Updated: Nov 26, 2021
Food is energy: In eating, humans assimilate into their bodies the products of nature transformed into culture.
Food is more than just a means of survival. It is rather multidimensional: it shapes our identities, our cultures and in the end, our society. Food gives us an opportunity to understand where we come from and how we have changed and survived in order to understand ourselves.
Eating is a ritual that happens every home all over the world. Humans have turned eating into culture, a way to celebrate our roots, feed our souls and turn strangers into friends.
Food culture refers to skills, knowledge, practices, rules and sentiments surrounding food
systems from landscape to the table including crops, harvesting, fishing, hunting, conservation, processing, preparation and consumption of food. Rules include what is consumed, who acquires it, who prepares it and who is at the table. These cultural bases form and strengthen social groups’ ( families, communities and even countries) traditions and sense of belonging including history, lifestyle, values and beliefs, thus making food and culinary practices important to maintaining culture. All these are a form of communication and vary according to culture.
Heritage and traditional foods
Traditional foods are generally the ones that have the power to evoke the spirit of the time past and they become our heritage. Heritage matters because it creates value that is important enough to be passed on to future generations and can also be carried to new places. Cooking and eating involve pulling together from fragments of history, stepping back in time to connect us with those who came before us in order to look forward. It is the gift from the ancestors, passing on knowledge and self-sustenance skills. As we revive, preserve and celebrate these traditions, like their souls these traditions live on.
Soaking in all knowledge and keeping traditions alive is humbling to learn they did that through hardships and may bring some sadness and anger. It can also be empowering and bring a great sense of pride as you appreciate the beauty of survival, the fruitfulness of hope and realise how resilient your heritage is.
Traditions and culture are invented, often in the modern development of nations and nationalism. Traditions and culture are not static, in preserving and improving them, they need to reflect local history, terroir and modern life realities (foodways transition, migration, food technology advancement) to illustrate culinary journey and landscape of food. When some ingredients are not readily available, the taste and flavours may be different whilst still retaining cultural significance of the dish.
Food connects people with the natural environment. The environmental culture and the surroundings impact the foods we eat and the way we experience them. This is why food cultures often vary regionally, even within one country depending on the landscape, weather and history that each region uniquely experience. A good example is the abundant use of nuts in almost all recipes in in Limpopo, Mpumalanga than the more southern parts of South Africa. Nuts naturally grow there, and are an integral part of samp and beans, meat stew and squash dishes.
There are many different food cultures of the world, some are more famous and distinct than others and some of their elements travel to other parts of the world, and some rarely leave there regional environment but are still important to the community they influence.
What we now call simply as a diet/ food ways, is the final expression of thinking, living and
approaching of our culture and rituals and knowledge sharing and communication with natural environment. A popular well documented example is the Mediterranean diet, which is an environment-driven food culture. The original meaning of the word diaita in Greek does not refer to just food or eating choices, but to a certain “way of living” It is used today to describe the traditional dietary habits of countries neighbouring the Mediterranean Sea, mostly Greece and Southern Italy. Each of the regions in the Mediterranean Basin developed its own recipes, preferences, and restrictions. The diet is essentially a plant-based dietary pattern, incorporating whole grains, nuts, fresh fruits, and a moderate fish intake. It also includes grapes that make red wine is consumed only with meals, in small servings with a limited frequency throughout the week.
Understanding a culture through food is an interesting process because once a person starts asking questions, such as how something is made, what ingredients are in it, or why it is called a certain way, the answers obtained go beyond culinary learning. In these answers, food tells us something about a culture’s approach to life. Food is a communication symbol by which we create, manage and share meanings with others. Understanding culture, habits, rituals and tradition can be explored through food and the way others perceive it.