Monday, May 18, 2009

Food & Culture

Last spring, I had a chance to visit Seoul on business. My office colleague picked me up from my hotel and told me, "I am going to take you to an Indian restaurant for dinner". But, I immediately protested, "I get enough of that in Houston. I want to eat authentic Korean food. I'll eat anything except dog!". For the next 3 days, I had the most awesome local cuisine by way of some great kimchi, soju, Korean bbq and kalbi. More importantly, these local restaurants gave me a peek into the local culture and gave me opportunities to interact with local people and not tourists.

Over the last few years in US, I have sampled and feasted on cuisine from all different countries - Chinese, Korean, Thai, Malay, Ethiopian, Colombian, Greek etc. In most cases, my exposure to a particular country and its culture has been primarily through its cuisine. For instance, I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopia till I visited an Ethiopian restaurant many years ago. I was very surprised to find that their cuisine is spicy and delicious just like Indian curry. A little more research later (reading "Guns, Germs and Steels"), I learnt about how tropical countries evolved to make spicy food to compensate for high heat and humidity and lack of refrigerators. These spices acted as natural preservatives! I also learnt about the great Ethiopian coffee through these visits and my love for coffee. Similarly, I was surprised to learn that even the Chinese consume hot milk tea which is very similar to Indian masala chai. The other day I was at a Vietnam restaurant. The backside of the menu gave me a short lesson in Vietnam's geography and made for some interesting reading as I waited on some delicious Bo Luc Lac.

Most major cities in US have local neighborhoods devoted to a particular nationality. These neighborhoods which are full of ethnic restaurants also represent the best opportunity to showcase their respective cultures. Your odds of getting exposed to these neighborhoods is vastly increased if you like the restaurants in that neighborhood. Lets face it, you are not going to frequent China Town, if you are not a dim sun fan, or for that matter Little Tokyo if you are not a Sushi fanatic. These restaurants are a big doorway to these cultures. A curios mind would naturally learn more about a country beginning with the restaurants and the people there, and then in turn through the neighborhood!

The above three paragraphs brings me to an interesting conclusion. I think that people who don't experiment with their food choices miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn about different cultures. Being a vegetaranian presents one such hindrance to this exposure as your choices are very restricted. There are certain cultures whose gastronomic delights are meant only for carnivores. Non-meat eating people would thus be disinclined to try out these restaurants. I am not implying that vegetaranians are less culturally aware, but I do think that being one presents a big barrier to such learning opportunities as mentioned in this post. More importanly, it might represent a severe handicap while trying to assimilate with one of these cultures.


DiVa said...

Hey I disagree with the vegetarians can't try new cuisines comment. Most cuisines have some veggie component to them. Take Ethiopian for instance. It is very close to Indian food - Dal, Veggies, Dosa. It is the most veggie friendly cuisine in the world. I'v had excellent vegetarian Korean, Venezuelan, Lebanese, Moroccan food in different cities several times.

Point 5 said...

@Divya...Hey I never said veggies can't try new cuisine. I just think that they are less inclined or adventurous in this regards as compared to non-veggies. Also there are some types of food/culture where there is no room for veggies. For instances, steak / barbecue in Texas!

ss said...

well i second diva.. and if assimilating culture and being adventurous means tasting every species then thanks but no thanks..

Point 5 said...

@SS..No..assimilating culture doesn't mean tasting all point was that exposure to a lot of cultures is mainly through its cuisine...and being less adventurous in this regard, often (but not always) minimizes your exposure to this culture.

Lets say you don't have a Korean friend, and you are not traveling to Korea. In US, your first exposure to Korean culture would be mainly through a Korean restaurant (not always, but its probably true for many people). I don't think you have to eat dog to know more about Korean culture, but if you don't eat meat...u will probably never go to a Korean restaurant.