Foods Of The World
By Hope Niedrich
“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”
~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
In my recent travels to India, I was faced with a wave of culture completely foreign to me. The smells, music, customs, dress, traffic patterns and food were nothing like I had ever experienced before. Towards the end of my six month stay, a local friend invited me back to her home to meet her family and have dinner with them. I agreed, comparing this to a regular evening dinner with friends in America, having no idea what I was getting myself into.
Upon arrival, I immediately realized that I would not only be dining with my friend’s parents and siblings, but also her aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandparents who all lived in the surrounding houses and spoke little English. After almost six months of living in India, I could barely say hello and how are you in the language native to the region I was staying in, Tamil. Little did I know, I was also the guest of honor. We removed our shoes, sat on the floor cross legged, and a giant banana leaf was laid out in front of me. Heaps of rice were placed on the leaf with dozens of little dishes of curries and chutneys, whose names I only wish I could pronounce.
The entire family packed into the small living area and watched and waited. It was then I realized that as the guest of honor, I would be dining alone as this was a sign of respect in India. I picked up some of chutney covered rice, eating only with my right hand, and chewed with satisfaction. I gave my friend and her family the thumbs up and they cheered with delight! Her mother, the cook, sat on the floor with me refilling my leaf every time I got near to finishing. I thanked my host and left with a new appreciation for the significance something as simple as a rice dinner served on a banana leaf on the floor held for this family and for myself as a foreigner. I was humbled as I came to the understanding that through this meal, this family was holding me in the highest place of honor. Little to say, it was a cultural experience I will treasure and never forget. There is nothing in the world that could compare to eating traditional Indian food in the traditional way!
Experiences such as these cultivate self-exploration and questions about cultural differences. How do you define culture? Culture can at times be a difficult word to define. It can be seen as more of a broad concept made up of many interwoven factors. To this day, anthropologists still are unable to agree upon just one definition. Culture is present in our everyday lives yet it can still be tough to pinpoint its influences and manifestations.
One visible way in which culture expresses itself every day is through our food. Eating can be viewed as a basic biological function dependent on survival instincts and one’s physical needs. Easily overlooked, our food is a more complex system than one might think. Food is deeply personal and closely connected to place. The way we eat food and even what we choose to eat are all expressions of our culture and way of life. Holidays, ceremonies, weddings, and celebrations from around the world likely have food customs and traditional dishes associated with them, which can reveal much about human behavior and a particular culture. Religious dietary practices and even fasting can also shed light on the influence of culture on our food choices.
Food is a part of our cultural identity and a reflection of who we are. People, interaction, language and environment all come together to determine a community’s ability to provide food for its people. One way to measure the health of a cultural group is in its ability to provide food and the types of food that people of a region might chose to consume. Food and culture are so deeply connected because culture defines the food we cook and how we cook it. Eating is one thing we all have in common, yet food can distinguish the smallest differences–like the rice meal off of the banana leaf in India–from kitchen to kitchen around the world.
Preserving cultural identity, maintaining tradition, and strengthening the connection between culture and food are some of the goals of the upcoming Diversity Celebration hosted by Appalachian State University on April 8th, 2014.
This all-day event is a combination of dance, song, art, food and other cultural expressions representing countries all over the world. It is an opportunity for the University’s student body, the greater community of Boone, and the Western North Carolina region to learn about different cultures and cultivate an appreciation of our differences.
On that day, the University’s Food Services will also be making a contribution to the event with their special Diversity Meal “Foods of the World.” This menu includes dishes such as Palak Pakoda, a spinach fritter from India, Yakitori, chicken wings with a tare sauce from Japan, Muhammara from Syria, a hot pepper dip served with pita or crackers and Hard Polenta cake, a cornmeal mixed with cheese from Italy. And for dessert? The meal is topped off with Besitos De Coco, coconut kisses from Puerto Rico and an Aqua de Fresca, or watermelon water, from Mexico.
We hope that you will join us for this event as we partake in “Foods of the World” and congregate to celebrate our uniqueness and the importance of diversity.
Hope Niedrich is a Social Work Intern at the Appalachian State University’s Center for Multicultural Student Development.