Those of us who support globalisation have all sorts of sophisticated arguments against the familiar charge that it is driven by greed. We point out that it does not just generate profits for the rich world’s companies: it also provides jobs for the poor world’s workers. It does not just spread GM crops around the planet: it also enables cultural cross-fertilisation. But we cannot deny that many people’s enthusiasm for globalisation is driven by the most basic form of greed of all – greed for food.
The mere prospect of travel gets the mouth watering. A trip to somewhere familiar means the chance to eat “authentic” food. However good a “Tuscan” restaurant in London, it is no match for eating Tuscan food in Tuscany. A trip somewhere exotic means the chance to experiment.
Yet experimentation can be risky. On my first flight to South Korea I woke up to a choice between a traditional Korean breakfast and a traditional English breakfast. As an aspiring global citizen I naturally chose the Korean option. My Korean neighbour smirked. Ten minutes later I was presented with glutinous porridge that congealed in the stomach, stinking kimchi that set off a chemical reaction with the congealed mass, and heavily salted fish. My neighbour tucked complacently into a delicious-looking full English.
But traditional Korean breakfasts are a blast compared with traditional Finnish dinners. On my first visit to Finland I somewhat tipsily suggested that my hosts subject me to the full Finnish experience. A succession of courses arrived, each more ghastly than its predecessor – chewy balls of fish, pickled lumps of haggis and, the coup de grâce, fermented fish that had been buried underground for months. The only thing that made the experience tolerable – at least until the inevitable reckoning later that night – was the super-powered vodka that paralysed the senses even as it speeded up time.
But the most embarrassing experience I have ever had with food involved exotic technology rather than exotic tastes. I had been wandering the streets of Tokyo since before dawn. This was my first visit and I was enthralled. The city was at once completely familiar and entirely strange: row upon row of banal skyscrapers occasionally broken by temples or tea houses. By mid-day I was ravenously hungry. But how could I make myself understood in a country in which few people spoke English and girls tittered as I wandered past?
I eventually got up the courage to walk into a sushi restaurant. The window was decorated with giant plastic models of sushi so I thought that I could simply point and make myself understood. I sat at a counter and waited for a waiter to appear. Nobody came. I began to play with my table mat. I noticed that whenever you touched a picture of a bit of sushi it lit up with a mild beeping sound. I entertained myself by lighting up the sushi as fast as possible and trying to play a musical theme. The fish lit up. The beeps beeped. I continued to toy with it as I waited.
A few minutes later an avalanche of sushi began to arrive – salmon and eel, tuna and mackerel, sushi rolls and sushi cones, sushi platters and sashimi spreads, so much sushi that the area around me was piled high. I tried to tell the waitress that I had made a mistake, that I didn’t want any more, but she simply smiled demurely and continued to bring more plates. I ate as much as I possibly could, and very good it was too: the fish fresh and tender, completely different from the rubbery stuff you get in Britain. But eventually I was so stuffed that I could eat no more. I had to give plates away to my fellow customers. Stuffed, embarrassed and surrounded by a sea of plates, I ordered the bill, worried that they would not take credit cards and I would be trapped in Tokyo washing up for the next few months. But the machine accepted my card and I left the restaurant to general applause. After only a few hours in Tokyo, I already had a well-fed posse-cum-fan-club.
I returned to the office with a sushi bill of well over £500. How could I justify my involuntary feast? Should I pretend that I had taken a large group of business people out to lunch? That would be fraud. Should I fall on my sword and pay the bill myself? That would be unnecessarily masochistic: I was in Tokyo on company business and my personal finances were dodgy. I eventually decided on complete honesty. I filled in the expense form as boldly as possible – sushi lunch for one: £500 – and waited for the inevitable inquisition. I would at least have an amusing story to tell the bean counters.
I waited in vain. Nothing happened. Soon guilt about my feast was replaced by a darker emotion: suspicion of my colleagues. Perhaps my expense claim was waved through because it was the most normal thing in the world. Perhaps my colleagues were all taking themselves out to £500 lunches and getting the company to pay the bill. They all looked sleek and happy while I looked threadbare and miserable. Perhaps the real problem was not that I was too incompetent but that I was insufficiently greedy.