegetables, spices and herbs with stronger flavours. In this country, we eat rice only in conjunction with a hot curry sauce, or a sweet and sour stir-fry. Potatoes are served in many forms, for example, mashed with butter and milk, roasted then dowsed in meat gravy, deep fried as chips then splashed with salt and vinegar, or whole potatoes are baked then topped with cheese and so on.

In Central America and in lowland South America, rice is the staple, and although rice is still ubiquitous, the potato makes more of an appearance in the Andean Highlands. In theory at least, Western travellers should not be too shocked at having to eat rice and potatoes since they do so at home quite comfortably. What has the greatest effect on the Gringos’ stomach is the blandness of it, and lack of variation, particular when the traveller is staying with a host-family. Rice is often served as an accompaniment to every single meal, since it is economical, filling, and suitable for the entire family. In Nicaragua and Honduras, it is sometimes served up three times a day, rice and frijole-beans for breakfast or desayuno, refried rice and some sort of mashed vegetable, or a fried chicken leg for almuerza and any leftovers are dressed with chilli and scooped up with an equally tasteless tortilla for supper or cena. In the questionnaire and interviews, the travellers in host families all described the food similarly:

Fairly bland. Not exactly haute cuisine, but it was cheap, and it did fill you up

Mind-bogglingly, taste-bud-dullingly monotonous

Peruvians eat A LOT of rice and chicken. Make that rice with every bloody
meal, without sauce, just plain dry rice. BORING.

I actually found it very good. Having said that, I tend to like bland and boring food which might explain why I enjoyed it so much. It wasn't very inventive and they do not appear to use a lot of spices.

Nutritionally speaking, this style of food provides an adequate diet. The sheer amount of starch and carbohydrates provided a slow but steady release of energy. Proteins and vitamins come from the occasional meat and vast array of vegetables and fruit on offer. (Luard, 2002) However, our diet in Britain is not the same in the sense that we get the same nutrients from different sources. We tend to eat more meat, probably because we are able to afford it. We certainly eat more processed foods, high in salts and preservatives. Finally, a lot of our energy comes from sugar and sweetened foods. (Gorden, 1988) In contrast, there are very few sweet dishes in Latin America. In Peru, although chocolate and sugar cane grew readily in the countryside, virtually all of it was exported and so very little was available to the general public. In Central America, the only chocolate available is thick, rich and very, very dark, almost bitter. Although it contains the same amount of caffeine as a milk chocolate bar, (Luard, 2002) it does not have the sweet taste some backpackers craved.

We then arrived in Antigua, Guatemala, and were in such shock at the … extortionate number of Tourists and Fairy lights that we spent most of our time in the (swanky) cafes drinking hot chocolate, comparing its quality and taste to the last one we had had … in a quiet Mayan village …so desolate that all you could do was...drink hot chocolate!!

Fresh fruit and vegetables were in abundance though, and it is these food groups that the travellers seemed to be most enthusiastic about. The range of fruit was truly astounding in some parts, with some fruits that were unrecognisable and unheard of it Western supermarkets. Ensalada de Fruta for breakfast was a favourite among all the travellers in this survey, as well as the delicious “frescos” or “jugos” which were liquidized fruit with either milk or water and cooled with shaved ice.

“As we all sat around drinking our jugo de piñas I started thinking about the bizarre fruits in the market that we would never see again when we returned to Britain. Elise’s favourite is Atuna - fruits from, of all things, cacti. Surprisingly juicy and neon pink, like a miniaturised watermelon. I prefer Granadia - some relation to the pomegranate, which is a round, yellow thing with a very hard shell, and what looks like frog-spawn in the middle. You tap it on the table to crack the skin, then pour the jelly into your mouth.” (Terrill, 2001:61)

The Exotic
Another part of gastronomic culture shock did come from the exoticness of some of the food, Peru providing some very odd concoctions from a Gringo’s point of view. These included ceviche, which can be found along all parts of the pacific coast. Essentially it is raw fish marinated in lime juice, the acidity of which ‘cooks’ the fish. It is also customary to serve “leche de tigre” as an accompaniment. This is the juices from the cerviche mixed with vodka and knocked back as a shot, unsurprisingly, not a favourite among the few backpackers who dared to try it. Sometimes it is not just the ingredients that shock, but also their preparation:

