A simple definition is what we consume to provide us with the nutrients we need to sustain our bodies. What we choose to eat is influenced by so many things. Our environment, our culture, availability, personal preference and so many more.
Food makes us happy. Reminds us of good or bad times, by the scent, the taste and even how it looks. Preparing and sharing a meal with loved ones is a pleasure, where we can share our thoughts in a relaxed atmosphere.
I currently live in a country that is very fertile and food is relatively cheap and easy to come by, that is, fresh fruit and vegetables. Processed food here is more expensive. When I first visited the United States, despite what I had watched and read before, I was still taken aback by how cheap processed and junk food was in comparison to fresh produce. I was also appalled at the wastage. And the irony is in both countries, there are people who are struggling to put a meal on the table.
Food is political. Yes it is. Think about it. In the past, food was just for sustenance. Our ancestors ate what they came across, what was around them at the time and their lives and dishes reflected that. These days though food has become a hot political take. What we eat, where it comes from, how it has been produced, how accessible it is to those who are lacking… it is no longer just about survival, but a reflection of what is going on with the world today.
Food can also be a fiery topic. There are certain foods some do not eat for religious, or health reasons, that are traditional staples in other communities. How do we deal with this? Do we bash those who do not eat what we eat or look down on them?
Many of us are now living in multicultural communities where our food has been influenced by other cultures.
Maize which is a staple in the community I come from, was brought by the Portuguese in the 1400s thereabouts. Potatoes which we love too, were introduced by the British in the 1800s. We did have other staples, milk and meat were accompanied by indigenous tubers, grains and cereals before that were wiped out by the introduction and spread of these new crops. Enslaved Africans crossed with cowpeas, okra and watermelon to name a few which are now part and parcel of American cuisine.
Railroad workers brought in from the Indian Subcontinent by British colonialists came with their food and spices that have had a tremendous effect on East African cuisine. Long time trade on the East African coast with Arabs and Chinese has seen influences from their cuisine here too. Our scented pilau and biriani dishes, chapati, samosas, Maru bhajias, masala tea, curries are just a few of the dishes that indicate this.
I remember this time I got gifted a bunch of green bananas ( green figs aka matooke), and I shared them with someone who declined as that specific type of banana was only eaten in times of starvation as a last resort where she came from. The banana she was rejecting is what we grow and eat back home as a staple.. what a difference! I was too shocked to be offended but it really opened my eyes to how we all relate differently with food depending on where we come from.
What we eat also changes with the times. There are many people opting not to eat certain foods as they are not produced in the right way, or overly processed. There is a shift to more traditional foods and older methods of cooking and food preservations that we had discarded over time.
Food is a very important part of our cultures, no matter what part of the world we come from. What we eat, how we prepare it, present and consume it speaks a lot on who we are as a people. It is an essential part of our lives we cannot do without. I like reading, collecting and trying recipes from different parts of the world as it is a way I can try to experience a small part of a different culture. We live in a time where information is so easily available we can interact with other cultures and traditions without having to move there physically. And food is one of the ways we can do that. Cooking different dishes with the kids makes them curious and want to know more about that culture we are making the food from, and I believe this makes them open minded and appreciative of different cultures too. Food, a meal, a recipe will always have a story to tell.
We have however abused the role of food in recent times. Food has become something some of us take pleasure in wasting, hating and using to highlight our ignorance of other cultures. Numerous videos online show people playing pranks with food, overeating as entertainment and even trying challenges of food from other cultures and competing on how gross they find them. This is appalling and disgusting to say the least. Whatever happened to basic decency and respect of other cultures?
Despite the fact that we are living in times where information on anything is a thumb click away, people are priding themselves in showing off their ignorance and arrogance. We have moved from times where we preferred to ignore or fear what we did not know and understand, to ridiculing what is different from us. And these recent food challenges are a perfect indicator of that.
Food is IDENTITY. What we eat tells us about where we come from, what is available there, what grows there and our creativity at making something palatable from it. It connects us and makes us understand one another as we share a meal. When we go ahead and mock food that comes from a different culture… What exactly are we saying about that culture? What are we communicating about ourselves?
It is crucial for us to acknowledge the important role food plays in our lives. Food is central to what we value, how we understand our environment, understand each other and how we express who we are. It is not just about filling our bellies, it tells much more than that to us as human beings. We cannot claim to respect others’ cultures, and at the same time disrespect their food (which is an integral part of any culture). We can do better and be better.