Anthony Bourdain said it best:
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that food is one of the 10 Cultural Universals. Along with shelter, clothing, and transport, food is a fundamental part of culture that celebrates it in a big way.
Through food and travel, Anthony Bourdain deeply inspired those of us who are interested in exploring, learning about, and understanding other cultures. He saw the power and dignity of food and how, among so many other things, a meal brings all of humanity together.
In deep respect and honor of Bourdain’s tragic passing just a couple weeks ago, I’ve compiled and condensed some of his greatest words of wisdom regarding food, culture, travel, and life.
#1: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”
Food, just like life, should be an adventure.
While traveling or living abroad, you may face a meal that’ll make your stomach turn. But sometimes, you must take risks. Sometimes, you must grit your teeth and take that first bite.
Rejecting someone else’s food can feel like a personal rejection – or even a cultural rejection.
Accepting it, even if it’s not to your liking, shows your hosts that you care enough to make the effort and that you respect what they’ve created.
#2: “I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.”
Perhaps one of the most useful tips for travelers or soon-to-be expats is to be not afraid to play the fool.
My book, I am the Monkey, stresses this theme. It’s humbling to remember you are the odd-one-out looking in, not the other way around.
As the monkey, you must learn to be comfortable dropping your guard.
This goes for learning how to eat properly in other cultures too.
Never used chopsticks? Go on, give it a try. Sure, you’ll look clumsy at first, but soon enough, you’ll be capable.
The point is – you must not let feeling foolish get in the way of learning.
If you do, anxiety will be your roadblock to success across cultures.
Follow Bourdain’s advice and don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. In fact, embrace it.
#3: “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”
Food is unique to the culture in which it was created, which is a beautiful thing.
Sometimes, the dish is not always pretty. But, more often than not, it’s the one aspect of a culture that can make all of us drop our pretenses, if we’re willing, and just appreciate each other, human to human.
And “dropping our pretenses” doesn’t mean we must stop talking, stop learning.
While sharing a meal, keep the conversation alive, like a pro:
“I don’t go in asking hard-news questions, but incredibly enough, again and again, just by sitting down with people over food and giving them a platform where I can listen to them, they say extraordinary things that can be very political in their implications.” – Bourdain
Keep talking. But more so, listen.
Sharing a meal with someone already demonstrates that you like and respect them, even if you don’t agree with their intrinsic beliefs.
Whenever you’re abroad, take a deep dive into your host’s food culture. Share a meal with locals.
You may just find that food is more than filling; it’s a teacher of compassion.
“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Bourdain