FOOD has an indispensable place in every culture across the globe. Signature dishes and food etiquette hold a special place in a country's national identity, and when conversing with foreign friends, the topic of food always comes up with proud explanations on the unique traits of one's national dishes.
However, as more of us tune in to food and travel channels on cable television and explore the world with our TV personality chefs, we become more familiar with the different cuisines served up all over the world. Burritos, crêpes and Cajun chicken are now commonly served in most developed and developing countries.
Hence, it isn't surprising that global cross-cultural food trends are starting to emerge. International food and restaurant consultant Baum+Whiteman recently published a list of the 16 hottest food and dining trends for restaurants and hotels in 2012.
Given the rate of globalisation, one trend sees traditional homely food being given an eclectic treatment. A prime example is the classic macaroni and cheese, which can now be found stuffed into sandwiches and served with fried chicken or chicken-fried steak. Even classic fettuccine recipes are given a twist, such as Asian Bolognese, while pasta carbonara now comes with meatballs, chorizos and snails.
Japanese craft beers are also expected to gain a following this year. These beers have become more common on beer-centric menus in the US.
Meanwhile, foodies are becoming more adventurous and daring. This year, Baum+Whiteman expects innards and equally odd parts to gain more popularity and even become a familiar name in upscale restaurants. "In the year ahead, look for more wobbly cuts — such as tripe and chicken livers that are crunch-fried (a great topping for Caesar salad) and even beef heart (but not brains, yet) — because customers are increasingly adventurous," says the consultant in its published report.
Upscale restaurants are also "going green". Ingredients like white acorns, tips of fir needles and chickweed have been seen on the tables of trendy restaurants, especially in the West Coast of the US.
Perhaps this is inevitable. After all, we are always on the lookout for the new and the extraordinary, which is part of the reason we watch Anthony Bourdain as he bravely explores local joints of exotic neighbourhoods in Cambodia or Finland (where he ate fermented shark meat).
As the world gets smaller so to speak, it is also prudent to learn about the different types of etiquette required at dining tables across the globe. After all, you might not want to offend your host. Dining etiquettes are usually as equally distinct as the food itself, and are sometimes tricky.
According to a Chicago Tribune article entitled "14 Must-Follow Food Etiquette", if you are using cutlery when in Thailand, note that you should only use your fork to push food onto your spoon, unless you are eating a non-rice based meal. However, cutlery is considered a must-have in Chile given that the nation is more formal than many of its South American neighbours. If you travel north to Mexico though, don't try to eat tacos with a fork and a knife. The locals might think you silly, or worse, a snob.
Chopsticks also come with their own set of rules. Take note that if you are in Japan, you should never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice as it is considered taboo. Instead, your chopsticks should be placed together right in front of you, parallel to the edge of the table unless there is a rest for them.
Silverware and chopsticks aside, there is also drinking etiquette to remember. For example, at traditional feasts in Georgia, never sip your wine. Alcohol is usually only drunk at toasts, and when those are made, you should down the entire glass all at once. If you think that is strict, consider the UK. A naval tradition requires that you pass the decanter with port to the left, as the port side of the boat is on your left when you're facing the helm. What would be worse? Not passing the port at all.
Food is a serious matter, from its trends to the manners you exhibit at the dining table. They shape and move communities and are the topic on many minds come 11am or 5pm. In Malaysia, we're quite blessed with ample food choices, both from the region and from elsewhere. So why not take some time to forage through the local culinary scene and try something a little out of the ordinary. Oh, but remember, keep those elbows off the table!
This story appeared in The Edge on May 28, 2012.