Food, Glorious Food: How Eating Transcends Cultural Boundaries

(Sophie Reingold • The Student Life)

Food. Foooooood. I let that word roll over my tongue as I type, savoring the sound as I remember (and crave) the different meals, dishes, and cuisines that have been an integral part of my identity since I was young. Everyone can probably name a meal or food-related event that brought them joy; that in itself is a testament to how food has been a cornerstone of personal identity since humans first learned the joys of eating beyond just what was needed for survival.

I’ve lived in four countries and been to seventeen. Beside the absurd amount of mileage on my airline cards and the almost museum-esque diversity of my souvenirs, something that has always stuck with me whenever I travel is cuisine.

It has been said that the best way to learn about a person or a culture is to eat with them, and I wholeheartedly agree. Countries such as China and Singapore have an eclectic mix of different cultures and ethnicities, resulting in truly unique cuisines, ranging from Szechuan dishes to the fabulous mashups of food present in Singaporean hawker stands. In the United States, the lack of foods that represent the nation as a whole is also a testament to the diversity of all the people who call the country home.

One of my favorite food experiences was visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. As one of the oldest and most famous commercial fish markets in Japan, everything from catches of the day to prize-winning bluefin tuna the size of Volkswagen Beetles is sold there.

While seeing fish that could squash people is impressive, what was most memorable is how people interacted with each other, as well as market culture. There is a great deal of familiarity and respect given between customer and fishermen; one conversation I overheard in passing involved an older woman gossiping about her children to a fisherman as he was hauling in his catch; laughter, jokes, and advice were traded freely, and the woman eventually walked away with some extra fish as a friendly bonus.

It’s very enlightening to see this more personal side to a country and society well known for its conservative beliefs and restrained social interactions, especially one made possible by the shared love of food and respect for those who help to put it on the tables.

While my parents and the blood in my veins are Korean, I consider myself to be a third-culture individual. That is, someone who has lived in many different countries and cultures, each of which have had a profound influence on their personal identity. Moving around so much as I was growing up was never easy, but food became a comfort and an anchor. I traveled to countries where I didn’t know the local language, but was still able to laugh and get to know people by sharing meals.

Although food and the sharing of culinary culture has brought many different kinds of people together, as well as exposed people to different cultures and countries, there is a sadder side to all of this. Food has also become a means to exploit others, their cultures, and even their countries. Take, for example, American Chinese food. It is absolutely nothing like authentic Chinese foods, and I personally find the vast majority of American Chinese dishes to taste gross.

At my former college, however, a large number of the students there were confident that they knew Chinese food, culture, and even the language to some extent, just from ordering takeout. (Damn you, fortune cookies, for misleading people even further.) Other fast food restaurants have sprung up to take advantage of different cuisines. Taco Bell, for example, likes to sensationalize their takes on Mexican food, but more problematic is that enough of their customers believe that Taco Bell in some way is representative of Mexican cuisine. However, a Crunchy Taco Supreme pales in comparison to dishes such as chicken mole, and lacks even basic components of traditional cuisine like corn tortillas.

Since I’ve been to many of the countries that have inspired terrible knockoff restaurants around the nation, it’s both comical and saddening to see some of my favorite foods overseas reduced to a pile of MSG and questionably acquired ingredients. Sometimes I wonder if spending so much time away from my favorite countries in particular has affected my memories of them. I’m eating takeout sushi as I type this article, and I’m struggling to remember the last time I had good sushi, authentic slices of fish on top of rice, instead of this sad hoop of rice and formerly frozen fake crab disguised by a bucket of spicy mayo.

Nevertheless, however different the American takes on foreign foods are, I’m grateful they exist. These mock-ups of some of my favorite dishes remind me of the importance and value I place on the cultures and people I’ve encountered over the years, as well as spark fond memories of exploring backstreets in Cambodia, or open markets in Spain, always with some sort of food clutched in my hand.

Food, food, glorious food indeed.