Exploring Other Cultures Through Food
Food plays an essential role in our everyday lives and is far more than just a daily necessity to keep our bodies ticking. Have you ever considered how our cultural experience is formed by the food we eat? Many of us can equate our beloved dishes with pleasant thoughts and early childhood memories. When we were sick, our parents fed us the same comfort food that you are likely to feed yourself or your children when they are sick, for instance.
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Cooking traditional meals from your homeland is a method many people use to help ease homesickness while travelling worldwide. When you journey to a new nation, you often bring more than just yourself; you bring a piece of your culture with you.
As the world slowly returns to a form of normality, we will once again meet with family and friends for meals during the holidays. Our love for, and participation in, these little food rituals constantly grows as memories are invariably created. Cooking and dining together are a physical reflection of how we feel for the ones we love; with food being able to nourish both body and soul, food from our family often becomes the comfort food we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress.
Traditional recipes are carefully handed down from one generation to the next and carry with them the critical role of cultural expression: cooking traditional meals is essential because they are a physical reminder of who we are and what made us this way.
Because of this, the food we eat is intrinsically intertwined with what we deem our culture to be, so when you view food beyond the surface level, you begin to learn so much more about the culture from which the dish draws its origins. Consider the dish goulash. The same dish can be found in Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. This is primarily due to the historical significance of the Habsburg Dynasty’s rule, which linked so many different cultures under the banner of one empire.
As humans became more mobile and began seeking new lands to call home, they took with them food in the form of never-before-seen herbs, spices, and vegetables, creating the opportunity for the home nation’s traditional foods to evolve as a result. Constantly, various cultures will inspire change in each other’s traditional dishes, in the process allowing for the creation of something new and unique. The humble Tikka Masala, an Indian-styled curry dish that was initially conceived in Britain in a kind of unplanned partnership of cultural preferences and dislikes in the hope of catering to the less spice-tolerant British palate. This is a perfect example of multiculturalism creating something unique as a result of cultural obstacles.
Unfortunately, we can’t begin to know everything about another culture just by consuming and experimenting with its food. Understanding a different culture is like witnessing an iceberg; there is an easily recognisable surface-level culture, but there is also a wealth of more nuanced culture beneath the surface. Since food is a tangible and highly recognisable element attached to a cultural community or country, it is considered a surface-level element of culture. To develop a greater understanding of the part food plays in helping us contribute to our cultural identities, we must first consider the traditions and meaning behind the foods we consume and what historical significance led to its production.
The United States has become a home for culinary multiculturalism, a place of change and acceptance in the world of food, with many Americans’ eating habits ultimately reflecting the nation’s history. The influx of European ingredients and cooking methods to the United States resulted from the European colonisation of the Americas and provides the roots of many dishes that we would associate with being solely American today.
Old World-inspired cultural foods would include the Gumbo stews found in French-Creole Louisiana or the Chicago style deep-dish pizza, happily existing at home in the “Windy City”. The United States is frequently described as a “melting pot” once you go beyond the innumerable fast-food joints and bloated servings sizes. In my opinion, however, its food culture is more of a mosaic than a melting pot.
With the introduction of immigrants from a greater number of foreign countries in the late twentieth century, America has built a home for unique types of cuisine from all over the world to mingle and get to know one another graciously.
Exploring other cultures through food can help us understand that food can embody not only each country’s culture but also act as a bridge between people, helping you to find common ground through your mutual love of food and the warmth it brings to the soul. Plus, it’s always good to encourage yourself to explore the rest of the world, even though doing so from the kitchen seems like the only reasonable compromise right now.