Food Across Continents
By David Evans Bailey
Can food change a culture, or can a culture change food? The real answer is both. Since time immemorial, food has been the oil which, for want of a better word, greases cultural differences. It is, in a way, a great leveller. After all, everyone has to eat. Without going back too far, it’s easy to discover that as exploration of the world and trade expanded, so did the exchange of ideas around food. Even things like the humble potato were considered exotic in the time of Elizabeth I. We perhaps forget many of the foods we love today were brought very long distances in ships to become part of our own respective culinary heritages.
According to a Channel 5 documentary that aired in 2019, Chinese food is rated as the top takeaway in the UK, followed by Indian cuisine and then the more traditional fish and chips. In NZ, the top Menulog takeaways are apparently fish and chips, pizza and gourmet burgers. When we walk the streets of Auckland and even Rotorua, we see a plethora of Asian food outlets from many different countries. It’s fair to say the variety of cuisine in a country with such a small population is astonishing. All this serves to illustrate how food crosses cultural barriers.
Does all of this change the way we see each other and other cultures? I would argue it does. Breaking bread has always been a traditional peacemaker, a way of simply getting to know one another or talking through differences. When you eat a meal, you encounter different spices, different flavours and tastes, which lead you to a different world. Such enjoyment of a cuisine may lead people to visit the country in question for themselves, thus, accomplishing their desire to experience other cultures. New friendships are often forged at the dinner table. These also lead to the adoption of different habits; the westerner learns to use chopsticks (sort of) and the easterner learns to use cutlery. We break our traditional moulds and become something new and hopefully better.
The plethora of food programs including the likes of MasterChef, have also transcended cultural preserves in the kitchen. Now aspiring chefs are expected to produce dishes from many different influences, often using unfamiliar techniques and ingredients. Then comes the blending of different types of cuisine, with the resulting concatenations being concepts like Asian Fusion. As Indians imported their cuisine to Britain, they had to draw on the British taste and the availability of ingredients. Any Chinese person will tell you that British Chinese food is not the same as that from China.
Perhaps authenticity survives better in Antipodean climes dues to the proximity of Asia and the ready availability of ingredients. Not to mention a large segment of the population who now hail from those parts of the world and bring their styles of food here. One might even say we are spoilt for choice. I recently visited one food hall in the Auckland CBD which featured French, Italian, Turkish, Asian and many other different types of cuisine. A group of people can eat from their own favourites at the same table.
Which brings us back really to the point. Eating together has always been a great tradition for families and friends. The family meal where everyone sits and talks is not yet completely dead in our technological computer age. The dinner party where we invite our friends to eat something prepared from our own stable is still a thing. People eating, enjoying conversation and company, is after all a staple of our society. We eat out, we eat in, we take away and consume food every single day. Special occasion? Anniversary, birthday, a date? It most often begins at the dinner table in a restaurant. On top of which, we can vicariously enjoy food from many countries simply by watching programs about their food. And thus, through the simple act of eating, we absorb so much more. Perhaps more than any other thing, food has helped us to cross the cultural divides, becoming a more inclusive global society. Long may it continue and of course, bon appétit.