I'm big in Kazakhstan. And by big, I mean incredibly unpopular. Hated, in fact. I may never be able to return to the land of eagle hunters and grand modern architecture. I've received actual death threats. I've been told to go back to riding kangaroos.
My crime? I insulted the food. Not all the food – just a couple of (apparently) cherished national dishes. I mentioned in a recent feature story that, to my palate, boiled horse meat with pasta sheets and stewed onions is not very tasty. I also stated my intention to never drink kumis, a beverage of fermented horse milk that's extremely popular in Kazakhstan, ever again.
The story was published a few weeks ago, and nothing happened. Tumbleweed rolled by, just like the few bits of rubbish that blew through the cold streets of the Kazakh capital, Astana, on the days I visited.
And then, everything changed.
I posted a photo on Instagram and geotagged the country. The snap was nothing special, just a picture of a Soviet-era statue in a park in Almaty, the nation's former capital. A few Kazakh people started following me. A comment or two appeared from the locals. Normal stuff.
And then more comments came in. And then more. A lot of them were written in Russian. A few were in English, and said things like "you're stupid", and "Die. Die. Die. Die. Die." I decided not to translate the ones I couldn't understand.
Pretty soon the trickle of fairly nasty comments had become a steady stream.
It wasn't until one of my new Kazakh friends screen-shotted a local website and sent me the link that I figured out what was going on. A Kazakh news service had discovered my feature story and translated it into Russian, with a few slightly unfair flourishes of their own such as, "the writer added sarcastically" – when I hadn't, in fact, intended any sarcasm – and a few mistranslations that made my review of the horse dish seem a lot snarkier.
That was enough to rev up the online outrage machine. The insults, and even the odd death threat (one, amusingly, from an account spruiking the power of a positive mind), began to pour in. I mentally cancelled any future plans to holiday on the Steppe.
You might think, from this episode, that Kazakhs are an overly sensitive bunch who are probably still smarting over the whole Borat affair. And maybe that's part of it. Sacha Baron Cohen did give them an unfairly bad name. But there's more to it than that, and it's something you can apply to pretty much every country in the world: never insult the food.
You can say whatever you want about a lot of countries. You can criticise their dress, you can question their politics, and you can make jokes about the weather. But don't mess with the food.
Food, after all, is pride. Food is history. Food is identity. It's so closely linked to people's memories, to images that stretch back as far as they can remember. Food is the stuff your mum dished up when you were a kid, using recipes that her mum taught her, who in turn learned from hers. It's meals that have been prepared for celebrations throughout your life, created with joy and care. Food is passion. It's personality.
So when some foreigner-come-lately arrives in your country and declares he doesn't like these cherished dishes – when he calls one of them "terrible" – you're going to get upset. You're going to feel insulted.
Pretty much the only times I've set off social media s--tstorms have been when I've criticised food. I copped a whole torrent of Singaporean hate a few months ago when I mentioned, in a throwaway line, that many of that country's best dishes are imported from other countries. The locals, I can now confidently say, disagree with that statement.
On the flipside, when I wrote a glowing review of the food in Spain a few years ago I was invited into the local consulate for a meeting and felt like I was about to be awarded the keys to the country. People are proud of their food. Intensely proud.
That doesn't mean I regret my review of beshbarmak, the Kazakh horse dish. Travel writers have to record the world from an empathetic standpoint, but they also have to be honest. If you just rave about everything, it becomes meaningless. You wouldn't believe how much I truly love, say, Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore – hi, guys – if I'd said the same thing about beshbarmak.
But I understand the Kazakh outrage. If my culture had any food to call its own, I'd probably be offended by some foreigner criticising it too. (Though I wouldn't threaten to kill anyone.)
Food is one of those passions that's universal, that every country in every continent lives and breathes and celebrates. People will fight for it if they have to. They'll defend it to the death.
So trust me on this: if you want to make friends, don't say anything bad about the cuisine.
Which country is the most passionate about its food? Have you ever upset the locals by criticising their cuisine? Are there any national dishes you haven't enjoyed?