Food is a wonderful window to other cultures, and may be the simplest bridge to learning about the traditions of others in a comfortable, if somewhat incremental way. We all need to eat.
Of course, it may not be that comfortable for someone who rotates only the same four or five dinners for the bulk of their life and has a basic fear of flavour and little interest in expanding his or her culinary horizons, but for those of us who enjoy a little variety and aren’t frightened by unfamiliar vegetables, experiencing food-as-culture is a great opportunity.
Food is inextricably linked with culture. It is present in our rituals, both religious and secular, it is – ideally – a daily event, and it can represent the full spectrum of our social interaction. The food that is grown or raised in any specific area is going to reflect the agricultural abilities of the land, the techniques adapted to those conditions, and to some extent the indigenous species or varieties.
Early man’s shamanistic tendencies led to a whole host of food-related deities, and the accompanying rituals required to fulfill the need to control the harvest with only primitive technology at hand. Rice has inspired a variety of goddesses throughout Asia, which is indicative of its status as a fundamental food in those areas. Even cultures which do not subscribe to a pantheon approach to spirituality or religion have stories which centre around mankind’s receiving of food from a higher being. The manna in the wilderness, cited in the Torah and the Holy Bible, was given to the Israelites by their God in a time of great need. Whether the food came first or the god who dispenses it, there is a powerful link between food and religion and gratitude.
Just as many different groups of people had different rites to ensure a good harvest, be it through prayer, beseeching, sacrifice, or ritual dance, so there are different ways to celebrate the fruits of their labours. Saying grace before meals is a direct example of the connection that people make between their religion and the food that they eat, and is an accessible ritual to even those most removed from the harvest – city dwellers who have never seen a farm animal outside of a petting zoo, or a crop of wheat other than a prairie expanse as their planes fly overhead.
Food is also used to mark religious events of great importance in a manner that reminds the devout of their provenance, and can be used as a teaching tool to pass on the history of a people to its younger generation. Seder, the Jewish Passover celebration, embodies this in a heavily ritualized event that requires active participation from its members. The rules of Passover include the use of special foods, dishes, cutlery, and the cleansing of the house of hametz – leavening foods. The Seder plate, containing five foods that represent the struggle for freedom, is a powerful reminder to participants of the heavy price paid by their ancestors.
Most celebrations involve food, although not all of them bear such a weight of history on the food choices and preparations, and many celebrations are secular, or politically based. Many nations have a national holiday that celebrate the establishment of the country’s sovereignty, and that can be a very simple way to look in on another culture. One of the more famous secular celebrations in North America is Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo (May 5), which is celebrated much more widely than even Mexico’s Independence Day (September 12). It is so much more widely recognized that many people simply mistake the one for the other, when Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates a particular battle – the Battle of the Puebla – where vastly outnumbered troops managed to triumph over Napoleon’s French army. This was a signal event for both the emerging Mexican democracy and the devastated French army. Mexico didn’t win the war until some years later, but that tremendous victory continued to give strength to the fight..
Every year, in the beginning of May, I find myself craving Mexican food, and thinking about this particular point in history. I’ve learned that going to a Mexican restaurant on such a day will require reservations and a tolerance for Mariachi bands, as well as crowds, harried servers, and a sort of frantic party environment. These days, I stay home and make enchiladas.
My first understanding that food was a legitimate foray into the study of a culture came from my high school French teacher, who brought baguettes, camembert and pears into the class and served them around while we talked about the French styles of markets, grocers, and purchasing habits, and how these things affected the daily routines. She brought in a day-old baguette that was as solid as a rock, and explained that bread is bought daily, which is why so many photos of sidewalk-life in France shows so many people walking or bicycling with a baguette tucked under one arm. She talked about the French revolution, and how the government came to set the price for bread to ensure that the poor could still afford to eat such a basic necessity. My classmates thought that, because they were eating, they were getting away with not studying, even though a highly specific vocabulary lesson was being delivered. Me, I was happy to have bread, cheese, and crisp green pears, and speculate about what it would be like, to live in Paris – where, no doubt, I would be popular, and stylish, and understood.
Where to start, though, if you are unfamiliar with a culture, or have only the barest of pre-conceived notions about it? Restaurants are a natural place to begin, but you might not have access to one, especially outside a large city. It can be daunting, too, faced with a complete unknown, unless you have a guide who can help you understand what to expect from what you are ordering. If you are intrepid, though, the challenge may spark your spirit of adventure, and there is no certainly no education like hands-on education.
Festivals and holidays are a pleasant introduction, and are a part of pretty much every culture. Here in Vancouver, there are a number of Chinese festivals that mark our calendar – the Lantern Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and of course, Chinese New Year. More recently, other multicultural holidays have been getting promotion, and we now have broader exposure to the Indian Diwali (festival of lights), Ramadan (Islamic month of fasting – and Eid, the feast that marks its finale) among others. Since holidays and festivals are usually accompanied by special foods and some sort of history lesson (often directed at children), there is a combined experience of food and an introduction to the culture to be had.
Another productive place to start is with a well written cookbook. My favourite cookbooks are ones that tell a story, so naturally I am particularly drawn to books that focus on a single cuisine, and share information and delicious tidbits of knowledge along with the recipes. The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden, is a fascinating study of Jewish history and culture with such engaging anecdotes that I didn’t realize how much I was learning until a conversation a few days later. I was familiar with the prohibition of pork, and a few of the other dietary rules, but not as familiar with the culinary subterfuge necessary to maintain a low profile in troubled times past. This book, and others that are similarly well written, are the things of bedtime reading for me. Endlessly engaging.
We do identify certain countries and cultures with their more renowned dishes. Just saying the words “fish and chips” gives me a background visual of a Union Jack flag, waving slightly on an imaginary breeze. Sweden makes us think of meatballs, and dill-cured salmon, Italy conjures pasta, and Germany summons images of sausage. While it is a mistake to stereotype a culture based on its more popular exports, and while we know, logically, that a Japanese person doesn’t eat sushi (for example) every day any more than we might make a hamburger a daily meal, the foods that are eaten in each country or region are evidence of the agriculture, commerce, and history of the people who live there. It’s an adventure. It's history. It's dinner. You were going to eat anyway, right?
Welcome to the brand new look for Always in the Kitchen. The new site was developed by Julie McGalliard, who sorted out my barely coherent ramblings about what I wanted, and developed the art and technical components for the entire site. Thanks, Julie!
The older pages will be brought into the new format gradually, as I find the time to do it. In the meantime, please be patient. Let me know if you find any broken links, or if the site is acting weird, though.
Always In the Kitchen
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