Remember the joke: ‘What’s red and green and goes round and round and round?’ In the market they sell frogs and toads alive. When you buy one, they slit it down the back, still alive, and take the skeleton out. Then they put whatever’s left in the blender, add salt and give it to you in a glass to drink. I nearly puked. (Terrill:2001:62)

Many travellers enjoyed the vast array of soups available all over Latin America, especially since these too involved some exotic ingredients and unknown recipes. Since soup is designed as a starter only, part of the culture shock in many cases was from happily slurping an enormous bowl of sopa (broth or water-based soup) or chupe (milk or cream soups), feeling full, and then being expected to consume a large plateful of rice as well. Another danger was never knowing what you would find actually in the soup. In some cases this really was a shock:
I absolutely loved the pumpkin soup. Why? I tend to love soup and this soup was exquisite.

… Also the bizarre soup I got served in Peru: noodles, vegetables, topped by a slice of toast with a fried egg on top!!!

Oh God!! They put chicken feet in the soup! All the kids were sucking on them! Yuk!

The plata tipica on the Pacific coastline near Leon, Nicaragua, is sopa de res con punche, or beef and crab soup (Schechter:2001). This is served as illustrated, with a very large chuck of beef in the middle, swimming in its own broth, with roughly chopped potatoes, corn cobs, marrow and other unidentifiable vegetables wallowing beneath the surface. A few crabs’ legs appear to be crawling out of the side of the bowl, which you are encouraged to crack open and suck the juices out of. The whole thing was served with a dried avocado skin to act as a spoon. This dish alone demonstrates how so many Gringo travellers get culture shock from the food they experience in Latin America.

Perhaps the worst shock from food that travellers experience is the Latin American tendency to eat animals that we in Britain would consider to be pets. The coastal regions of Central America mean that supplies of turtle meat is readily available in the dry season, and a few British volunteers working on conservation projects in Costa Rica were horribly disheartened to find the turtles they had spent all day rescuing, ended up on the menu in their local restaurant.

I have a little tip for Gringos everywhere: never ever order anything off a menu that you can’t translate. Do you remember that soup in Maderas? [on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border]. I ordered something I couldn’t read, and got a soup which had something like a golf ball floating in it. If you hadn’t told me huevos tortugesa meant Turtle Eggs, I would have eaten it, and that would have broken my heart.

Perhaps the most infamous example is the Andean cuisine of roasted guinea pig.

My shoestring travelling mantra is always “never refuse free food”, and so when Mitzy’s parents offered us a meal, I responded very positively. But oh dear..Forgive me Father, for I have sinned,.. Picante de Cuy! In other words, Roast Guinea-pig in spicy sauce! Fortunately they’d chopped the poor thing up so it no longer resembled my childhood pets...usually they served Cuy whole, complete with head so you know you are not eating rat, which is delightfully reassuring. I eventually squashed my taunting conscience and tried the thing, and I have to admit I quite liked it. (Terrill, 2001:68)

As explained in the previous chapter, the guinea pig, or cuy is very important in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and so on, both as a good food source, and as an animal with religious and spiritual significance. Try as we might, very few travellers staying in the Andean highlands managed to convince their host families that they couldn’t eat Cuy, because they had kept guinea-pigs as pets when they were younger. The equivalent would be a Peruvian telling us they couldn’t eat lamb or mutton because they’d had a pet sheep in the past. To us, this sounds equally odd, and we would be unlikely to take this complaint seriously, just as the Peruvian’s disregarded ours. (Morales, 1995)

The Unclean

Another problem faced by the inter-cultural traveller is how much to trust the alien culture’s level of hygiene. In most rural areas in Latin America, it is not advisable to drink the water. (Schechter, 2001) In Peru, you cannot drink water straight from the tap; the cleanest water available is straight from the mountain streams. (Rachoweiki, 2000). In Central America, the water is drinkable in the major towns and cities but again, it is less hygienic in rural areas. (Hutchinson, 2002)

Many travellers are wary of particular food as well, based on (often exaggerated) stories of horrendous illnesses from other travellers, or from their own experiences:

Come on Bel! You saw the state of the river! No-one drank the water, not even the locals. I didn’t fancy drinking unpasturized milk either.

I was warned against eating ceviche (raw fish). Normally, I'll try anything,
but I know you can get badly sick from eating dodgy fish in particular (i.e.
non salted, non refrigerated)

Someone tried to tell me the frijoles were poisonous if you didn’t cook them properly..? I wouldn’t eat the “meat” in Vigarones having found a bit with the hairs of the pig still attached once.

