Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?
Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?
What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?
With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?
The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole.
On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).
The Presentation: Food Plating
Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.
One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.
Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.
The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.
The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.
Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.
The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.
The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.
The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.
How, When, Why, With Whom?
Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values.
Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.
- How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat?
Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.
- When do you eat?
The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.
- Why do you eat?
Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.
- With whom do you eat?
While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.
Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.