Food and culture. Culture and food. The two go together so seamlessly, so interwoven, that any traveller knows that to experience the cuisine is to experience part of the culture.
Food is often one of the most amazing components to travel. In fact food, and the entire experience of eating, is so engrained in a culture’s rubric that you needn’t travel to have a taste, both literally and figuratively.
I have never been to Ethiopia, but ranking at the very top of my cuisines of choice, I have been to so many different Ethiopian recipes and have read such a diversity of Ethiopian cookbooks, that I can tell you important snippets from the culture. Because it’s not just about the food. It’s the food’s legacy: the preparation, the nutrition, the eating style (hands? fork and knife?), how you gather around the table/floor/fire…
Traveling through much of Africa, I’ve seen how the Ghanaian fufu, Nigerian fufu, Ugandan matoke, Tanzanian ugali, Zimbabwean sadza, Malawian nsima, and Zambian nshima are all differently similar, showing the peculiarities of each country despite what might seem a similar dish to the ‘outsider’ perspective. Why? The cooks tell me its different. The people tell me its different. My palate tells me its different.
Among my favourite ‘comebacks’ when I was single and traveling through any of these countries for men seeking my hand in marriage was to respond, “Me? I’d be a terrible wife! Do you like <ugali/nsima/matoke>. Yes, well, I can’t cook it at all! Imagine never eating again.”
To many from these countries, you haven’t truly eaten that day unless you have this traditional dish. This got me out of many a sticky travelling situation before I could simply show my ring and dedication to Ken…but eating local food has done more than that. It’s also enabled me to connect on a deeper level with people…just through partaking in the culinary experience that is their local food.
But herein lies my question for the day, and it is influenced by Matthew Fort from his book Eating Up Italy: Voyages on a Vespa. In this traveller’s memory of his culinary journey through Italy, Fort recognizes the economic poverty of the south in contrast to the affluence of the north. Despite this, it is southern Italy where some of the freshest, most popular ingredients for export – olives, olive oil, produce – often originate. Fort questions:
…they – and we – fail to recognize the true cost of keeping traditional, indigenous cultures alive to the people who carry the burden of maintaining them. We endorselabour and indignity that we would not tolerate in our own lives” (p.59, 2004 Harper Perennial)
Eating is one of the few things that all travellers absolutely must do. It doesn’t matter if you’re staying in 5 star hotels, little B&Bs, or in a hostel…you have to eat. The experiential traveller usually looks for ‘eating experiences’ – opportunities to partake in traditional cuisine and meet locals who can tell them more about the eating rituals of the society.
And then we return to our home countries and try to practice our newly learned cooking techniques or tell others about our eating experiences.
But in travelling, and upon returning home, we should be mindful of how what goes into our mouth originates somewhere. We must ask, what was the process of that journey?
Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food is a quintessential read for anyone interested in the radical processing and labour-intensive work that goes into all of our food – even the most unlikely suspect.
We love our extra virgin olive oil, our mussels, our artisan breads and raw sugars…we love so-called fairly traded coffee and tea, flours and nuts and seeds and cocoa…seemingly new and cool ingredients like quinoa and semolina pasta and chia seeds…
But it all comes from somewhere. And our demand to fuel our bodies with more ‘traditional’ varieties often means that the farmers are kept to live in ‘traditional’ circumstances: living in conditions that we ourselves would not tolerate.
Each of these foodstuffs I’ve mentioned in above paragraphs could warrant a blog post in their own right – a journey through the Mexican fields for chia seeks, through the Andean region for quinoa, to Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana for cocoa, or Sri Lanka’s tea farmers…
Remember growing up when you had strawberries in June, peaches in August, and corn on the cob in September and apples in October because this was the harvest? When Canadian Thanksgiving truly meant being thankful for the harvest because what was on the table was from the harvest…and you knew that because you weren’t eating many potatoes or squash the week prior.
If you’re not Canadian, think of the harvests in your country.
Somehow we’ve gotten away from that. We’ve lost sight of what food really is – where it comes from, who makes it, and how it’s brought to our table.
Please, experience food when travelling! But remember to find out stories from the farmers – find out how they live, their love or destain for agriculture, and how you can best help their crop when you return to your home country.
Fort states that “we endorse labour and indignity that we would not tolerate in our own lives” (pg.59). As a traveller, I want to be part of the love for communities both while I’m in the country and when I return home. I want to endorse sound trading practices and proper treatment across agriculture. And I want to know where my food comes from – the entire process – especially when it involves countries that have given so much to me through travel!