When it comes to food, almost everyone has an opinion. This opinion is very strongly culturally biased so it should not be taken as the gospel truth. We all know that our taste buds develop experiencing a certain type of food we are fed since the childhood and this food has a strong cultural orientation.
If your parents are vegetarians, you will grow up a vegetarian although not always because there will always be a few exceptions. If your parents are non vegetarians, you will grow up eating meat but only the kind your parents eat. How your food is prepared also depends on the culture you grow up in and the availability of certain condiments in your area.
When we come to Asia, we are assailed by the aroma of food specially the street food that is so abundant and fresh. However, the aroma is also cultural. When I prepared Biriyani one day for a Filipino guest, she was non committal at first because she had never tasted it before and did not know what exactly is biriyani. But later she admitted it was not something she could get used to because in her culture they had nothing comparable. The biriyani spices are not available anywhere except in a small shop in Manila and the price is high. So people in the provinces have never heard of biriyani.
They only cook and eat what is locally available just like in Africa and elsewhere. You cannot find spices everywhere and even if you could, it takes many years of experience to use them properly to emulate a certain taste. If people could easily learn by watching endless food shows on TV or try the recipes in the internet, everybody would become master chefs but that is not the case. Did you ever wonder why they always say the food is heavenly on TV even if it is something very ordinary? They are supposed to say it.
Our Filipino maid had never seen cardamom, cloves or cinnamon sticks in her life so did not know the usage. Similarly the guest who took some biriyani spice to try at home reported that her relatives made faces at the biriyani and its aroma because it was so strange to them.
So food is the most visible expression of one’s own culture and how you eat it also depends on your culture. You will notice that in most eateries in the Philippines they do not provide a knife because no one uses a knife. They cut their meat with spoon or the meat is chopped up finely so there is no need for a knife. This got a Filipino child in Canada in trouble when he tried to cut the meat with his spoon as he was used to at home.
In South India people use their entire palm to scoop up food and literally shove it into their mouth which makes north Indians squirm because to them it seems so gross and uncouth. Also smacking the lips, licking the fingers and burping loudly if they like the food is considered vulgar and uncivilized by some but these are all cultural issues that vary from country to country.
So I will write about food and not go into cultural issues that no two people can agree upon. I mentioned in one of my blogs that food is what people eat. It is not food if they do not eat it. To the vegetarians, meat is not food and to Hindus, eating beef is taboo while the Moslems will not eat pork.
But humans are omnivorous. There is nothing on this planet that humans have not eaten or have tried. Our daughter who lives in Phnom Penh told us that her black pepper soup turned out to be ant soup and the peppers had tiny legs. We saw how they crunched fried spiders and smacked their lips saying it was so good when we were going to Siem Reap. So I told our daughter that she should always ask what the food actually contains before deciding to eat it or not so there are no surprises. The Thais are notorious in passing on dog meat to unsuspecting foreigners who are told it is rabbit. In many countries there are very few food inspectors who check regularly what the vendors sell, the quality and the freshness of the food while in other countries like Japan, there are rigorous inspections and fines if the vendor is selling something that will not pass inspection. Also the culture of honesty in Japan prevails.
I lived in Vietnam where they eat frogs, rats, dogs, snakes among many other things but the Vietnamese are excellent cooks and make something savory out of it using herbs and spices. They also eat their traditional food that is rice, noodles and fish. Who has not heard of the Hu tieu and Pho noodles with aromatic herbs and not relished it?
I also found that the simplest food often is the most delicious in any country. I used to drive to many villages in TayNinh province where I worked as an agronomist during the wartime in the 1960s so there were security concerns and life in general was miserable for the average Vietnamese but they excelled in preparing simple food that tasted like gourmet food.
I will give just one example. They caught some fish in the rice paddies after the rice harvest using a bamboo contraption that they designed beautifully. It was like a cage with a hole on top and they put it on top of the fish and pulled it out through the hole. Then they put a thin bamboo stick through the cleaned fish and roasted six or seven at a time over a charcoal fire they made by the road side and put this roasted fish on rice paper, put some sliced cucumber, tomatoes and herbs and rolled the rice paper like a burrito, dipping it in nouc mam which is a fish sauce no one can do without. I had never tasted anything so delicious. The farmers knew me and always invited me to join them.
Their wives also taught me or at least tried to in making the rice paper.
