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FOOD for Thought: Fish-Eaters and Tea-Drinkers

Well, the Tea-Drinkers are obviously the English. Our famous stereotype as tea sippers and samplers even made it into Asterix, although this was a ghastly drink of water and milk until Asterix himself gave us the leaves. However, we are not the only ones classified, characterized, and humorously mocked for our food eating traits, or at any rate those popularly associated with a people: Germans with their sausages and sauerkraut (YUM), frogs and snails for the French (although, I’ll add steak-frites to that), pasta and pizza from Italy, raw fish for the Japanese. It does not need to be read offensively and is often a thing to be celebrated.

So, are the Japanese the Fish-Eaters of the title? Actually, no (that is in no way to decry sushi or sashimi, they are great favourites). These Fish-Eaters in fact come from Herodotus’ Histories. The Fish-Eaters are a people solicited by Cambyses for their knowledge of the language of the Ethiopians. Cambyses wants to send them as spies on the great people. Diet as a means of identifying, describing, and classifying is not new. Katherine Clarke in her wonderful book Shaping the Geography of Empire: Man and Nature in Herodotus’ Histories pertinently notes as follows:

The idea of food-mapping is, of course, familiar to us, too. We may live in the era of the ‘global village’, but local cuisines and associated gastronomic stereotypes persist.”

(2018: 12-13, n.36)

Herodotus was not the only one. Three centuries later, Agatharchides made diet an important part in his descriptions of peoples.

But why do we do this? Human beings are fascinated by difference and variety, and they also enjoy food. Simple as that. Increasingly nowadays, we are fascinated by the different health effects and benefits of different food types. But this was not absent from ancient foodie fascinations either. The king of the Ethiopians grills the Fish-Eaters about the Persian diet and their average life-expectancy, and upon learning their diet consists largely of grain, he rather rudely remarks that:

It was no wonder that their lives were so short, given that they ate dung.”

OUCH. He attributes, in contrast, Ethiopian manliness and strength to their consumption of boiled meat. This might go against the GRAIN (pun intended) of thought about foodstuffs and health nowadays, but it shows the connection had been made between diet, lifestyle, and life expectancy. However, the ancients were also fascinated by new foods from different peoples. Milo, exiled for murder after Cicero was intimidated when defending him, remarked that he would never have sampled the wonderful fish sauce of Marseilles had the defence gone according to plan.

And so, we should continue to celebrate culinary diversity. It’s awesome.

But I shall end by being ridiculously British:



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