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: Technology in Action

Last week, as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how technology informs and accelerates culture.

In this post, we’re going to expand on that.

But we’re not heading back to the Dark Ages to do so. We’re going to stick with modern technology.

More specifically, social media.

The Arab Spring

Mohammed Bouazizi.

Not many people know his name. But what happened to this young Tunisian merchant is what lit the flame of the Arab Spring – a tension that had been tightening for years, due to discontent and instability in places like Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.

The police required Bouazizi to pay a bribe in order to sell his merchandise. Bouazizi took the matter to the governor, but he refused to listen.

So, Bouazizi lit himself on fire.

The Protest Spreads

Bouazizi’s plight was shared.

The people of Tunisia, and many states in the region, were facing government corruption, limited education, poverty, and high unemployment.

The youth were stirring, there was unrest. And they used the tools that only they – and few in government – understood: social media.

Via YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, young people organized protests, spread their mission, and started to fight the hard fight.

Research on the use and impact of social media during the uprising has been done, as this was one of the first cases of its use in a grassroots movement.

The Dubai School of Government surveyed Tunisians and Egyptians about their use of social media during the uprisings. The answers of 86% of Tunisians and 85% of Egyptians led to the report’s conclusion:

“Growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change.”

At the height of the Arab Spring, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was removed from power. A win for the movement, at the time.

But now, some areas of the region are even more unstable. And governments have cracked down on social media use.

While this Arab Spring may not have resulted in a successful overthrow of power and corruption, social media did give those who were silent so long a voice.

Social Media Movements

#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #MyStealthyFreedom.

Things are changing. Many are finding their voices.

And technology, in the form of social media, is largely generating this change.

People are sharing their experiences and learning from others’. People you know, strangers from all over the world.

While it’s unclear yet where progress will lead for some of these movements, it is clear that things will out. It’s clear that the things that matter, these serious cultural issues, will no longer hide in the dark.

They will no longer be ignored.