By Ariane Sommer
Next to living within a country and speaking the language, food is one of the most important means to understanding a culture.
I fell in love with the philosophy behind food in China. The principles of yin and yang – hot and cold, male and female – lie at the heart of Chinese cuisine and can be found in any of its dishes.
You can learn culture through cuisine. The way we consume and acquire it, the fashion in which it gets cooked and by whom, who is invited to the table and who eats first, such tradition is a form of nonverbal communication – a social code abundant with meaning.
Cuisine is a source of pleasure and pride, elevating the basic act of eating from a purely biological necessity to an art. In many places of the world it is one of the main instruments of socialisation and identification.
Every culture has designated what it considers to be edible, which type of animal can be eaten and how it should be prepared – Judaism and Islam being among the most prominent instances. Food often is used symbolically by nations; it tells us what is important to them and can educate us about their history.
The concept of joie de vivre, for example, is reflected in the finesse of the French cuisine, with unique national dishes such as coq au vin, and pot-au-feu. France is probably the country in the world most obsessed with food definitions. Tremendous protocol is i volved in the act of branding a product. People can deliberate for hours on what a French baguette is supposed to be, and will de- fend their position furiously. But we forgive them, after all, Brie de Meaux isn’t just any brie, champagne isn’t just any sparkling wine – and a French baguette has a very specific recipe, a fact reaffirmed when I returned home from my trip to Paris and searched in vain for a decent equivalent.
So-called “national dishes” render a concise picture about how a culture interacts within and how it wishes to be seen from the outside. The Sachertorte from Austria comes to mind, a result of the vibrant late-19th century Vienna coffee-house culture which prevails to this day. Or the Yorkshire pudding and chicken tikka masala of Great Britain, the incorporation of the latter being evidence of a long-standing history of colonialism and immigration with India. National dishes, or what we perceive as such, also function as stereotypes. Although most of these have positive or neutral connotations, they can as well acquire a derogatory tone.