Food and its preparation is an integral part of a person’s culture. Food brings people together, uniting much like language does. It creates emotional bonds and links one back to memories, traditions, and daily routines. It’s no wonder that feasts, celebrations, and everyday meals are woven into the fabric of our lives. Whether you prefer fufu from West Africa, Pennsylvanian-Dutch scrapple, or a strong hot cup of yerba maté, food is and forever will be a facet of our identities.
Initially, choices on what to cook and eat were determined by climate, region availability, nutritional value, digestibility, and taste. This led to ingredients, recipes, methods of cooking, kitchens, and dining etiquette from how to serve head cheese, to how to correctly eat chicken feet, to what beverage goes best with hakarl, (an Icelandic dish of rotting shark meat).
Massimo Montanari discusses food’s influence on one’s roots in depth in his book, Food is Culture. PBS explored the relationship between food and culture in their Meaning of Food series that features a web interactive. In it they examine cultural culinary science such as the use of kitchen gadgets, like the sharkskin wasabi grater found in Japanese cooking, and define some of the more unusual dishes like balut, a Filipino delicacy consisting of a soft boiled fertilized egg with a developed duckling inside.
Culture usually shapes our tastes and sets boundaries to what foods are eaten. What may be thought of as individual preference may be influenced in part by what is deemed acceptable by the society. Do you prefer roasted batatas or spicy kimchi? Do you use a caldero or a tagine to prepare dinner in? What might seem delicious to you, might be a turn off to others or even taboo. For example, durian, a Southeast Asian fruit has a smell often described as ‘putrid,’ yet its creamy flesh is delectable to many.
Culture will also decide how you prepare your food and the utensils you use whether they are chopsticks, fork and knife, tongs, bread, or your fingers. The California Academy of Sciences provides a searchable database outlining 1,400 eating utensil items from various ethnicities.
Throughout the history of mankind, practices such as conquering and plundering new lands to farming to the spice trade saw the spread of a variety of foods to distant regions. The globalization of food has since encouraged further sharing across the continents. Choices have become more plentiful and include exotic and exciting new tastes, smells, textures, and dishes. In large urban areas around the world, it is not uncommon to see the influence of other cultures in restaurants and grocery store selections. For example, in the U.S., one might find a pizzeria next door to a restaurant serving shawarma and across the street from another serving gyros.
Often when ingredients are not found in a host country, certain substitutions follow, and thus traditional recipes may be altered. You don’t have banana leaves? Use parchment paper. Can’t find pork belly? Use bacon instead. However, specialty stores and the Internet have made it increasingly easy to find ingredients when there are no substitutes.
What is your favorite dish? Has it been modified or changed in any way when preparing it in a new culture? We’d like to hear from you. Share your comments below!
Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype