A plate of Italian pasta.
A dish of Japanese sushi.
A bowl of Ukrainian borscht.
Traditional dishes from around the world bring together many elements of the culture on a plate.
They’re like a sensory representation of the larger culture.
And even better – cuisine is a great conversation starter, because it’s rare that food is taboo.
No Food Taboo
Unlike other cultural areas – like dress, honor, sexuality – there isn’t much taboo surrounding food.
Every culture loves their traditional dishes, and every culture wants to talk them up.
Bring up religion at the dinner table, and you’ll be walking a minefield.
Bring up sexuality in some cultures, and you’ll likely be shown the door – or at the minimum, be on the receiving end of some death stares.
Bring up food, and nearly everyone will be overjoyed and will love to share their favorite dishes, their cultural heritage.
Food is not a hot button issue (unless you’re arguing which pizza is better: Chicago deep dish or a New York slice).
And you can talk about food all day, because not only does it vary across cultures, it varies across regions of the same culture.
For instance, a pizza in Northern Italy will be prepared with thin crust; the more south you go, the thicker the crust gets.
How it’s prepared, the regions’ special touches, what special treats are made for celebrations and holidays.
People of every culture are exuberant about sharing their food; this is one area of conversation you can be relatively sure about.
Food Culture: France vs. Denmark
Discussing one’s food culture can also reveal some pretty interesting discrepancies between countries and their approach to food.
As we talked about last week, the how, when, why, and with whom of food can give you some hints about the broader culture itself.
Danish Professor of International Marketing Dominique Bouchet knew this and so compared the differences between French and Danish food culture.
As one might expect, significant differences exist.
The French view eating as a social experience.
The importance placed on food is reflected by their language, which has a broad vocabulary for food, eating, and even specific tastes.
The Danes view food more as a source of nutrition and energy. Pleasure and the social experience takes a backseat.
While you might see a French person touching and smelling fresh ingredients at a market for a good deal of time before they purchase their products, you’re unlikely to see a Dane do the same.
What we eat and why we eat is a major indicator of who we are.
“Fresh oysters and red meat are seldom appreciated in Denmark, whereas in France exactly red meat is perceived as being more alive, and thereby more powerful and appetizing. The animalistic aspect is seen as something positive in France and Spain, whereas the associations in Denmark and Germany are more in the direction of death and morbidity. The reaction is one of disgust, and therefore it is desirable to kill each and every trace of what is disgusting in a process of frying, boiling, or pasteurizing.”
With food, our cultural differences are bolded and italicized.
This is why sharing food is so important to cultural integration.
If you are inquisitive and observant about your new culture’s food habits, you can deduce much more about a culture than just their food preferences.
You can discover the deep roots of their baobab.