Culinary Explorations of Culture

Culinary Explorations of Culture

by Anthony Teles
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My grandparents immigrated to Canada from Italy and Portugal. I noticed many similarities between the two cultures growing up. They were both in stark contrast to the Indian neighbourhood I was raised in as a child. In particular, the foods prepared by my friends’ parents were noticeably different from mine, and I took great pleasure in exploring those culinary differences. As an adult, I wound up marrying an Indian woman – more specifically, her family is from South India. I discovered even more differences in culture between them and the North Indian friends I grew up with. Throughout it all, food was a primary component of all of these cultures.

Due to food’s importance, it is an invaluable way to explore a culture. Have dinner at the home of a friend whose family is from a certain country. This is a much better method to learn about their culture compared to going to a restaurant that serves their cuisine. Ask about specific dishes and the ingredients in them. This opens the gateways to stories about how those foods were developed and their significance.

Jennifer Berg, New York University’s director of graduate food studies, has noted the importance of food when a family emigrates from a country and the new generation comes along on different soil. Other aspects of their family’s culture are likely to disappear soon after arrival. The most visible facets of the homeland are often first to be dropped, such as clothing, in order to blend in with the mainstream way of life in the new country. Eating is a significant pastime because it typically occurs three times a day, and therefore serves ample opportunities for family and friends to engage in conversation in a comfortable setting.

The recipes and preparations of meals are very distinct in different parts of the world, and not just by country. A single nation can have dozens of different regions, each with its own culinary traditions. In the Washington area of the United States, the owners of the Dolan Uyghur (pronounced WEE-grr) restaurant are putting that idea on full display. Uyghurs are an ethnic group from central Asia and Western China. Having ventured from Xinjiang via the Silk Road, the culture’s food reflects the distinctions of these areas.

Nowadays, it is mostly the elderly in China who eat what many of us might imagine Chinese food to be. They are the generation shopping at traditional markets, whereas those born after the Cultural Revolution have focused more on education and careers than culinary skills. Many of the Chinese who ventured to America cooked to earn a living. Popular Chinese items such as chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are all inventions that happened in America.

From the food alone, we can discover more about the history, travels, and careers of Chinese cultures. I have similarly discovered that South Indians use coconut and coconut oil in many of their dishes because of the abundance of the drupe’s trees in their area. The southern region also prefers rice over naan bread, and tends to offer more vegetarian options. This reflects the geography of southern states, such as my wife’s home state of Kerala, as well as the culture’s adherence to certain diets.

Similar case studies can be done for countries and cultures across the globe. The first steps may involve speaking with people you already know from a particular region. From there, looking into their family history and the ingredients of their homemade dishes can provide further insight. You can learn everything from what life has been like for them and their ancestors, including the type of careers they have pursued and the simple day-to-day habits encompassing their lives. There are many stories and experiences that have led to the meal on your plate.


Choi, Amy S. “What Americans can learn from other food cultures.” TED. http://ideas.ted.com/what-americans-can-learn-from-other-food-cultures/

Judkis, Maura. “Is their crossroads cuisine ‘the next big thing’? Uyghurs hope so.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/theyre-chinese-and-muslim-and-they-want-you-to-try-their-crossroads-cuisine/2017/03/03/906638bc-f91e-11e6-bf01-d47f8cf9b643_story.html?utm_term=.6320a36c97f4

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