Eating Your Way to a New Culture

28 April 2020

By Caeli


Sure, I speak a little Italian: spaghetti, rigatoni, tortellini… Okay, I know what you’re thinking, those words entered the English language a long time ago, so I can hardly say I’m speaking Italian. But the fact that these Italian words—and more specifically, these Italian foods—have become so commonplace for the average Anglophone necessarily means we know something about Italian culture, no?

May contain traces of society, history, traditions and geography

I love food. When I’m not eating, I’m daydreaming about what I’m going to eat next. I also love to travel because I get to taste new, exciting dishes and ingredients. Consuming unfamiliar foods isn’t just a matter of taking my taste buds on a journey—although that is pretty fun. I try different foods to discover and learn about different cultures. A typical dish from a particular place tells a gustatory story about the people who make it; its ingredients and preparation methods offer insight into geography, history and a people’s customs.

For instance, eating a taco is a way of taking in Mexican culture. (It should be noted that I’m not referring to any of that Old El Paso Tex-Mex stuff.) Biting into a corn tortilla is recognizing the central dietary, social and economic role maize has played in Mexico for millennia—even before it became Mexico. Chewing on Mexican chorizo is acknowledging the arrival of European colonizers, who brought pigs and other farm animals to the Americas. Getting a burst of spice on your tongue is recalling pre-Columbian civilizations who cultivated chili crops under the warm sun. Eating with your hands is understanding Mexicans’ unfussy, down‑to‑earth lifestyle. Of course, the taco won’t impart this information directly through your taste buds, like plugging a taco USB key into your mouth computer. A taco does not physically or virtually contain data on Mexican culture, but it is a gateway to it. Chowing down on a taco—or any other dish that is not related to my own cultural identity—makes me want to feed my curiosity (pun intended). As I salivate in anticipation of a foreign dish, my mind wanders. Where are these ingredients from? How is this recipe made? Who are the people who eat it? When do they eat it? In finding answers to my questions about a dish, I inadvertently learn about the social group or groups that prepare it.

Making a connection

When you eat a particular dish, you establish a connection with the culture it’s from. Sometimes it’s just a casual connection. For instance, when you order take-out tandoori chicken, you may not necessarily want to travel to India, discover the many varieties of Indian cuisines or even find out what the heck a tandoor is. Maybe all you want is to eat some tandoori chicken with a side of rice and some naan and not have to do dishes. Fair enough. But the fact that you can even order Indian food in your neighbourhood is most likely because there are first-, second- or third‑generation Indian immigrants living in your area who decided to open up a restaurant that celebrates their background. The connection you have with Indian culture is simple: you’re no expert, but you know nuggets of information about its food and its people based on your experiences ordering and eating Indian food. However, enjoying a particular variety of food could persuade you to learn more about a specific culture and even develop a bond with it.

Before I travel to a new place, I do extensive research on the foods I want to eat while I’m there and where to find them. Most of the time, it’s about sampling authentic dishes, but sometimes it’s just about trying a restaurant that’s supposed to be a-may-zing. Either way, my meals are usually carefully planned out when I’m abroad. That way, I know I’ll be able to get to everything on my to-eat list. When I do finally sink my teeth into food I’ve been longing to try, I take mental notes as I eat. What flavours and textures stand out? How is it cooked? How is it assembled? How am I supposed to eat it? How is this different from any version of this dish I’ve tried at home? Why is it so different? If I can, I ask cooks, servers or local food enthusiasts to tell me more about the dish or ingredients. My hunger for food eventually evolves into a hunger for knowledge. Through my meals and snacks, I gain information about agricultural practices, people’s daily routines, ceremonies involving foodstuffs, even music that is played while people enjoy a meal. By learning about culinary traditions, I become aware of broader cultural traditions.

Throughout the rest of my trip, I’ll do other touristy and not‑so‑touristy activities. But in the back of my mind, I’m always gathering information and drawing connections to the things I’ve eaten. At a museum, I’ll spot every object and label that mentions food and enrich my understanding of a society. On hikes, I’ll notice edible plants in the wild and wonder, who the heck saw a cactus and thought, that’s something I should try eating? By the end of my visit, I know so much more about the people, their history and their customs because I was interested in their food. I ate like them and with them, and I can appreciate their dietary habits, no matter how different they are from my own. I form a bond with this other culture.

Eat your words

A culture’s relationship with its food extends beyond the dish itself. The words that represent food are just as important. My partner is obsessed with interested in Japanese culture because he loves Japanese food. His love of sushi, ramen and soba noodles led him to not only learn how to make different types of Japanese foods, but also pick up plenty of Japanese words. I like to think that when he and I eventually visit Japan, we’ll have no problem ordering food because my partner knows the words for many ingredients typically used in Japanese cooking, as well as the names of many Japanese dishes. He can tell you all about karaage, donburi, tamagoyaki, furikake, and so on. (Reading Japanese characters may be an issue while we’re abroad, but let me dream a little, will you?) Through food, my partner developed a fascination with another culture and learned words in another language.

