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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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taboo (or tabu) a word which in a food context (as indeed in others) means ‘prohibited or unclean’, especially for religious or other mysterious reasons. A prohibition overtly based on some fully explicable reason would not normally count as a taboo. A taboo, therefore, must be distinguished from a food preference, dislike, or even aversion.

This term, which comes from Tonga in the Pacific Ocean, was very applicable to pre-European Polynesian society when there was in force a complex set of rules about what might be eaten, by whom, when, and in what manner. These rules defined and demarcated identities and social groups and while some may have had practical foundation (for example, cleanliness), mostly they embodied, in rules about food, mute statements about belonging and like-mindedness, as well as purity. Those religions which still have food taboos are discussed in the entries muslims and food, and jewish dietary laws. There are also points made under several foodstuffs that have been subject to taboo, though none so unlikely as the prohibition on eating woodpeckers in force in ancient Rome (where the bird may have been sacred to Mars), or the veto on Syrians eating fish because the species was associated with the worship of the goddess Atagartis.