Developing Culture Awareness Through Food
Gastronomy is not only the art of puting ingredients together for the sake of preparing tasty dishes, but potentially also the manifestation of religious practices, historic/geopolitical events, social preferences and imbedded beliefs. Additionally, the length, the nature (“transactional versus social”) and the motivation of coming together around the table could have a cultural meaning worth paying attention to. By learning and understanding food and food traditions one can aquire a deeper understanding of a certain culture and develop a higer level of cultural competence.
In some food-centric cultures, the cultural implications of food manifest themselves also in other areas like; language and communication. In Peru, for example, the slang used by locals to informally communicate is highly related to ingredients and food-related terms. In some Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of China, locals will ask “if you have eaten or if you have had your lunch” as a greeting question or a conversation ice breaker.
But as with anything related to culture, misunderstandings can happen as interpretations could vary from place to place. For instance, in some countries like India and Japan having leftovers after a meal could represent that food was not liked; in other cultures, like the Chinese one, having leftovers means diners have enjoyed their meal and are satisfied.
Similarly, while in impoverished countries like Nepal saying “you have gained weight” is taken as a complement (it means “you have been living a prosperous life”), in other wealthier countries, like the United States, such expression will have a negative connotation (meaning “you don’t look good, you have not been taking care of yourself”).
Mistakes are common due to disinformation or lack of cultural sensitivity. Nevertheless, they can be minimized by practicing cultural immersion. For example: by going to local markets, trying local food and learning about food traditions related to festivities and celebrations; by avoiding judgment (things may look strange from an outsider’s perspective but they are not from the native’s point of view) and by extrapolating the knowledge acquired into other areas of culture in order to develop a more holistic and empathic view while being abroad.