Food isn’t just for survival – it’s culture too – The Varsity


I am a first generation Indian Canadian. For me, the ultimate comfort food is a hot bowl filled with moong dal on a bed of fluffy basmati rice.

For you, this might be an odd choice. However, I refuse to apologize. My food preferences are personally – and also culturally – significant.

Due to my cultural background, I grew up eating a healthy mix of cuisines. A typical day was marked out by turkey sandwiches for lunch and chole bhature for dinner. These eating habits have shaped what has now become my cooking habits. Although I consider myself a mediocre home chef at best, the dishes I prepare are incredibly important to me.

The foods I crave and cook aren’t as simple as being the product of my taste buds – although I am a fan of some flavors. Instead, they are an accumulation of my experiences. All of the recipes I’ve learned, the cooking experiences I’ve miserably failed at, and the signature dishes I’ve recreated are all subtly sprinkled with their own special memories.

Although it is necessary for our diet, the meaning and appreciation of food is also universal. For example, many religions and cultures use traditional dishes as part of their celebrations. During Hanukkah, families eat latkes and sufganiyot to celebrate the Festival of Lights. In Karamu Ya Imani, families enjoy traditional African cuisine like mazoa and muhindi. In Omisoka, people generally enjoy Toshikoshi soba because it represents long life and removes bad luck.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of food is simple: survival. Some of our favorite cultural dishes were forged on the basis of economic necessities, while others were invented to stretch limited resources. For example, the traditional Welsh dish bara brith grew out of poverty, since it was made from leftover dough collected at the end of the week. Closer to home in 19th century America, leftover food was so fundamental to everyday cooking that the public had no name for it. Breakfast was usually the food left over from dinner the night before. Because of these humble roots, the meaning of our traditional cuisine is often much deeper than the taste.

Not only is food vital for our cultures, it is also extremely important for social experiences. Whether it’s family-style sit-down dinners where everyone talks about their day, greasy spoonful queuing with friends after school, or secretly swapping elementary school snacks despite strict allergy rules, eating is a major social activity. In fact, the first social experience that many people engage in is being breastfed by their mother, an activity that improves cognitive development and emotional interactions between a mother and her baby.

Most cultures are not predisposed to think of their food in monolithic terms, although the way they eat is also extremely telling. In India it may be common to eat with your hands, perhaps personally mixing your food to match your exact taste. In Japan, it is customary to sip the noodle soup as hard as possible, as this shows the pleasure and enhances the flavors of the soup you consume. In South Korea, when served food or drink, it is normal to hold your dish or glass with both hands to be polite. Because Canadians usually eat at least three times a day, it’s no wonder that the culinary habits passed down to us are often the last vestiges of our cultures that survive while others fade away.

Most of my good memories are surrounded by food. While I might consider it the greatest unifier of cultures, I would go one step further – food is inherently culture, and it’s something that defines us wherever we go.

I feel it when I read the English muffin recipe I used with my ex-girlfriend on our lunch breaks in high school.

I feel it when I stop by the European market where a former colleague introduced me to Tymbark with mint and paczki stuffed with plums.

I felt it when an old friend brought me a slice of cake at the cafe – the same kind they made for me the first time we met.

At all these times – and at all times, in general – food is culture. Food is love. Food is a memory. Whether I cook, eat, or share my meals, they will always mean something to me.


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