I’d never try cerviche – not after hearing about David ending up in hospital on a drip after eating it. No way.

In a way, this fear of certain foods, in particular, meats, cannot help culture shock. In order to fully acculturate, travellers must not be afraid to get involved with local customs, try typical foods and attempt to live as local people do. Travellers can never truly feel at home until they do this. Some gringos who worry about getting ill from eating foreign food tend to start searching for restaurants that do “familiar” western food, such as burger bars and pizza places. Again, by surrounding yourself with familiar foods, this aspect of the alien culture will always be unfamiliar.

Wariness of unhygienic food can also lead to problems for those travellers living with a local family. It is pointless and also quite rude to ask if food is safe if all the other members of the family are happily eating it, and can be seen as a slight on the family’s cooking. (Gorden, 1988)

Festival Foods

One of the most unnerving and disorientating times for volunteers abroad appears to be major festivals, such as Christmas or Easter. This confusion is enhanced particularly as the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, and the climate is very hot all year round in Central America. Each of the participants in this project appears to have a fixed idea of what should happen at the celebration, a mental image of the ideal Christmas based on what they are used to from their own experiences at ‘home’ with their families. All unconsciously expect festivals abroad to be similar, but as most found, they are not; the differences depending on the climate, customs and religion of the area visited. It is not too much of a generalisation to say that Britain as a nation has a much more secular approach to Christmas and Easter than the strictly Catholic countries of Latin America. As a result, each backpacker who experienced a major festival whilst abroad felt somewhat bewildered, as shown from their comments in interviews.

Christmas in Argentina was really weird, kinda flat, They [host family] all went to midnight mass and put a crib scene up in the window, but that was about it. I was expecting something a bit bigger. Really felt homesick then.

I was in Guatemala for Christmas. All the streets were filled with Mayan Indians in their brightly coloured clothes, so they had to be my colourful Christmas tree this year. And the nights were cold enough to imagine Christmas! Somehow it being sunny and warm didn’t feel right.

Easter Sunday, and we had rice for lunch again (first fried then boiled, its all the rage in Nicaragua!). There was a new drink for Easter … it involves boiling up pineapple skins, adding raspberry colouring so it goes pink, and blending it with boiled rice. I braved a glass with my rice and beans … and again at supper. I was hoping that it was ok to decline the third time running, I just couldn’t do it.

Its Easter week and I don’t have any chocolate eggs! ¡Que horror!

In the Catholic calendar, Easter is the most important festival, marking the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ in the New Testament. In Britain, although Easter is marked and has religious significance to many people, the festival has nothing like the intricacy or preparation and the scale of the celebration is not comparable with those in Latin America. In the UK, typical Easter foods would include Simnal cake (a spiced fruit cake usually covered in Marzipan), and ‘hot cross buns’ with the cross presumably representing the crucifix. Chocolate eggs are a relatively new tradition. The religious connection is unclear; some assume a hollow egg is a symbol of the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection, while another theory claims an egg is a symbol of new life, which is again linked with the resurrection. Easter also marks the end of Lent, where people traditionally give up certain foods for forty days, representing Christ wandering in the wilderness. Lent starts with Shrove Tuesday, when all the milk and eggs and other dairy products are used up (usually in the form of pancakes), and these foods are not consumed for the following forty days.

In contrast, in the Andean region, Easter is celebrated with large feasts, in which all the extended family are invited. In Argentina, this takes the form of a huge beef-based barbecue, where whole cows are roasted out doors over a wood fire.
“Barbecue on Sunday! More food than you can shake a stick at! And ALL of it meat!”

Similarly, in Peru a feast is prepared, but the symbolism of the food is a peculiar meld of Catholicism and the older Andean religions. The Semana Santa (Holy week) cuisine is “Pachamanca”, or “Earth food” in the Quechua language. This is a meal of mutton cooked on the bone, broad beans still in their jackets, potatoes and a type of cornmeal-based dumplings steamed in maize leaves, called Tamales.

…I remember when my host sister came to visit from the states for the first time after ten years and the family made Pacha Manca which is very time consuming and invited the whole family over to welcome her home. Tamales are part of Pacha Manca, as in they are part of the food which is cooked underground. They basically consist of crushed corn mixed with either salt or sugar and wrapped in leaves from corn cobs. I remember asking what they were, and was told “Es Tamal” and thought I wasn’t being told their name, but that they were bad, as in non-tasty, or “Esta Mal” as I soon found out, they were as disgusting as their name suggests.

