Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Food Rituals and Culture around the World

Photo of a Sample of Iranian Food

On one of those sleepless summer nights I caught moments of a French CBC radio show (strangely enough that channel is my antidote to insomnia) in which there was talk about food and its influence and connection with culture. In this social anthropology of food, the main observation was that ethnic food from relatively poorer or developing countries, such as India, Thailand, Mexico, and parts of Africa are more popular and known - not to mention tastier - than Western food. So they looked for possible underlying reasons for this phenomenon.

One of the factors that influences the preparation and consumption of food is family harmony. In fact, food brings the family together at the table, and it is shared and eaten as a kind of bonding ritual. This is mostly the case in collectivist countries in which family is given more importance and priority, and food becomes its indispensable ambassador.

In Mexico, I was often surprised how poor people who barely have enough money for their daily expenses do not tamper with nor moderate their amount of food consumption. They eat well regardless of their economic status, and they would even go to extremes of pawning their belongings to offer their guests abundant quality food. It is seen as a major embarrassment if there were a lack of food or drink at a get-together, and countries that appreciate and value these bonds are known to be the most hospitable.

In such economies, the patriarchal structure is still prevalent. Women are often responsible for cooking. They usually take and spend a lot of time in the kitchen to prepare sumptuous and delicious meals for the family. It is all made with love, and they become the glue that can create and sustain family harmony. For modern Western ears, this may sound as a serious case of sexism or male chauvinism, and to a degree this is in fact so.

But since women are often not pursuing careers in those countries (although this is beginning to change), they perfect their cooking. Strong flavours are more common in such societies and food is seen as both pleasurable and sacred. The delicious taste relaxes the tired and hardworking bodies and fills and renews the souls. Time stops and tomorrow (or mañana), with all its work and pain and suffering is kept at bay for the time being.

Ethnic food is recognizable by its strong, pungent and easily recognizable smell, whereas it seems that Western food is embarrassed of any types of odors even if they be pleasant. Since time is often perceived as money, food becomes merely important for its physical properties, namely as fortification of the body.

The less time one spends on cooking food and the faster it can be consumed, the more hours of work and hence income would become available and possible for the individuals. This may be a reason why in Western societies, family is not a top priority, and food becomes diverted to more shallow and less expensive forms of nourishment, such as junk and fast food.

In addition, there are other factors that influence the type of food, such as the choice of ingredients. In tropical climates, the taste of these ingredients is often richer and more natural, whereas in colder industrial climates, we eat for the most part genetically modified and manipulated food that looks good, but has no particular taste.

Also, a high consumption of food may slow down the metabolism, which makes people sleepy and leads to laziness. This may be a taboo word in Western culture, but it is generally accepted in others, especially Latin countries that still insist on the practice of siestas, with the potential aim to sleep off one's meals.

Lastly, food is also its presentation. We are rather squeamish when it comes to it. There are many things we do not eat, and we want our food to look presentable. Having a fish with its head and eyes staring at you from your plate will not make your mouth savor.

But Mexicans and Chinese, for instance, are not so concerned whether their food looks delicious but are more preoccupied with its taste. And there are indeed very few things considered taboo in those cultures, including blood and brains, food we often attribute to vampires and zombies respectively.

It is a shame that food is not as celebrated here as in other countries. It is not the same ritual for us. Food as celebration is usually delegated to the outside, namely to restaurants, picnics or barbecues. Few, to my knowledge, have sumptuous feasts (the occasional festive days excepted) in which the aim is to devour delicious treats in the name and for the sake of harmony between family and friends.

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