I believe food is actually a key component of learning a language and so of discovering another culture. When I first started learning Spanish, we learned basic vocabulary, which included food items. I was familiar with many of the items in our coursebook: lettuce, beef, cheese, tomatoes, and so on. But then I came across plátano. The picture in the book looked like a banana, so I assumed that’s what it was. And I wasn’t wrong. But plátano can also mean plantain, and at the time, I had no idea what that was. The starchy banana imposter fruit opened my eyes (and mouth) to food I never even knew existed. As I learned about the plantain, a staple food in the Caribbean and other tropical areas, I discovered other cultures. Today, the plantain brings back memories of trips to Cuba and Ecuador, where I first experienced culture shock but eventually gained a deep understanding about the people who live there. In another Spanish class a few years later, one of our assignments consisted of preparing a dish from a particular Hispanophone country.1 My Spanish teacher already knew that language, food and culture were interconnected. When it comes to learning a new language, you can’t really avoid learning about the people who speak it. Similarly, when it comes to eating a dish from a particular culture, you can’t really avoid learning a bit—or a lot—about the people who traditionally make and eat it.

What’s cooking?

I’ve gone on and on about how food from a particular cultural group can tell you about the people who customarily prepare it. However, that food doesn’t necessarily have to come from a restaurant or another country: it can come from your very own kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, my partner learned to make several Japanese dishes because he loves to eat Japanese food. He regularly watches Japanese cooking shows on YouTube (if you’ve ever wanted to see a poodle host a cooking show, look no further than Cooking with Dog), he enthusiastically watches cooks prepare and plate dishes when we dine at izakayas, he collects countless recipes that feature miso and nori and bonito flakes, and he’s constantly making a mess of the kitchen trying to recreate Japanese dishes. Throughout all this, consciously or not, he’s amassing information about Japanese eating habits, traditions, history, etc. (I’m making my partner sound like a total weeaboo, aren’t I? He has a similar passion for all types of noodles, everything from spaghetti to lo mein. I could just as easily have shone a spotlight on his love for Italian or Chinese food.)

When I set my mind to cooking a dish traditionally associated with a cultural identity other than my own, I do more than just buy the ingredients and painstakingly follow the steps to the recipe. I look up techniques and tools online and in books. I do my best to find the right ingredients, even if I’ve never heard of them. (What in the world is asafetida2 and where am I supposed to find it? Time for an adventure around the city’s local food markets, I guess!) I find out how to manipulate these ingredients I’ve never heard of. (How the heck am I supposed to cut open jackfruit? Oh look, it also comes in a can!) And most importantly, I play music to complement the dish I’m preparing. Recently, I listened to Cajun tunes while preparing shrimp and okra gumbo. It was like I was right on the bayou (minus the swamp and gators). I like to immerse myself in a culture as much as I can when I’m cooking a dish. In doing so, I gain insight into the dish’s cultural roots.

Food for thought

Today, one of the first things that many Canadians (and Americans) learn to cook for themselves is pasta. Even if you have absolutely zero Italian heritage, chances are you know how to throw some dried noodles into a pot of boiling water, strain them, and then plop on some tomato sauce from a jar. (People in Italy would probably weep at that last sentence, but the average white university student who has never had to make their own food before would likely call this a perfectly suitable meal. No judging.) Spaghetti, rigatoni and tortellini are words and food items we know well. But less than a century ago, the idea of eating a meal that consisted of something other than a piece of meat and a side was practically unheard of for many people in Canada and the US. As Italian immigrants began to play a more prominent role in North American society, so did their culinary traditions. In many ways, Italian food and culture have become quite familiar to non‑Italian Canadians—even if our versions of pizza usually deviate immensely from a traditional pizza napoletana—because Italians and Italian descendants are now so present on this side of the Atlantic. But there are so many other cultures—and foods—that I’m sure you know nothing about.

Countless cultures are still, well, foreign to you and to a lot of people. I believe that by eating more foods from other cultures, we can learn more about societies from around the world. So, step out of your comfort zone and have a taste of some Ethiopian doro wat (chicken stew), check out a Singaporean restaurant (if you’re in Montréal, I recommend Satay Brothers) or find a recipe for some Finnish pancakes. You might just learn something.

1 My teammate and I were assigned Mexico, so we made quesadillas. Fun fact: the word “quesadilla” comes from “queso,” the Spanish word for cheese. You may think that all quesadillas are filled with cheese—and almost everywhere in Mexico, that is indeed the case. Interestingly enough, though, in Mexico City, quesadillas do not automatically come with cheese. So, if you find yourself in Mexico’s capital one day and want a quesadilla that lives up to its name, make sure to order it “con queso.”

2 A spice often used in Indian vegetarian dishes.