When I eat, I oftentimes don’t really reflect on the significance of food, other than it filling my belly. As ordinary citizens, I would think that most of us rarely stop to think about how certain ingredients like rice or pasta are so prevalent in one country over another. Or why certain delicacies come into existence, like 'Jellied moose nose'. I would argue that, we still don't tend to ask those questions when we're travelling, which means that whilst we may be seeking authentic food experiences, most of us are doing it only superficially. I'm certainly one to blame.
So far, I’ve always made it a point to do my research before I travel. I make sure I’ve checked enough blogs and vlogs to confirm that I’ve exhausted all possibilities in identifying the right food stall or restaurant. I spend AGES trying to plan out my travel itinerary, to slot enough time to fit in 5 meals a deal. Now that’s FOMO at its fattest.
But I recently realised that, whilst I’m great a building lists and starring places on Google Maps, I’m not actually great at talking about why I painstakingly when out of my way to try this dish and that. I didn't give much attention, if any at all, to why that dish was representative of the place I was visiting.
For those who have followed my blog, you may have noticed that so far, it has focused on food itineraries, travel tips and guest posts. From now on, I’m challenging myself to explore why certain ingredients, cooking methods and dishes are prevalent in certain countries, as my way of paying tribute to those who have toiled making the food I eat today.
But first, let’s get comfortable with the subject of Culinary Culture.
When I was an undergraduate student of Social Anthropology, and was thinking of my next academic move, I was very close to signing up for a Masters in Food Anthropology. Food Anthropology investigates subjects ranging from the material and symbolic importance of food to contemporary social issues around food production, distribution, and consumption. I'm disappointed to have lost touch with my interest in Food Culture or Culinary Culture(s) as I like to call it, that is the socio-cultural phenomena of food.
Today, most conversations revolve around whether food standards are being met, whether food production is cruelty-free, and whether large food corporations are going to listen to demands of consumers on reducing the impact of climate-change. On the other extreme, high standards of living in certain parts of the world have encouraged the flourishing of high-end restaurants offering haute cuisine, which focuses on sensory surprises and artistic plating. TV Food shows have burgeoned as people are increasingly interested in the practice and consumption of food beyond mere sustenance. I myself am a huge fan of Chef's Table, and it’s influenced my decision to dine at Alinea and La Boutique Yum’cha.
Nevertheless, these conversations about food, however important, don’t shed enough light on the intricacies behind food and how it is so closely related to all aspects of society, be it religion, social status and social class, age, gender and race.
In other words, food talks. Yet it is not talked about enough.
Food enables us to connect and to communicate beyond a conversation at the dinner table. Most, if not all of us, have experienced food at life’s markers — birthday parties, funeral wakes and so on. Food is also used to communicate with the dead — it is seen to transcend realms, as demonstrated by the popularised Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) practiced by Mexicans, and offerings made to the spirits in Buddhism and Hinduism. Culinary Culture, which defines what is tasty, healthy, and socially appropriate as well as when, how, why, and with whom those foods can or should be consumed, varies from one place to the next.
As Lévi-Strauss, a long-standing forefather of Social Anthropology puts it, food "must not only be good to eat, but also good to think". In other words, food is crucial to the way societies operate and as such, needs to be understood in its own context.
You are what you eat
How many times have you heard the phrase 'You are what you eat?' That sentence generally gives me the heebeegeebees, because it reminds me of the many glutinous indulgences I‘ve guiltily enjoyed, due to a lost battle of logic with 'You are what you eat'.
However, this phrase can also take on a higher form. Humans tend to define themselves by defining others as different to themselves. At its most comical, Claude Fischler from the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales states that:
For the French, the Italians are "Macaronis", the English "Roastbeefs" and the Belgians "chip-eaters"; for the English, the French are "Frogs"; the Americans call the Germans "Krauts", and so on.
Similarly, humans mark their membership of a culture or a group by asserting the specificity of what they eat. For instance, in the Western world, dogs and cats are not considered food, because we have domesticated these animals, and we value them as part of the family. Although I was fully aware that in places like China, Vietnam and the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of dogs are slaughtered annually for their prized meat, I was not prepared to see this first hand in Hanoi. I began to question even more why, the sight of a hog roast would whet my appetite whilst the sight of a dog roast would cause my stomach to churn.
The same goes for insects. I'm generally one to have a go at ''strange foods'such as insects although, admittedly, I wasn't brave enough to eat at the Bugs Cafe in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Why are insects not regarded as edible in the West? Probably not for nutritional reasons. The proteins are as good as those of veal or beef. They contain no toxic substances either. They are eaten in many parts of the world, particularly those which are poorer, due to their abundance and protein count. Our aversion towards adding insects to our diet is simply a result of how societies have arbitrarily labelled what is food and what is not.
Food practices such as those governed by Halal and Kashrut are also means of differentiation from those who do not carry out such practices. Having moved to Singapore, I have much more access to Halal food than I did previously, due to the large Malay community who practice Islam. I never gave it much thought, until recently, as I've had to place my halal tray on the halal tray return trolley, which is helpfully colour-coded.
Halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Quran. Animals must be alive and healthy at the time of slaughter, which involves killing through a cut to the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe. During the process, a Muslim will recite a dedication, know as tasmiya or shahada. Kosher food complies with Jewish dietary law (kashrut), again governing what can and cannot be eaten by those practising the faith. There are similarities in the method of slaughter in that Halal and Kosher food practices require the use of a surgically sharp knife and specially-trained slaughter-men. However, unlike Halal, Kashrut does not require God's name to be said before every slaughter after an initial blessing. Kashrut forbids the consumption of certain parts of the carcass, including the sciatic nerve and particular fats. Similarly, Halal also forbids the consumption of some carcass parts including the testicles and bladder.
And what about the absence of meat. I've travelled to Rajasthan, India and I've eaten what I consider to be the best vegetarian food I've ever had but I never questioned why vegetarianism was so prevalent. Only now have I learnt that in Hindu sects, vegetarianism is considered a natural and logical ramification of the moral precept against the taking of life, an undeniable and vital part of what it means to be a practising Hindu.
Lastly, if we had to look at food and religion at its most dangerous, Hindus’ regard of the cow as sacred has led to a number of homicides. Cow vigilantism has surged in India since Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party came to power in 2014, leading to attacks on Muslim minorities, which trade cattle for slaughter and consumption.
Making ends Meet
I think we live in interesting yet precarious times, where globalisation is continuing to have an influence on how and what we eat, raising concerns for the environment and our welfare, due to modernised, large-scale food production processes. We're also experiencing the de-structuring of food with controversial “lab-grown” meats. To combat that, we're now seeing vegan burgers such as the Beyond burger, which is made entirely from plants and without the use animal stem-cells in production. Beetroot juice is used to make the burger ooze or “bleed” a meaty red hue.
In the meantime, environmentalists are challenging societies to think differently about food, even going so far as to challenge our concept of what is edible and what is not. Insects, for instance, can be bred in a much more sustainable manner than livestock and have a high protein count, which can reduce our dependence on meat. The question here is ‘what does it take to transform people’s perceptions of food’? I'm not sure anyone has a straightforward answer. In my opinion, it takes a bit of courage, supported by a strong belief system or set of values.
To conclude, Culinary Culture is a wonderful subject that adds a level of appreciation to the food you eat. For that reason, I am looking forward to making ends meet by becoming acquainted with Culinary Culture, with as much eagerness as I had during my undergraduate days. As I eat my way through places, I'm hoping to question why certain foods have come about and significantly, whether they are with us to stay, in today's globalised world.