Food is a universal need that we all have in common, above and beyond our differences and nationalities. However, food also reinforces those differences in many different and often highly complex ways. What we eat and how we eat it, how it is prepared and consumed, and when this takes place, says a lot about our identities as individuals and as countries or social groupings.
Food often defines our cultural identity. Different parts of the world are known for their national cuisine. Countries like India, Mexico and China have successfully exported their way of eating as a speciality around the world, though often these are adapted somewhat by the host country. Going for a curry in Birmingham, England may not be the same as going for a curry in Mumbai, for instance.
Sometimes perceived eating habits are used to stereotype different cultures and derogatory nicknames can derive from this: while the British have been known to refer to the French as frogs, after frog’s legs, they in turn sometimes call Brits ‘Le Rosbif’ in return.
Nowadays food is becoming more global. Ethnic dishes that were once specific to one location can be found worldwide and are often enthusiastically adopted in seemingly unlikely markets – one thinks of the growing demand for sushi as an Indian street food. Balanced against this are big food chains like McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken becoming globally ubiquitous in what some see as a form of food-based cultural imperialism.
As individuals, food defines us through our dietary choices. These choices may be made for reasons of health, ethics, or religion, or just through conforming to accepted social norms. In Britain, eating dog or horsemeat is as taboo as eating pork or beef is in other cultures. What you eat can also be an indicator of social status and class. When Marie Antoinette said, “let them eat cake” she was unwittingly showing her privilege.
Even within foods associated with the working classes, there is a divide between what is considered traditional, hearty fare – such as fish n’ chips – and what is seen as vulgar and tacky (much cheap, pre-packaged fast food). At the other end of the scale, we have ‘posh nosh’ and haute cuisine- foods associated with expense, rarity and snobbery. How this food is consumed, the correct manners and setting of fine dining, the cutlery used and so on, is frequently as important as the dishes themselves.
Food solutions providers need to constantly be aware of the social and cultural expectations of their clients just as much as their dietary and nutritional requirements. This includes providing for feast days in different cultures, and what is expected, as well as the symbolic nature of some foodstuffs during these times. Conversely, cultural periods of fasting like Ramadan need to be borne in mind as well.
Food is an integral and symbolic part of who we are, both as individuals and as cultures. So much that we take for granted is in fact connected to a shifting matrix of assumptions and signifiers that go far beyond nutritional needs. Being aware of this can help to build bridges and open us up to new experiences.