The Cultural Importance of Food: An International Connection

Food is a powerful connective tool. We build our bonds with friends and family over dinners, we go to restaurants on dates, we prepare food for others and with others. Even when we’re cooking and eating alone, food still connects us to the world. Whether it is a particular meal reminding us of home, or simply sustenance to get us through the day, food is never meaningless. Like music or literature, food is a shared cultural product. Our feelings and experiences with food help us build our connections with others.

We use food to mark special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers, graduations, and weddings. It is given as a comfort during hard times and plays an important role in our lives. No matter the culture, the preparation of food is still the same. Food is a way to celebrate and show emotion, and it also serves as a way to connect with others when it is shared. When talking to people about food, you typically hear more about traditions, cultural differences and similarities, and relationships over the exchanging of recipes. The kitchen may be known as “the heart of the home,” but the table is equally important as it provides a stable setting to converse, debate, and strengthen relationships. 

Person in Brown Long Sleeve Shirt Driving and Eating

Today’s society, especially in the United States, has drifted away from the regular communion of food. Instead of sharing meals and having a sense of community as everyone eats together, many families are always in a rush and order fast food because it is quick and easy. People go through the drive-thru so they can eat in their cars without stopping. While constantly being on the go, humans are not really eating, but just swallowing without actually tasting the food. Multitasking has become the norm as people answer messages, do homework, and talk to others on the internet instead of being present in the moment and appreciating what is in front of them. 

As a society, we have managed to take all the symbolism out of food and made it a necessity instead of a privilege to have the kinds of foods we have. Slowing down when eating food is actually healthier for you. By slowing down, you chew your food more before swallowing and increase the digestive process because the pieces are smaller to break down causing you to be full and happier for longer. Not only is the process of digestion sped up, but you are able to take in all the wonderful, savory flavors of your meal allowing yourself to enjoy every bite. 

It can be hard to slow down and appreciate little things like food when it seems like just another step in your day, but as everyone is stuck in their house due to COVID-19 and weather restrictions, now would be a good time to take a step back and reconnect with the universal language of food. It is no surprise the pandemic has ruined numerous travel plans in the past year with stay at home orders, essential workers only requests, and curfews, but what if there is a way to get a taste of the culture you crave without leaving your house? 

When we travel, the first cultural experience bucket list item we want to check off is food. In fact, 88.2 percent of people travel the world in order to experience the infamous cuisines in other countries: Italy for pizza and pasta, Mexico for tacos and tamales, and England for fish and chips. Food is seen as part of the cultural experience, and people treat their consumption of foreign food in the same way they would their visitation of famous architectural structures. By doing so, it shows an openness to learning and shows desire to see the world for what it has to offer, and even though we cannot travel to make personal connections, we are still able to connect safely with different cultures in our own kitchens. 

It is important to understand, every destination has a specific dish associated with it because food is closely related to our culture and identity, and when traveling abroad, trying local cuisines is a great way to experience the culture. On the other hand, when you are away from home, cooking your traditional meals is a great way to reconnect with who you are, your culture, and share a sense of community without actually traveling. 

Women Holding Wine Glasses

Commonality is a step towards creating friendships and honing in ties with different groups. In Vietnam, the Aussie community is working hard to strengthen their ties with Ho Chi Minh City in order to work closely together. Australian-Vietnamese relations have been long standing, but they are still working hard to strengthen their bond within the country by hosting cultural events with traditional foods and drinks. By hosting the event geared toward food from both countries, it is a way to bond and break the ice because the language of food is universal. These programs are funded by government diplomacy programs. The goal is to introduce cuisines to foreign audiences in order to gain awareness for the country itself. 

Importance of Cooking and Sharing while Preserving Through Food

Cooking and sharing foods serves as a way to preserve culture outside of the country’s geographic origins. As Americans, the food culture tends to be muddled, as the country is known for unhealthy cuisine. Fast food cheeseburgers and hot dogs are at the front line for cuisine foreigners know the country by. The idea being it tastes good and it’s fast, but it is not getting any points for health. Secondly, America is a country of immigrants, meaning the cuisine is constantly being changed and influenced by different cultures, making it hard to pinpoint one dish the country can be known for. 

With an increase in imigration and globalization, it can be hard to hold onto original cultural foods as one tries to immerse themselves into the culture and become adventurous with their local food consumptions. For immigrants who have been in the new location for extended generations, it is easy for the original culture to become lost and muddled. It is important to hold on to recipes and traditions from parents and grandparents in order to keep the carry and keep the tradition alive.

When exploring traditional foods from other countries, it is fun to learn the history and backstory of the dish you are eating. It will bring in an idea of the culture and make you feel as if you are discovering new parts of the community despite not being able to travel at this time. Bringing in international connections into your own kitchen is a great way to spice up the day after being cooped up repeatedly doing the same tasks. The food will bring forth the ideas of the importance of cultural inclusion, as well as, enable the group eating the dish to feel connected, social, and culturally accepted themselves. Even when eating alone, it is important to slow down and enjoy the meal as it is intended to in order to take in the sense of the culture. If the food is served a certain way or ate a specific way, try participating in the same traditions to the best of your ability. Try out chopsticks, share with friends, or immerse yourself in the historical origins of the dish in order to increase your dining experiences. 

Here are traditional recipes from six countries, and explanations as to the cultural importance of foods. 

Spain 

From Picasso, Gaudi, and a lively social scene, Spain provides a wonderful food life. Tapas bars are both modern and trendy. Eaters come together to enjoy a tasty meal of little plates with the key being variety, but an older, more common traditional dish tends to be much larger than the single served tapas plate. Paella is a spanish rice dish including different combinations of vegetables and meats. Depending on the area of Spain you discover, the flavor of paella can change slightly. 

