Taboo Table Offerings - The Intricacies of Intercultural Menu Planning


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How would the prospect of catering the September 1993 lunch at the State Department after the signing of the Israeli-PLO agreement appeal to you? At first it may seem easy to arrange a meal attended by both Muslims and Jews. After all, neither eat pork but both eat chicken; just serve chicken. Right? Wrong!

The logistics of the food at this luncheon were much more complex. Muslims do not drink alcohol, so wine could not be served at the luncheon. Nor could wine or wine vinegar be used in the preparation of the meal. Food for the Jewish delegation had to be glatt kosher, meaning that the food had to be slaughtered according to certain ritual under Rabbinical supervision.

The lunch for eighty in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the State Department was prepared by Movable Feast, a Washington catering firm, with kosher meals provided by Danielle-Bluefeld Caterers of Baltimore. They prepared these meals in Baltimore and sealed them in disposable plastic containers to assure that they remain kosher. The food and sealed plastic utensils, cups and saucers were transported to Washington.

At the State Department, the food was transferred to glass plates which are acceptable for kosher meals. China plates, unless specifically used only for kosher meals, are not acceptable. While it may not be as visually appealing as arranging the food on a plate, the kosher containers should remain sealed to assure the guest that the food was not contaminated in any other way, perhaps by the serving utensils used. At a recent formal tutorial luncheon my company gave for a Wall Street client, one of the catering staff tried to be helpful by opening and serving the containers to one of the participants who observed kosher dietary laws. The fellow was unable to eat what he perceived to be a contaminated meal, and we had to reschedule him for a subsequent seminar.

But, as fate would have it when everything is planned so carefully and runs without a hitch, at the State Department luncheon only one guest requested the carefully planned kosher meal, according to an article in the New York Times. The remainder of the delegation ate the same food served to everyone else.

Dietary restrictions apply not only to Jews and Muslims. Meeting planners must be aware of the different religious, ethnic and philosophical restrictions that can apply to the attendees at any meeting to insure smooth and successful events. April Guice, the Assistant Chief of Protocol for Ceremonials at the U.S. Department of State advises that in planning an event, it is crucial to check if any special arrangements must be made. Her staff always confirms any dietary restrictions or preferences with their contact person at a guest of honor's office or embassy.

Let's examine the basics of culturally diverse dietary restrictions that can apply:

Judaism: Most Jews in America, Israel and other countries are not strictly observant other than possibly avoiding shellfish, pork and pork by-products. When in doubt, always ask if participants are strictly kosher; no offense is taken by such a question. If a kosher meal is required here are some of the precautions to take and possible ways to handle the situation.

  • To those who are strictly observant, food must be ritually clean, or kosher, to be acceptable. Kosher meat must be slaughtered by a kosher butcher and prepared in a kosher kitchen.
  • Utensils, containers and flatware must never have been used to prepare, serve or eat certain foods or combinations of food. Nor can these utensils ever have been washed with utensils that were so used. Glass containers, glass plates and new plastic flatware are acceptable alternatives to a kosher place setting.
  • While both meat and dairy products are part of the kosher diet, they cannot be combined at the same meal. A waiting period of 72 minutes to 6 hours must pass between the consumption of the two. Substitute margarine or oil for butter and avoid any desserts with cream or milk if serving meat.
  • Most fish, except shellfish, is considered kosher and need not be bought in special shops. Serving fish circumvents the kosher butcher issue, but not the kosher kitchen issue which is perceived by many observant Jews as less serious, although some may still feel compelled to avoid eating the meal.
  • Fresh fruit salad or non-cooked vegetarian meals are suitable alternatives since all fruits and vegetables are considered kosher.
  • Kosher foods are marked at food wholesalers, often with a circled "U" or "K". Wines should be from Israel or a kosher vineyard in the United States of America.

Islam: The Arabic and Middle Eastern countries as well as Turkey, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Djibouti, Gambia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia are all Muslim nations. Many other African and Southeast Asian countries have significant Muslim minorities. More than 6 million Muslims live throughout the United States of America. Even Israel and India, which is predominantly Hindu, have a sizeable Muslim population.

Muslims follow the doctrines of the Koran, which forbids alcohol and the flesh of scavenger animals (ie. pork), birds and fish (ie. shellfish). It also discourages use of caffeine and nicotine, although neither are forbidden; in fact, they tend to be consumed in great quantity in Arabic and Middle Eastern countries.

  • Avoid pork and pork products like ham, bacon, pate, hot dogs or sausage. Avoid food prepared with pork products like lard, which can include even pies. It is a good idea to avoid any pork dishes at a banquet when Muslims are in attendance because the other dishes might become contaminated in preparation or serving.
  • Don't serve shellfish like crab or lobster. Fish is an acceptable alternative to meat and shellfish.
  • Some Muslims prefer Zabihah meat which has been slaughtered according to special rules. Zabihah meat is similar to, but not the same as, kosher meat.
  • Do not serve alcohol in the presence of guests, especially government or religious officials, from the more fundamentalist Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, even if you know that the individual may drink in private. Many Muslims, however, do take exception to the rule forbidding alcohol. Pakistanis, for instance, are more liberal and frequently consume alcoholic beverages. But, it's best to err on the side of caution, especially in public. Serve fruit juices for toasts when alcoholic beverages cannot be consumed.
  • Avoid food cooked in alcohol, even if all the alcohol has burned off in cooking.
  • Muslims fast until sundown during the month of Ramadam.