It all looked so simple. They have a big pot of water boiling over charcoal fire. This pot is covered with white cheese cloth tightly letting out the steam through it. On it they spread a thin paste of cooked rice they expertly spread with a spatula. The spread is perfectly round. The steam cooks it in a few seconds and then this thin rice paper is peeled off to be dried in the sun. The rice eating countries could learn a lot from these Vietnamese people.
Once the wife of the agricultural chief in TayNinh prepared a duck with mushrooms for us that was extraordinarily tasty and melted in our mouth. So if you think that good food can only be prepared with lots of aromatic spices then think again. Our Filipino maid prepares crabs with coconut milk and some vegetables that is really very good and healthy food. Just salt, a few chilies and black pepper will do.
As I mentioned earlier, food is the most overt face of any culture because it shows what people like to eat and how they prepare it. Now a days you can find different kinds of food from other countries because of massive immigration so these immigrants open up eateries. This however happens only in big cities like London, Sydney, New York etc. where the immigrants tend to concentrate. But in other countries where such immigration is minimal or nonexistent, people stick to their own food.
There is no denying that immigrants enrich the variety of food they bring with them to any country but by and large, most people do not get to taste the immigrant foods and do not learn from them. When it comes to food, people always stick to what they know and eat. Just go to any McDonalds in Paris and you will find a crowd of Americans.
They are not willing or afraid to try authentic French cooking that may be expensive so they will stick to what they know.
From the time of antiquity, people have always experimented with food and tried to cook in new ways that they picked up from travelers or from ancient recipes passed on through generations. The cooked food as we know today is a quantum leap from the days of the Neanderthals who could only broil their meat but they slowly learned to make potteries and that in itself helped usher in a new era of cooking that included a new sophistication of culinary abilities.
They learned to domesticate animals so that they could always have meat, milk and the hide. Slowly they settled down into agricultural communities to raise crops because it guaranteed them a food supply during lean months. Thus the wild potatoes, rice, wheat, corn and many such crops were planted from which developed the modern cultivars. This process still continues through research. May be Robinson Crusoe was a Neanderthal.
The domestication of animals did not stop at just raising the offspring of wild animals but breeding them to make them bigger, fatter and more resistant to certain diseases. Now the cows and pigs look very different from their wild ancestors.
With more abundant supplies of food came new ways to prepare them and that in itself brought in new ideas, new usage of herbs as spices in their food. Just imagine how many varieties of sausages are prepared in Europe. This was a learned experience for the Europeans.
When they started growing grapes, no one knew where it will lead from there but now there are hundreds of wine varieties that delight the humankind. So there has been a steady evolution of food over a long period of time .This process still continues.
I have traveled to many countries and eaten the local food there. The unadon which is eel curry on rice in Kyoto to pad thai in Bangkok to Ethiopian mutton curry wrapped in soft sponge like teff paper in Washington D.C., Mexican food of chili beans in San Luis Obispo ,California, the French food so deliciously prepared by Mme Gautier in Compiegne, the Australian kangaroo meat strips, the Italian lasagna that my Italian friend in Karuzi ,Burundi prepared, the Egyptian food that I ate daily in El Obaid in Sudan , I could go on and on . I found good food in every country I stayed in so what makes the food so good is the great variety that is found everywhere that makes the choices so numerous, it is often hard to decide what to eat.
One Indian writer found himself in Basra one day and had a hard time ordering food because the menu was in Arabic. He then noticed that some people at the next table had ordered what looked like steamed cucumber so in desperation he too ordered the same.
He was so surprised when he ate it because it was so delicious. He did not know that the cucumber was stuffed with finely minced meat cooked to perfection with herbs and spices. I know it because Ma used to make a similar dish with small cucumbers called parwal stuffed with minced mutton and spices and cooking the parwal in charcoal fire very slowly .It was heavenly food but alas Ma is no more and no one makes such food anymore.
I like Italian food especially lasagna and pizzas but draw a line when it comes to their spaghetti a la dente and spinach stuffed ravioli. I never learned to appreciate it. But in Rome there are delightful restaurants hidden in narrow alleyways away from the main roads. You just have to wander around and find them as there are no signboards to guide you. These places are run by just a family that cooks for you and usually has a courtyard with some tables with umbrellas shading them.
There I learned to appreciate the sole fish and salad and a glass of red wine that they call vino de casa and is of poor quality but the sol is out of this world. There is a place just near the Trevi’s fountain in Rome where they sell 27 kinds of pizzas that I counted. There could be more. It is mind boggling what they manage to put on a pizza and still call it pizza. The chef in Sapri delighted me by bringing out a fresh pizza from his oven every time I visited the place.