The whole concoction is cooked in an earth oven, consisting of hot rocks in a hole in the ground, with the food piled on top and the heat sealed in by piling the earth back in on top of a tarpaulin. This ritual is apparently in honour of “Pachamama” or Mother Earth, but the confusing thing is that the earth mound is decorated by placing a Christian crucifix on the top, so the oven looks rather like a grave. Pachamanca celebrations also include the consumption of Calientitos, (lit. ‘little hot ones’) – a cocktail served up hot in shots, based on Peruvian Pisco brandy. Older members of the family also chew coca leaves. Traditionally, some coca is also buried in the ground, and some alcohol deliberately spilt on top in honour of Pachamama.

This whole elaborate ceremony is almost incomprehensible to most travellers, as the meal is so symbolic, both for the Catholic religion as also the older Andean earth rituals. There are virtually no similarities between Semana Santa rituals in South America, and Easter festivals in Britain, and at this time of year, a gringo could feel a very very long way from home.


The differing degrees of gastronomic culture shock experienced by the travellers relates to their individual circumstances. Their own preferences concerning food should be taken in to account, for example, whether or not they are vegetarian, have any allergies, or in some cases, whether their religion prevents them eating particular foods. Within this survey, a traveller whose religion forbids her to eat pork, and who was served in on a regular basis in Peru, experienced extreme culture shock. The author has a distinct hatred of fish, much to the disappointment of her host-family

The most obvious differentiation that should be made is between travellers staying with local families and travellers passing through as tourists. These interviews showed that it was the travellers living with host-families who remained convinced that Latino food was bland and unvarying. This relates to the socio-economic status of the family involved, and in many cases the food did not vary because of financial restraints. Travellers planning on staying with host-families should be made aware of this because, as shown, relations with the host-family can become strained if the gringo obviously dislikes the food that the family take for granted. If the monotony of the food becomes too much, one suggestion would be to supplement the diet by visiting local restaurants and cafes, possibly inviting the family as well, and to sample some of the more exotic dishes on offer.

In the opposite case, travellers who ate solely in cafés and restaurants were the ones who expressed disgust at the more exotic dishes they encountered. This can be remedied in some way by suggesting the traveller asks for “el Menu” or “Comida Corrida” in restaurants, which is usually very similar to what local people would eat at home, and typically rice and bean based, neither ingredient of which is particularly unknown.(Schechter, 2001) Also, as stated in one of the interviews, it is not recommended that the traveller ask for anything on a menu that he cannot translate, to avoid unwelcome surprises.

One thing that all travellers should avoid is trying to surround themselves with foods that remind them of home, such as always going to Pizza places, burger bars or restaurants that offer other Western foods. As with any form of culture shock, the disorientation is only relieved by submerging yourself in the alien culture until it becomes familiar. Eating Western foods alone not only has the effect of making you more homesick, it also singles you out as permanently different to the local people, which, if the traveller is aware of it, exaggerates any feelings of not fitting in locally.

Similarly, being paranoid about becoming ill from local food has the same effect in the community. The quicker the traveller samples and becomes accustomed to the food, the quicker he will build up a tolerance to any unhygienic aspects of it.

No-one can ever be truly prepared when visiting a foreign culture, but culture shock is vary rarely a permanent phenomenon, and most symptoms can be relieved as soon as the traveller acculturates to the new surroundings.


Aguirre, P., 2003 The Culture of Milk in Argentina in Anthropology of Food Journal, No. 2, September 2003.

Gorden, R.L., 1988 Living in Latin America, A Case Study in Cross-Cultural Communication, National Textbook Company: Chicago

Hutchinson, P., 2002 Central America and Mexico Handbook, Footprint Handbooks: Bath

Luard, E., 2002, The Latin American Kitchen, Kyle Cathy Limited: London

Morales, E., 1995 The Guinea Pig, Healing, Food and Rituals in the Andes University of Arizona Press: Arizona.

Rachoweiki, R.2000 Peru, Lonely Planet Publications: Melbourne

Schechter, D., 2001 Nicaragua, in Zingarelli, D., Davis, J., Gorry, C., Hellander, P., Miller, C., and Schechter, D., 2001 Central America on a Shoestring. Lonely Planet Publications: Melbourne.

Terrill, A., 2001 Gringa! (As yet unpublished)