Hinduism: Hindus live predominantly in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka with large groups also found in Great Britain, Pakistan and the United States of America. Their dietary restrictions vary according to region, local custom, caste and acceptance of outside practices. Primarily, though, orthodox Hindus shun all animal and fish products except milk and honey because of the Hindu doctrines of non-violence, karma and rebirth.

  • Beef is taboo because the cow is sacred. However, milk and butter are considered pure because of their non-violent connection to the cow.
  • Most Hindus are vegetarian. Some do eat eggs and occasionally westernized Hindus do eat meat. Others, especially Jains, do not eat root vegetables such as onions, carrots, potatoes or beets.
  • While westernized Hindus often drink alcohol, most Hindus don't drink alcoholic beverages. Fruit juice or soft drinks should always be offered as alternatives, especially for the women.
  • When in doubt, ask what the individual's preferences are. Indians will not take offense at the question.

Buddhism: Buddhism is a personal and individualistic religion based on the teachings of Buddha who lived in India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Buddhism is commonly practiced in Japan, China, Taiwan, Tibet, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Kampuchea and Vietnam.

Although dietary restrictions are not part of Buddhist doctrine, they may be self-imposed. A great number of Buddhists are vegetarian because of the Buddhist abhorrence of killing. Most Thais, however, do eat meat because they reason that the animal was already killed, and they had no involvement in the killing. Japanese and Tibetans, too, eat meat, whereas you're more likely to find vegetarians among the Chinese, Myanmen and Sri Lankans.

While some Buddhist men don't drink alcoholic beverages, others do. In fact, sake, plum brandy, rice wine, Japanese beer and Mekong whiskey are closely associated with the cuisine of their respective countries. Women for the most part abstain, and soft drinks should be provided for them.

Mormon: As a young woman, Letitia Baldridge, the doyenne of etiquette advisors, worked for Ambassador Clare Booth Luce in Rome. The guest of honor at one meal Ms. Baldridge arranged was Ezra Taft Benson, Head of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. However, Mr. Benson and his wife were unable to eat a single thing served at that dinner in their honor because everything was made with alcohol.

According to Mormon doctrine, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, received a revelation from God in 1833 that forbade the consumption of alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco. Mormons consider these substances injurious to the body. Serve juice and milk instead. Other food and beverages like colas or chocolate that contain caffeine are not strictly forbidden, but are left to individual discretion.

Mormon teachings stress consumption of grains, vegetables and fruits, with only sparing use of meat.

Catholic: Except on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent, Catholics have not been obliged to refrain from eating meat on Fridays as an act of penance since 1966.

Vegetarian & Vegan: Vegetarians eat no meat, poultry or fish, but do eat dairy products. Vegans follow a much stricter form of vegetarianism that also prohibits them from eating any animal related products including all dairy products, eggs and honey.

Cultural Sensitivities and Preferences: When international delegates participate in any function, religious preferences aren't the only consideration. When countries are renown for certain foods, they often consider the American versions inferior. Argentineans have a finely honed palate for good beef; be sure to serve only the finest quality. Chinese and Japanese dislike the tea served here; always serve green tea to the Japanese. Countries known for their coffee consider the American version, especially decaf, flavored dishwater while Americans get wired on their more potent versions.

Intolerances to certain foods can result from unfamiliarity or differing cultural values. Asians have a customary aversion to milk and milk products. Interestingly, though, this aversion does not extend to ice cream, much to the pleasure of executives at Baskin Robbins who have recently moved into the Chinese market. Baskin Robbins is already in Korea and Japan, but Rocky Road is not the flavor of choice. Koreans have developed a fondness for Red Bean ice cream, while the Japanese prefer Green Tea ice cream.

Sheep's eyes, monkey brains, gorilla hand and snake sound totally repugnant to most Americans, yet they are delicacies in other countries. Many of the foods we perceive as "Italian", "Chinese" or "Mexican" are in fact American interpretations of food from that culture and are frowned upon by representatives of that culture. Like the fortune cookie, they may even be American inventions. When serving the food of their culture to international delegates, use a caterer who understands the cuisine of that culture and can provide you with authentic dishes. Otherwise, serve American food.

Arranging Special Menus: It does take more time to arrange special menus that accommodate everyone's tastes and needs, but it is possible. Airlines do it all the time. Most caterers will be happy to work with you, especially if you give them sufficient notice and work out the logistics of the service. It helps the waitstaff if everyone requiring a certain type of meal is seated together, but that is not always possible. A detailed seating plan then becomes essential.

At a recent event for 60 people, the hosts ate no red meat. Rather than settle for chicken, they opted for a pasta appetizer with a salmon entree. However, of the 58 guests, one was acutely allergic to fish and nuts, another had an acute shellfish allergy, three ate no fish, one was vegetarian, one was vegan, two were diabetic and two were kosher. Guests had been asked if they had any dietary requirements when their RSVP's were confirmed. The hosts provided the restaurant with a list of these dietary requirements and several copies of detailed, color coded seating plans. No-one even needed to be asked which meal they were to receive, and the entire event was a major success.

By making the extra effort to accommodate guests and delegates, your event will also receive a five-star rave revue.

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