Paella is said to be a perfect union between Spain and the Romans as they brought the rice. A common story claims the Moorish kings’ servants took left-overs from the banquets, placed them into large pots with some rice to take home, and stumbled upon paella. Today, paella is made in a similar fashion, as it is typically made from a little bit of everything in the fridge. Batches of paella are made in larger quantities to be shared. 

When it comes to food, Spain is traditionally about sharing. In many bars, the only food you will find is meant for sharing. The first course is generally shared in restaurants as well. When sharing said food, each person will be given a normal or side plate to scoop food onto from the main dish in the center. It can be decided amongst yourselves if you want to serve yourselves or have one person dish out everyone’s plate. When the number of items in the main dish is unable to be divided perfectly, it is common to see the single item sitting on the platter for the duration of the meal. 

When you cook your paella, try inviting friends or family to join in safely. Either everyone can bring an item to add or their own plate to make it interesting. By sharing the dish with others and participating in the traditional sharing, you have not only created a tasty meal, but you are immersing yourself into the culture as if you had traveled to Spain. Remember, you can substitute as you wish and create your own paella as well.

England

This Friday night treat is Britain’s most popular and loved take away: fish and chips. At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, fried fish began to be sold as leftovers to the working class within the market. Although there is debate within the country as to who opened the first fish and chips shop, it is no surprise the infamous dish is well known world wide. The tasty dish quickly became a popular late-night pub feast for drunken men, and soon rose to a midday meal in the factories before being a payday treat from working families towards the end of the week. 

This meal is prime comfort food and is known for keeping the masses happy. It is hard to say exactly where the influence for fish and chips came from as each part of England has a different interpretation, but the first recorded fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin in 1860.  Since then fish and chips became a staple especially during war time, as it was the only meal not being rationed. Mass supply hunts went out as fishermen were well sought after. In the 1960s, the takeaway blended with Chinese and Asian restaurants who put their own version of fish and chips onto their menus as well. The first fish and chips award went out in 1988 in order to condone the best in the industry and took place in London. Roughly, 380 million portions of fish and chips are served in the UK every year. Because of the demand, there are eight fish and chips shops in every McDonald’s. What started out as a popular dish within Britain rapidly became a popularized global dish and a must-have bucket list item for visitors. 

During this crazy time we live in, it is important to find comfort in every aspect of life, so why not start with food? Try making fish and chips at home for a late dinner, and then tuning into your favorite show or sports program. The meal is meant to be relaxed and enjoyed without any hassle while eating it. Enjoy it with friends or buy yourself, as there is no correct way to go about consumption. 

Egypt

A traditional Egyptian dish not commonly known is Koshri. Koshri, like paella, is another genius solution to using up pantry staples. Known to be a comforting bowl of simple ingredients: with spiced lentils and rice, combined with chickpeas and small pasta, this dish is great for any vegans and vegetarians. The mixture is smothered in a rice tomato sauce spiked with vinegar and topped with savory, crispy, thin fried onion rings. The recipe will take some time to put together, but each element is simple to make. This dish is typically served from the family with additional sauce and onion rings on the side to share. When making the Koshri, it is important to be patient. The recipe is not hard, but will take a little bit of time. 

Vietnam

It may not be at the top of your travel bucket list, but Vietnam is rich in both history and culture. Those who are fortunate enough to travel to Vietnam, specifically the south will be able to see monuments and other historically preserved signs from the Vietnam war, as well as, experience the diverse culture on every street corner. Not only will you be intellectually stimulated, but your tastebuds will be challenged with the food scene. Street food in Vietnam is both cheap and common. It is meant to be an easy, relaxed meal where customers either sit on tiny stools on the sidewalk or stand in order to enjoy the crispy food provided. Another common dish within the Vietnamese culture is a hot pot. 

Hot pots are served over a heated flame with broth and a side of various ingredients. When the broth begins to boil, you and your friends or family can help eachother place the plate of ingredients into the broth to cook like a stew. This dish is unique as the ingredients and burner are brought to your table, and you are able to cook it yourselves at the restaurant. It is an inclusive meal meant to be shared. 

When trying to make a hot pot at home, it is easier to think about the meal as a soup to heat up on the stove. No it is not the same experience as being in Vietnam with an actual hot pot, but the idea is still there. Do not forget a traditional Vietnames hot pot is meant to be shared and enjoyed by a group, so have fun making food for others. Trying new experiences with those around you can help create fun and long-lasting memories. These memories may make a bad day better during this sad time when you remember all the fun you had. When you make the hot pot, try decorating as if it were the Lunar New Year or go simple by adding chopsticks. Little cultural inclusions to your new cultural meal can liven up the ante a little. 

Conclusion

Food is meant to be shared and enjoyed. Each country listed has a high rate of slowing down and tasting food even when they are on the go. In Vietnam, street food is quick and easy to come by like fast food in the United States; however, instead of taking it to go, they still sit and enjoy the savory treat where they are. It is important to not take food for granted. Try new recipes and understand the importance of exceptional cultures through traditional foods from other countries. Add to the experience by decorating to match the country. For Vietnam, decorate for the Lunar New Year and have fun factoids about what it is and how it is celebrated. Maybe try to create your own traditional meal with your family and bond through the powers of food. Make a plan to sit down and enjoy a meal together at least once in a while in order for friendships and bonds to be formulated. It is important to stay connected with yourself and the world especially during a time of shut down and panic. Hone in on the fun and new experiences you can have from the safety of your home instead of focusing on everything you cannot do. 

 

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Meladi Brewer

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