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Food is a slice of life

Gitanjali and Isabella write about food being an essential part of cultural identity and ethnic heritage, especially within diasporic communities.

Food, as much as it is a necessity for survival, tells us a lot about one’s culture and is a way for many in a diaspora to connect with their heritage. With the pandemic causing us to hunker down in our homes, cooking has been a way to bring people together. 

Food culture is defined as “the practices, attitudes, and beliefs as well as the networks and institutions surrounding the production, distribution, and consumption of food.” It is the “connection, beliefs, and experience we have with food and our food system. It incorporates our cultural heritage and ethnicity, but is not limited to it. Our food culture is as much about our ethnic cultural heritage, as it is about our environmental culture and the way our surroundings impact the foods we eat and the way we experience them.”

Many relate food to certain memories. Chau B Le states that the food we eat with our family becomes comfort food for adulthood. Also, traditional cuisine tends to be passed on from one generation to the next, which is a symbol of pride as it helps them cope with the homesickness that comes with being a part of a diaspora. 

In an article written by Vatika Sibal, she elaborates that food is essential in religious contexts. It can be a way to show respect among communities, and some have specific ways they prepare food. For example, followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are vegetarians. However, eating patterns can differ from various branches of one religious group. Food plays a large role in how one conveys their religious sentiments. 

“What we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, and who eats first is a form of communication, that is, it has a rich cultural base. Beyond merely nourishing the body, what we eat and with whom we eat can inspire and strengthen the bonds between individuals, communities, and even countries. There is no closer relationship than the one with the family and food plays a large part in defining family roles, rules, and traditions.”

Vatika Sibal

Food is an identity marker, it defines one’s personality, social class, lifestyle, etc. It influences one’s relationship with themselves, their community and their family, especially considering the gender roles that are embedded in society. Thus, it can be used as a lens to analyze society order, historical changes, power, and politics. (Boutaud, Jean & Becuţ, Anda & Marinescu, Angelica, 2016). 

Using the example of Filipino cuisine to investigate the historical influences of a particular region, trading and colonization play large roles in the dishes we know and love. Locals tend to alter traditional Spanish recipes to suit their palates. Chinese traders brought ingredients like soy sauce (used in Filipino Adobo), bean sprouts, tofu, bamboo shoots, lemongrass, fish sauce, and noodles (used to make pancit).

Spanish conquistadors brought new ways of cooking and new ingredients that have remained ingrained in the cuisine. 

“For starters, there is adobo, a method of preserving meat in vinegar and spices, which is particularly useful in the tropical heat. But the Spanish also introduced sautéeing and braising as cooking methods, as well as new ingredients like garlic, onions, and tomatoes, and New World staples like corn and potatoes.”

Jodi Ettenberg

Further, foods typically made around Christmas-time are Spanish-influenced, like paella and leche flan. The US military in the 20th century brought American fast food like SPAM, hot dogs, hamburgers, and fried chicken. Canned evaporated milk and processed cheeses were also introduced and incorporated into existing recipes, for example, replacing fresh milk in Spanish-influenced desserts, including leche flan. 

Another example is Indian cuisine. Tulasi Srinivas elaborates on the influences of food in Indian culture, which has many variations within the country itself and is an amalgamation of “an enormous number of local, regional, caste-based ingredients and methods of preparation.” Food in India has always been a marker for caste, class, family, kinship, religion, etc. An illustrated series by thebigfatbao on Instagram titled “caste and food” showcases dishes in Dalit communities. This is the perfect way of expanding one’s understanding of how caste influences food while supporting someone from the community. 

Srinivas elaborates on the Indian meal, which differs from one state to another. 

“The Indian meal is a complex and little-understood phenomenon. “Typical” meals often include a main starch such as rice, sorghum, or wheat; vegetable or meat curries that are dry roasted or shallow wok-fried; cured and dried vegetable dishes in sauces; and thick lentil soups, with different ingredients. Condiments might include masalas (a dry or wet powder of finely ground spices and herbs), plain yogurt,  vegetable raita (yogurt dip, also called pachadi in south India), salted pickles, fresh herbal and cooked chutneys, dried and fried wafers and salted papadums (fried lentil crisps), and occasionally dessert (called “sweetmeats”). Indian meals can have huge variations across the subcontinent, and any of these components in different orders and with different ingredients might constitute an Indian meal.”

crop man preparing pan baked flatbread in kitchen
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Looking at the historical influences, similar to Filipino cuisine, colonization brought new cooking methods to India. Mughals brought new foods like dried fruits, stuffed meat, poultry, and fruits and new processes like baking bread and cooking meat on skewers in the tandoor. India got potatoes, tomatoes, chilies from the British and other Western powers. 

Social changes like migration, either as refugees, expatriates, or tourism coupled with the industrialization and globalization of food production have provided a lot of change in individual or group preferences to consuming food. This will ultimately trickle down to the next generation, creating yet another element to one’s understanding of the food culture in a particular region. (Boutaud, Jean & Becuţ, Anda & Marinescu, Angelica, 2016)

The Internet has allowed many Asians in the diaspora to talk about their connection with food in a more personal sense and as a way to share recipes with others who are on the same journey of finding a way to connect to their homeland. Thus, redefining what food can mean or represent for one’s cultural identity.      

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