No matter where you go, it’s clear that one of the aspects of culture that is the most important is food. Indeed, one of the best ways to truly experience local culture when you travel is to try the food. Food is a huge deal when it comes to culture. Nearly every culture has its own food, and its own customs associated with eating food.
Food and Special Occasions
Think about how important food is on special occasions. When we have birthday in Western culture, cake and special meal is a big part of the proceedings. Christmas in Macedonia involves special bread with a coin inside cooked only for this event, Easter in France is about chocolate, thanksgiving in the USA is famous for the turkey… But, of course, it’s not just Western culture that makes food an interesting part of special occasions. Many cultures indulge in making lavishly delicious foods for special occasions, from great feasts in Islamic countries (like Eid Al-Fitr at the end of the Ramadan), to the treats served for Indian special occasions.
Food can also be symbolic. The Jewish Passover comes to mind when we think of symbolic foods. Almost everything eaten during the Seder meal has specific meaning. The symbolism of the Seder meal is rather pronounced, and designed to help the partakers remember certain events and concepts. Other cultures have symbolic foods as well, which are eaten for specific reasons during special occasions and holidays. For a weekly symbolic food, consider the Eucharist. Holy Communion is the very essence of taking food, combining it with ritual and special occasion, and turning it into a symbol.
How We Eat
How we eat food also varies from culture to culture. The utensils used, as well as how they are used (in modern Thai culture, the fork and spoon are used simultaneously, with the spoon standing in as the knife), are also a part of culture and food. Place settings are also part of the culture of how we eat. Just going to a restaurant in France usually yields at least two forks, and possibly doubles of other utensils. Knowing which utensil to use, and when, is an important part of food culture, whether you are using knife and fork, your hands, or picking up your chopsticks.
In some cases, tradition dictates that food is consumed in a certain way. For example, in France we’ll eat yogurt at the end of the meal with sugar when in Macedonia it’s eaten with the main meal and without sugar. Of course, there is also an order to what we eat that can be different depending of the country. And the different meals of the day (Breakfast, lunch, dinner) changes a lot. The breakfast is very important in Turkey, but not that much in Macedonia where we prefer to have a big dinner with the family.
Food is very traditional and fully part of the culture of every country. It’s the expression of many centuries of mixed cultures (For example we still find a lot of Turkish food in Macedonia even if the Ottoman empire dissapeared long time ago). Food shows also a lot about the location of the country, if there is sea you’ll find fishes in the meals, if there is sun you’ll have juicy fruits… Understanding the culture of food can make for a very interesting visit to any country, and can help you avoid gaffes. Once you know what is good, and how it is eaten, you can have a richer experience, whether you stay at home, or travel abroad.
Written by Quentin Mauboussin