There is nothing that so encompasses a culture than the cuisine of that culture. No matter who we are, where we are from, where we
currently like, and where we currently work, our food says a lot about us. Think of your favourite comfort food, no two people think about the exact same dish. That is because our comfort food is a product of who we are and our experiences with the world and other human beings.
So it’s no surprise that there are a few things you can parse from a group of people buy their food. Not just the food that they eat but
also how they treat food, how they eat food, and how they think about the food they eat and how they eat it.
Take for example, what each culture defines as cheap food, food that you can get easily without paying as much as you had gone to a
sit-down restaurant. In Japan, Korean food is considered the go-to cheap meal. In France, Northern African food is cheap. And the English are quite fond of their curry. What does this say about these countries?
Some argue that the cheap foods found in these areas speak to colonial and imperialist histories. England controlled much of India during
the 18th century, and this same relationship can be found in France and northern Africa, and Japan and Korea. Of course, this is only a small facet of how food may reveal the history and culture of a nation.
Food also tells us of a person’s identity. While we may think of a culture and its food in wide strokes: French food, Mexican food, Italian food, there are actually several regions within these nations each with their distinct food and culture. The same is true for the United States. The southern states are known for their barbecue and soul food. Becoming even more granular, each region of the south has a specific barbecue they are known for and take pride in. Don’t you dare mistake Kansas City burnt ends with Texas brisket?
In the same vein of identity, food is also used to preserve culture. Immigrants often arrived without anything of their culture except for
food. In a time and place where it benefited many people to blend in with what was mainstream, food was still private enough to be enjoyed in the home. As such, food acted as both a reminder and last standing bastion of a people’s culture.
When it comes to the food culture of the United States, meat is often at the centre of the plate. The idea of a meal where meat is the
largest and main portion is uniquely American and stems from the wealth of the country. For much of human history, and in some parts of the world today, meat is a precious commodity that has been hard to procure. Even in other western countries, meat is considered a delicacy or something that complement a meal. Further, this focus on meat is almost unheard of in places like Japan, where rice or noodles are considered the main dish of a meal. If beef is included in a meal, it’s often considered a side dish. In countries like Japan and France,
grains and beans were a more reliable source of food, and so they became the centre of the diet there.
While the large consumption of meat is uniquely American, Americans also have something in common with almost all cultures: the use of
food in celebrations. Food plays a large role in different countries. In some parts, food is seen as a status symbol. In China, for example, western food, because of its rarity and cost, is synonymous with high status. At a high-class banquet, the most expensive food is served first, and each course that follows becomes less and less expensive.
In other countries such as France and Italy, food is synonymous with pleasure. The French, in particular, have a rich cooking culture. So much so, in fact, that takeout and fast food diners like McDonald’s struggle to claim a foothold there. The same holds true for Italy. In these countries, the nutritional value of food isn’t as important as the work and love that goes into its preparation. Things like status and wealth aren’t as important when it comes to food like it is in China.
The way food is eaten also shows much about a culture. In most Western cultures and places like the United States, France, and England, eating from your own personal plate is the norm. As well, dinners are usually kept as a time for family or very close friends. In Chinese and Arab communities, however, food is served from large, communal platters and each dish is eaten with the hand. It’s not uncommon for markets, schools, and community organizations often hold large meals open to the public.
What does all this say about a people’s culture? Anthropologists and food scientists alike have posted their own theories. It could be said that because Arab cultures eat from shared platters. It could be said that it is only because of the United States’ wealth that meat is a primary staple of the American diet since meat has historically been a luxury for the rich. It could also be said that countries tend to devalue the culture and cuisine of the countries they colonized.
Some have even gone so far to say that a country’s role in global politics can be deduced from a country’s food. Iran, for example, shares the United States’ disposition for meat and high carbs. Because of this, one United Nations political affairs officer believes Iran to be a natural ally of the West, and only its leadership keeps it from being so.
However, it’s important to note that whatever can be extrapolated from this information is guesswork at best. While food is an important part of a culture, culture is ever changing. In a quickly globalizing world, cultures and the food related to them are easily shared. Lines become blurred, and the way things have quickly become the way things used to be.
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