The rules of eating: Why our moral outrage over another culture's eating norms is wrong

Our society has decided that it's OK to kill and eat cows. Preferably, of course, someone else will do the killing before we do the eating, but still, a collective decision has been made that cows are fair game. Sorry, cows.

We've decided that it's OK to kill and eat chickens as well. Same goes with sheep, though only really the baby ones. We eat pigs, because they're delicious. We eat fish, because why wouldn't you? We eat deer. Some of us eat rabbits too, though others think that's a little gross.

In certain societies, these actions of ours would be considered deeply immoral and ethically wrong. Any practicing Hindu would be horrified by the idea of killing a cow for food. Any Muslim would be disgusted by the idea of eating a pig. Any Buddhist would be appalled by the idea of taking another life to sustain your own.

And yet we go happily on our way, killing the animals we deem appropriate, and sparing the ones we don't.

I write this as someone who is not a vegetarian, and not a vegan. I eat meat, pretty much every day. I'm not saying anyone is wrong here, or anyone is right. What I'm saying is that the rules around food – which animals we can eat, and which we can't – are purely a construction of our society, of our religion and our culture and our history.

That's why I have a hard time joining the outrage brigade when we travel and see what people in other parts of the world consider food. Is it inherently wrong to kill one type of animal, but perfectly OK to feast on another? I have a hard time believing that.

For example: I personally don't fancy the idea of eating a whale. They're beautiful creatures that I've been conditioned to see almost as one of our equals. But does that mean other people – Japanese people, Icelandic people – definitely can't eat whale and are hideous monsters for doing so? I'm not so sure about that.

I don't want to eat a dog, either. I don't want to eat a seal. I don't want to eat a spider, even though it's not cute and cuddly. I don't want to eat a rat. I don't even particularly want to eat a snake – though I have done in the past.

But other people? From other cultures? We love a bit of delicious, self-righteous outrage when it comes to this stuff, particularly when we're travelling and we see it right there in front of us, but I'm not so sure we have a reasonable point to make here. We're not arguing fundamentals of right and wrong. We're arguing about culture.

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Sure, you can come up with reasons for why it's wrong to kill whales or dogs or seals. They're intelligent, you can say. They're beautiful. But we're arguing shades of grey here. How much more intelligent is a dog than a pig? Is it even more intelligent at all?

I've been thinking about this stuff recently because of a meal I just had and a dish I just ate. I went to Mugaritz, the wildly experimental fine-dining restaurant in the north of Spain, and alongside a list of "standard" proteins I was served there – chicken, beef, lobster, fish – I was also presented with one of the most bizarre and confronting dishes I've ever seen: a live baby eel, encased in a bubble of seawater.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Mugaritz. Ok, now for the weird. This dish was placed in front of us with no explanation, just an instruction to eat it all at once. It is, as you can see, alive. We figured out what it was before we ate it: it’s an angula, a baby eel, which is a delicacy in the Basque Country, though they’re usually served lightly fried with olive oil and garlic. This one is encased in spherified sea water with a dash of olive oil. And it’s alive. Is this a delicious dish? No. Definitely not. It just tastes like a mouthful of sea water, with a live eel to crunch through. Is this a memorable dish? Absolutely. We’ll be talking about this for a long time to come. For all sorts of reasons

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This dish is either revolutionary or ridiculous – take your pick. It's also either wildly inappropriate or a stroke of genius. It is definitely, however, bold, and confronting. When you eat an animal, the chef seemed to be saying, you take its life. So, here is an animal. Take its life.

That's some heavy going over dinner. I posted a video of the eel on my Instagram feed and most people were fairly grossed out by the idea, which I can understand. A few people, however, sent their sympathy out to the eel. That poor creature. How could anyone do something like that?

And that is 100 per cent fine to say if you're a vegetarian or a vegan. If, however, you eat meat, then why do you have so much sympathy for this eel, and not for the cow or the chicken or the pig that also lost its life to form my dinner? Why aren't you expressing sympathy for the lobster in the photo before that?

What I'm saying is that our views about food are not rooted in anything that's real or absolute. They feel real, of course, and you're entitled to draw your own line – you're entitled to turn down food you feel uncomfortable about, particularly when you're travelling.

But what you don't have the right to do is claim that other people are fundamentally wrong, that they're breaking some sort of universal rule when they choose to eat what they do. Just as we're so uncomfortable with the idea of eating a whale or a dog – even to type that feels weird to me, it feels wrong – so other people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of eating a cow or a pig, which we do every day.

We've made our own rules. But other cultures don't have to abide by them.

See also: Ten endangered species you shouldn't eat

See also: The world's ten most divisive foods

Have you been offended or outraged by anything you've seen people eat in other countries? Where do you draw your line? Have you ever turned anything down? Is veganism the only real answer if you're offended?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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