I was in a meeting at work this week, and the topic of ‘foreign’ cuisines came up, my co-worker discussing how she went to an Ethiopian restaurant one time, and honestly, wasn’t a huge fan, mostly because of the texture of some of the dishes. Interestingly enough, another co-worker countered that she actually quite enjoyed one of the dishes co-worker #1 disliked so much. (In case you were wondering, neither of them are Ethiopian).
I’m sure most of us have had Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and the like, or really, the watered down ‘Americanized’ versions of such things – eggplant parm subs, anyone?
Now, I’m the last person to be an eggplant parm hater, but one way to really learn and understand some of the subtleties of a culture is its food.
A lot of people approach things they don’t experience in their own life with a holier than thou type attitude, tossing out ‘ewwwws,’ ‘that’s disgusting,’ and the like. I’ll admit I’ve done it.
But, as I’ve traveled more, both in the US and abroad, I’ve come to see that there are a lot of cool things you can eat in other places. One of the great benefits of living in a place like New York City, was that they had pretty much every type of cuisine out there, I had Belgian, Indian, Afghani, South African, Korean, Cuban, Colombian, you name it.
Don’t get misled, I would not call myself an adventurous eater by any stretch of the imagination, but I find, more often than not, what turns us off from some foods is a mental thing, not a taste. I always make an effort to try a bite. Of course, there are some things that I just can’t get into (i.e. tripe, herring in mayonnaise sauce), and that’s cool, but it can’t hurt to try.
And if you take a minute to look deeper into the foods of cultures, a lot of them tell stories. Look in your cabinets even the simplest of spices; cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, have amazing stories, introduced hundreds of years ago through spice trades. Foods that you think are common to one culture, were really brought by another. Did you know that the Portuguese introduced tempura to Japan, and tea to England? How about the fact that all those potatoes Ireland was so famous for, are actually native to the Americas, and brought over by the Spanish in the 16th century. And all that red sauce the Italians use on their pasta, yea that actually didn’t happen until the tomato was discovered in the Americas and brought back to Europe, and only then after people realized it wasn’t just a poisonous plant.
Not only do some ingredients themselves have history, but meals do to. If you take a close look you can see how many dishes are a common thread throughout so many cultures.
What can be more American than the good ole hot dog you might ask, sorry to tell you but we don’t really have the patent on that concept, a ton of countries actually have their own hot dogs, or sausages too: merguz from Tunisa, boerewors from South Africa, sai-ua from Thailand, lap cheong from China, longaniza from Argentina, kabanos from Poland falukrov from Sweden, gyulai from Hungary and saveloy from England. All made of beef or pork and spices.
And so many dishes were born out of necessity, not taste. So-called ‘peasant’ food, usually one pot stews, were made from only the meager supplies most poor farmers had available, lots of starch to compliment just the bits of meat. In Ireland, they tossed in extra potatoes, in the Azores, chunks of bread, in France more beans. Caribbean food is often spicy because in Africa when the hunters would go stalking, often for days at a time, they preferred to give their dried meat extra flavor, so as not to taste stale, those flavors were carried with slaves even as they were captured from their homes.
When you sit back and look at international cuisine in terms of culture, things might not seem so weird, and more often that not, offer up a great history lesson. So next time you are planning a trip somewhere, find a place that serves that food, or try whipping it up yourself at home. Not only might you actually like it, but it could also seem pretty cool to some people in another country when you order up something besides a BigMac.