But we come back again to food tinged by culture. In India most people eat at home so it is not a fast food culture unless one is travelling. Even then there are numerous eateries called dhabas that are a collection of ramshackle place covered with bamboo mats and bamboo wall, a few plastic chairs and pock marked tables not covered in linen where the food is heavenly. You have to eat in these dhabas to taste what great vegetarian food is all about never mind the plastic chairs and the waiter in dirty clothes. You just have to select a dhaba that has many cars parked in front. The habitual travelers know which one is the best.
When I used to work in Mali, I often had to stay in isolated villages for days so the food became an issue because I really could not tolerate even the stink of dry fish let alone eat it so my food choice was rather limited. There I learned to eat to which is a gruel made of pounded sorghum .To is a Malian word for a staple food that all Malians eat. They make a kind of sauce with okra and chili paste that is slimy and you dip a handful of to in it to eat. One Malian who went to Hyderabad in India for training said that he was really homesick and was missing his to and could not tolerate the spicy food of India. Hyderabad is world famous for its mutton biriyani but that made no impression on the Malian. So food is heavily influenced by the culture one comes from.
I think my worst experience was in Nairobi where I got stuck for three days and had to stay at a place near the slums. There they brought me a plate of mashed potato shaped like a cone and stuck with boiled dent corn all around and a few hard peas, lots of sliced raw onion and a few red chilies. This was my dinner. I could almost cry.
So I wandered off to the main street where I found a restaurant that served samosas so I ordered a plateful of samosas and some French fries. When the samosas came along with the fries dripping in blackish oil, I knew I made another mistake. The samosas were filled with beef which I still do not eat after fifty years abroad and the limp fries probably fried in recycled oil was disgusting so I got up leaving the food untouched. There are a lot of poor people in Nairobi so one of them asked me if he could have my plate. At least I was able to make one person happy.
Once in Lompoc, California I was asked by a few American women what they should prepare for me since I did not eat meat. By meat the Americans mean only beef and pork so they were wondering what they should prepare for me. My mistake was that I said I do eat meat if it is mutton or chicken but mutton is not widely available anywhere and it does not form a part of the American meal. These women somehow found some lamb cutlets and prepared it for me but I could not eat it because it was tough like India rubber. The women were disappointed because they really made an effort but they did not know how to prepare lamb.
Now we will go to Japan where the food is not only good and healthy, it is very clean and hygienic so you will not have to worry about picking up a few bugs that can make trouble in your stomach later.
What I really liked about Japan is their culture of decency. Their restaurants are well furnished with thick carpets, elegant and tasteful interior decorations, soft spoken waitresses who come and go silently and the fellow eaters who eat without making noise. They even have small speakers near each table for soft piped in music that does not disturb the next diner. This is in sharp contrast to the Filipinos who bring their kids who scream, throw tantrums and kick chairs and everyone talks loudly not caring about others who want a quiet meal.
This is purely cultural. They also take photos of their food with their cell phone and post them instantly in facebook so that others know what they are eating. I will never understand why they do it and why it is so important to post photos of their ordinary food in a fast food eatery but I understand it is the part of their culture. The noise level in a Philipino eatery is enough to make you deaf for a while. The blasting music of the eatery itself adds to the discomfort so that you want to gulp your food as fast as you can and leave. May be that is the reason they make so much noise.
So the culture of Japan is a very polished and civilized culture that has evolved over thousands of years. They are always mindful of others.
The restaurants have menus but they all display in a glass case all the food they serve there with the name and the price tag so that it is easier for the foreigners to order food by just pointing to the display. Now these displays are not real food. They are made of wax but look so real that you will never know the difference.
In other countries they do not have such displays so how do you order food if you do not know the language and the menu is not understandable? One woman asked me if I wanted my pizza caldo or fredo in Italy so I thought why should I eat a caldo pizza ? It sounds like cold pizza. I did not know the language so that can be a problem anywhere.
So one cannot separate the culture from food or vice versa. What is really needed today is for greater sensitivity to others while eating, a greater understanding of why some people are offended by loud noise and noisier kids who misbehave in public places, a less narcissistic culture where people have a” I don’t give a damn attitude”, a congenial atmosphere provided by the eateries so that one can have his meal in peace. May be I will move to Japan in my next life.