Food is one of the many things that can tell us a lot of different things about people. In general, when you travel to a foreign country or visit a new city, the unique food stands front and center. Each region of the world has a long history for why they favor certain kinds of food.
Overall, the kind of food that you grow up eating is largely based on the culture around you and where you are from. People grow accustomed to family recipes or those that are put forth from a young age. This also might stem from particular holidays or religious ceremonies. For instance, a typical Christmas dinner in the Western World might typically include ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, cookies, eggnog and raisin pudding. This will clearly differ from a Jewish family celebrating Hanukkah with latkes, apple sauce, and brisket. The very same Jewish family may also opt for kosher food and abstain from eating shellfish or pork entirely. Similarly, those who come from Islamic faith observe a “halal diet” meaning they do not eat pork or animals that were improperly slaughtered. In these cases, the religion’s holy scripture plays a very important role in what is eaten by its disciples.
Countries like China also use a philosophical take on how to cook food. Because the country is focused on balance, you will see a lot of this prevalent in Chinese cooking. Sweet and sour, and salty and bitter sre very commonly seen in these dishes to emphasize this. Chinese culture also emphasizes presentation and color, hence why you might see this consistently in their food.
These kinds of diets means that the culture will adapt to what can and cannot be eaten. This might include more vegetarian options or those that focus on rice and vegetables. This is something that is seen in Eastern Asia and the Middle East, hence the popularity of staples like falafel and stir fries. In very poor communities like India, the sheer amount of spices that are added to most dishes reflects the need to create flavor in the dish so that it is palatable.
Another example would be the variety of foods eaten within the “melting pot” of the United States. Since the expansive country borrows from so many other cultures and has grown over time, there is an Americanization of various foods. This might include the German hamburger, the Italian pizza or pasta, the Polish hot dog, or the unique blend of Tex-Mex found in the southern part of the country. In addition, you will find various hybrids of classic dishes found in other parts of the world that are fused with American cooking styles. Take deep fried food or the strange concoction found at your local fast food joint as examples.
Other reasons that food can tell us about culture is that it signifies what is prominent in a region. In communities surrounded by water, seafood is one of the top staples because it is easy to gather (or catch) and is of a low cost to stock. Places like Japan, New Orleans, San Francisco, Chile, and Nova Scotia are all known for their easy access to water and thus their seafood.
This also includes what kinds of natural produce is grown in any particular area. First and foremost are the fruits and vegetables that are prominent in a certain region. For instance, Mexico’s large supply of avocados and other fruits has led to the prominence of tapas, guacamole, and plantains among other dishes in the region. Furthermore, corn on the cob is ubiquitous in the farming centric culture of the Midwestern United States and is eaten often. Oftentimes these items are infused with other local dishes to create something truly unique to the area.
In general, the next time you sit down for a unique dish, think about what it took to get there. There is inevitably a story of what made that dish happen over a long period of time.