Breaking Cultural Barriers through Food [The Daily Cardinal]

By: Katie Vann / The Daily Cardinal – October 2, 2008

The Daily Cardinal Katie Vann This market in Spain offers a fresh taste of local ingredients. Unlike the many fast food options in the United States, other countries often have unique, locally grown food that can give students insight into their culture.

There is a market in Mozambique, Africa, where, during the summer months, vendors fill the streets with crates of fresh pineapples, plump mangoes, young coconuts and ripe bananas. Locals amble around purchasing ingredients for their daily meals, choosing between rustic breads, exotic fruits and grilled chicken or goat meat.

While grocery stores are scarce in some areas of the world and food markets like this one in Mozambique are what people rely on, the United States has a food culture largely based on convenience. There is a variety of fast food drive-thrus and on-the-go meal options.

The culture shock of food abroad For many, preparing a meal at home has come to mean popping a two-minute frozen dinner in the microwave or throwing together some boxed macaroni and cheese.

Imagine having to leave this culture, where Chinese takeout is available at 3 a.m. and grocery stores cater to you 24 hours a day, to being submerged into an atmosphere with different dining habits and a completely new cuisine.

For adventurous globetrotters and study abroad students, this is the reality of their experiences. From their time abroad, they say they have found dining is not just about the physical food but an important part of cultural traditions and social interactions.

“Eating as a foreigner will always make the cultural implications of food jump out at you,” said Carrie Lorig, a UW-Madison alumni teaching English in South Korea. “You become hyperaware of how everything you put in your mouth affects your (suddenly disoriented) comfort zone and everyone elses.”

Lorig, a vegan, said she had to adapt her eating habits in order to fit into the social culture surrounding food in South Korea.

Lorig said South Korea offers an abundance of vegetarian-friendly options including fresh, local vegetables and fruits as well as stir-fries with rice and tofu prepared in creative and delectable ways. Although she enjoys indulging in South Korea’s fresh vegetarian fare, including her favorite meal, song pyon, a rice cake roasted in pine needles and filled with chestnut meat, she found it difficult to remain vegan in the social culture. Lorig said the Koreans kindly welcomed her and wanted to show their hospitality through food.

Adapting to a new diet “They firmly believe the way to gaining your friendship is straight through your gut,” Lorig said. Lorig said her enthusiasm for Korean cuisine was a direct reaction to the people of Korea and their country as a whole.

“If the idea of vegetarianism is difficult to grasp for the coworkers and students I interact with everyday, veganism is unfathomable,” she said.

As a result, Lorig has become more of a flexitarian, consuming fish and dairy products.

“Especially with the limitations of language barriers, sharing food is not just about taste, but is more directly rooted in building community and relationships,” Lorig said.

Compared to seaweed, pickled cabbage and sushi, it might be hard to complain about getting used to London’s fish and chips and afternoon high tea sweets.

Emily Richter, a UW-Madison senior who studied in London, had little trouble adjusting to British cuisine, but encountered a few dining difficulties when traveling throughout Spain for her spring break. Not only was it difficult to order in another language, Richter said, but meal times also shifted later.

“When my friends and I got sick of the fried, meaty Spanish cuisine, we found relief by hitting up local grocery stores and fruit markets for quick meals, or we’d prepare them in our hostel kitchens,” Richter said.

Richter added it is important to experience prepared food cuisine of other countries, but there are also other options besides eating out all the time.

A more challenging transition Tamara Drossart, a UW-Madison senior who studied in Cape Town, South Africa, loved the fresh fruits and vegetables found in markets or grocery stores in Cape Town and said commercial produce found in the United States cannot compare.

While one can find an array of foods available in large African cities, Drossart said, there is “just a lot less of the ready-made and two-minute-meal pre-packaged items you can find in the U.S.” She added if you want good pasta sauce or macaroni and cheese, it all has to be made from scratch.

Barbeques and a common traditional food called maize meal are staples in the African diet. Maize meal, added Drossart, is “a white gritty coagulation of corn maize flour that looks like mashed potatoes and tastes like nothing, or possibly cardboard.” It is served with almost every meal, usually with a sauce and some meat.

According to Drossart, if you are traveling around Africa, plan ahead and stock up on what you like because you never know what foods will be available in the next city.

Andrea Muilenberg, a UW-Madison study abroad advisor, lived in Honduras for four years working with the Peace Corps. She said adjusting to a different diet takes longer for some to adapt to.

“Often students may be eating things that they’ve never been exposed to before,” Muilenberg said. “We often hear how students love to get care packages from home filled with some foods that remind them of home—peanut butter, candy, even mac and cheese.”

Muilenberg added University of Wisconsin study abroad programs try to provide some information about the food culture of the region they have chosen to study abroad in during their orientation.

Whether it’s eating rice and beans three times a day in Honduras, scouring fruit markets in Africa or ordering Spanish paella, living and eating abroad not only toughens our gut, but it also increases our understanding of other societies and individuals. After developing friendships with her coworkers and students, Lorig sees this cross-cultural understanding everyday.

“We’ve built that springboard, through the exchange of food, to get beyond the formality of customs and get to know each other as individuals.”