Intangible Cultural Heritage: What Foods Does UNESCO Deem Worthy of Singling Out?

We can divine so much about a culture from their monuments, homes, pottery, and other physical objects and structures left behind.

From Incan temples to Egyptian pyramids, archeologists and other anthropologists are able to piece together the values and norms of past cultures through the tangible cultural heritage they created and built.

In other words, tangible objects – the visible branches of the cultural baobab – allow experts to infer theories about the culture’s invisible roots.

Intangible cultural heritage does the same.

So, what aspects of cultural heritage are considered “intangible”?

Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as including:

“traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Moreover, in order to check all of UNESCO’s boxes, intangible cultural heritage must be a) traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; b) inclusive; c) representative, and; d) community-based.

Food falls into this category.

What Can Food Tell Us About A Culture?

“The best couscous is my mother’s.”

Recently in 2020, UNESCO approved couscous as an intangible cultural heritage of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The four North African countries submitted a joint application for their signature dish which originates with the indigenous Berber culture.

Their successful application put couscous on the map, not only as an item of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, but as an “example of international cooperation.”   

Made of durum wheat, corn, or barley, the preparation of couscous involves a ceremonial process, beginning with its cultivation and ending with its consumption.

After the cereal is grown, semolina is made by grounding the seeds. It is then rolled by hand – with plenty of olive oil – and steamed over a special tool called a couscoussière.

Apostrophekola-real, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Large batches of couscous are often made in a big bowl, as the semolina might be eaten over days and in various ways.

Seasoned often according to regional preferences, variations include couscous mixed in with a meat stew, with chickpeas, with various veggies, with turned milk.

Image by Patou Ricard from Pixabay 

A special seasoning blend called Ras El Hanout, which combines over a dozen spices, some specific to the region, is often mixed in.

The importance of couscous in every aspect of North African culinary life means that the dish is brought out for nearly every traditional occasion – weddings, family reunions, holidays – as well as for basic daily meals.

What rice is to many Asian countries, couscous is to North Africa. The versatility of the dish is part of its cultural heritage.

Gastronomical Dishes & Methods

Whether its the tradition of Korean kimchi-making, known as kimjang, or the art of Neapolitan pizza-making, known as pizzaiuolo, every culture has their own food traditions that could be considered intangible cultural heritage.

What are yours?

10 Cultural Universals: Rites of Passage & Familial Roles

Last week in our ten-part series of the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about family structures.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion of family by identifying the roles of family members and rites of passage across two cultures.

Let’s travel to Mexico and Algeria to experience them both.

Familial Roles

Roles of family members form the structure and the line of authority within a family.

Mexico

The Mexican family is patriarchal and follows traditional gender roles. The father is the authoritarian figure, while the wife is generally submissive.

This cultural trend is believed to have developed from the 16th century Spanish conquistadors’ treatment of native women. After they’d been impregnated, they were treated with violence and threats of abuse in order to be made subservient.

The resulting “mestizo” children grew up with this devaluation of women normalized, which evolved the roles that exist today, particularly the concept of “machismo.”

Algeria

In Berber culture, traditional gender roles also reign supreme, with men working outside the home and women tending the house and raising the children. The eldest son steps into the authoritarian role of financial caregiver in place of the father, when he retires or passes away.

Grandparents, as well, play an important story-telling role in Berber society.

In the recent past, the entire family – often three or four generations – would gather around the elkanoun (fireplace) and listen to stories of morality told by the grandmother and grandfather.

The stories served as educational guides for their family, especially the young children.

Rites of Passage

Mexico/Latin America

A quinceañera is a rite of passage in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South American countries.

During this huge 15th birthday party, which is both a social and religious event, the family celebrates the young woman’s passage from girlhood to womanhood. The celebration is also meant to highlight how meaningful society and family are in the life of women.

A mass, attended by her family and godparents, commences the celebration, followed by a large party with music, dancing, and food.

During the party, the young woman might present her younger sister with a doll as a symbolic gesture of passing from childhood to adulthood.

Algeria

In Algeria, a boy’s first haircut is celebrated with a big party to which all of the family is invited.

The wisest, oldest male member of the family – usually the grandpa on the dad’s side – cuts the first strand, and a traditional bread called lamsemen is cooked and placed on the young boy’s head.

Often, the grandma says to the child, “You will be strong and fat, like the bread.”

During Carem (Ramadan) the first time a child fasts, they are placed on the roof of the house during the Call to Prayer. There, they eat their meal – a special dish of eggs and bercoukes.

These are just a few important rites of passage and familial roles across cultures. Next week, we’ll talk about FCTS (food, clothing, transport, and shelter), some of the very basic aspects of culture.