Religion habit and tradition

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Religious and ethical considerations are important in determining the choice of foods. Observant Jews and Muslims will eat meat only from animals that have cloven hooves and chew the cud. The words kosher in Jewish law and hallal in Islamic law both mean clean; the meat of other animals, which are scavenging animals, birds of prey and detritus-feeding fish, is regarded as unclean (traife or haram). We now know that many of these forbidden animals carry parasites that can infect human beings, so these ancient prohibitions are based on food hygiene.

Hindus will not eat beef. The reason for this is that the cow is far too valuable, as a source of milk and dung (as manure and fuel) and as a beast of burden, for it to be killed just as a source of meat.

Many people refrain from eating meat as a result of humanitarian concern for the animals involved, or because of real or perceived health benefits. Vegetarians can be divided into a variety of groups, according to the strictness of their diet:

  • Some avoid red meat but eat poultry and fish.
  • Some specifically avoid beef because of the potential risk of contracting variant Creutzfeldt—Jakob disease (vCJD) from eating meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE).
  • Some (pescetarians) eat fish, but not meat or poultry.
  • Ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat eggs and milk but not meat.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat milk but not eggs.
  • Vegans eat only plant foods, and no foods of animal origin.

Perhaps the strictest of all vegetarians are the Jains (originally from Gujarat in India), whose religion not only prohibits the consumption of meat, but extends the sanctity of life to insects and grubs as well — an observant Jain will not eat any vegetable that has grown underground, lest an insect was killed in harvesting it.

Foods that are commonly eaten in one area may be little eaten elsewhere, even though they are available, simply because people have not been accustomed to eating them. To a very great extent, eating habits as adults continue the habits learned as children.

Haggis and oatcakes rarely travel south from Scotland, except as speciality items; black pudding is a staple of northern British breakfasts but is rarely seen in the southeast of England. Until the 1960s yoghurt was almost unknown in Britain, eaten only by a few health food 'cranks' and immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many British children believe that fish comes only as rectangular fish fingers, whereas children in inland Spain may eat fish and other seafood three or four times a week. The French mock the British habit of eating lamb with mint sauce — and the average British reaction to such French delicacies as frogs' legs and snails in garlic sauce is one of horror. The British eat their cabbage well boiled; the Germans and Dutch ferment it to produce sauerkraut.

This regional and cultural diversity of foods provides one of the pleasures of travel. As people travel more frequently, and become (perhaps grudgingly) more adventurous in their choice of foods, so they create a demand for different foods at home, and there is an increasing variety of foods available in shops and restaurants.

A further factor which has increased the range of foods available has been immigration of people from a variety of different backgrounds, all of whom have, as they have become established, introduced their traditional foods to their new homes. It is hard to believe that in the 1960s there were only a handful of tandoori restaurants in the whole of Britain and that pizza was something seen only in southern Italy and a few specialist restaurants, or that Balti cooking was unknown until the 1990s.

Some people are naturally adventurous and will try a new food just because they have never eaten it before. Others are more conservative and will try a new food only when they see someone else eating it safely and with enjoyment. Others are yet more conservative in their food choices; the most conservative eaters 'know' that they do not like a new food because they have never eaten it before.

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