Food and culture
Food and food preparation are not just about nutrition. Diets are socially and culturally embedded and relate to ethnicity and cultural practices. Our food preferences are influenced by the
cuisine we grew up with, and food is inextricably linked to the region we come from. Its climate, geography, flora and fauna influence our eating habits through the type of food available and the
way it is preserved and prepared. We 'acquire a taste', which means that we enjoy a flavour or taste because we have been exposed to it from a young age, while people who are unfamiliar
with it may not like it. In addition, our ideas about what tastes go together are culturally based. According to The Guardian's article The geography of taste: how our food preferences are
formed, a 2011 study found that Asian cooking avoids combining similar flavours, while traditional European gastronomy is all about combining foods that have similar flavours.
However, it is not just taste that determines whether we like or dislike a particular food. In his book Perception & Identity in Intercultural Communication, Marshall R. Singer, an American professor and intercultural researcher, recounts an incident in which he served fried caterpillars at a party without informing his guests of the actual contents of the snack, and describes the reaction of one of his guests when she learned that she had eaten caterpillars:
… [She] said, "Marshall, those fried shrimp you put out were delicious."
"Fried shrimp?" I asked as innocently as I could. "I didn't serve any fried shrimp." "Yes, you did," she insisted. "They were in a little white plate on the table. In fact, they were so good I ate most of them myself." "Oh," I said, pausing for maximum effect, "Those weren't fried shrimp, they were fried caterpillars."
Virtually the moment I said that the smile disappeared from her face, the color of her face turned green, and she became terribly sick all over my living room floor.
This episode shows that the type of food we consider edible depends not only on how tasty it is, but also on how we perceive it. This perception is shaped by the norms of our cultural environment, as well as religious rules about the consumption of food and drink, their preparation, and food and drink prohibitions. Nowadays, food choices can also be influenced by concerns about how food is produced and the welfare of animals.
According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), knowledge of the society and culture of the community or communities in which a language is spoken forms part of a
language learner's knowledge of the world, for example food and drink, meal times and table manners. Although globalisation has made the food cultures of many countries more diverse, most
cultures have retained some idiosyncrasies when it comes to eating habits and table manners. It is therefore useful to draw students' attention to the socio-cultural aspects of communication
about food culture. This includes verbal and non-verbal behaviour - what we say (or don't say) and what we do (or don't do) in a given situation.
Another aspect worth noting is the specific cooking and eating utensils that are part of different food cultures and how to use them correctly.
At a wedding reception in Spain:
- "Are we going to eat nuts?"
- "Why would we eat nuts at a wedding reception?"
- "There's a nutcracker on the table for everyone."
- "The nutcracker is for the lobster."
Specific types of utensils are used for preparing and consuming typical food and
drink, such as the mate jar, traditionally made of pumpkin, to prepare and drink mate, the national drink of Argentina and Uruguay; the cider ladle, sometimes used in northern Spain when no human
ladle is available; or the olive spoon, a long-handled utensil used to remove olives from jars or tins.
Fortunately, unlike other aspects of cultural competence, knowledge of food culture consists of relatively simple facts that can be learned and observed to avoid awkward and embarrassing situations before visiting or inviting someone from another culture.
For some quick tips on dining customs around the world see
About the Video
HSBC is a British multinational banking and financial services company headquartered in London. It was founded in London in 1991 by The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. In the early
2000s, the bank launched an advertising campaign to emphasise its internationality and respect for diversity. The campaign features a series of humorous adverts that poke fun at the consequences
of misunderstanding local customs. Although the ads were made almost two decades ago, they are still an effective introductory activity for a lesson raising awareness of socio-cultural issues
such as table manners, the ritual of gift-giving or personal distance.
HSBC's 2003 eel advert shows a Western businessman dining in a Chinese restaurant with his Chinese business partners. The first course is boiled eel, which he finds unappealing. Not knowing that his Chinese hosts expect him to leave a small amount of food on the plate to signal that he has had enough, he clears his plate to show his appreciation of the dish in accordance with his culture's etiquette. He will then be served more of the fish because a clean plate is considered a sign of a bad host who has ordered too little food for his guests. The video can be found by typing "HSBC eel ad" into a search engine. Interestingly, the Chinese government has recently launched a 'clean plate' campaign against food waste.
Using the video in class (from B1-level)
The following activities raise students’ awareness of the topic. See also the downloadable worksheet.
The teacher asks the students what food they like and dislike. Then students discuss in small groups if they would eat the following specialities:
- roast suckling pig (eg Spain, Germany)
- sheep’s head (eg some Mediterranean countries)
- haggis (roasted lung, stomach, liver and heart of lamb or sheep mixed with onions,
oatmeal, herbs and spices, stuffed inside a bag made from the animal’s stomach)(Scotland)
- octopus (eg Spain)
- sushi (a type of rice seasoned with vinegar and are garnished with raw fish or vegetables)
(eg Japan, now popular in Europe, too)
- frog legs (eg France)
- snails (eg France, Spain)
- surströmming (small Baltic herring that is salted, fermented and further fermented in a
tin. It has a pungent smell.) (Sweden)
- tripe (eg France, Spain, some German-speaking regions)
- guinea pig (in some Latin American countries)
- insects (in some Asian and Latin American countries)
Students read the following case and answer the questions. The answers are discussed in the plenary.
A group of German teenagers is taking part in a language course in England. At a party, they are offered a dish called "toad in the hole". It consists of sausages in a batter. The students enjoy the dish until one student tells them that a toad is an amphibian similar to a frog. Most of the students then refuse to finish their plate. Later they find out that “toad in the hole” is just a name and that the dish is not made of toads.
Would you have finished the meal if you thought it was made of toads?
Why wouldn’t you eat something –
- because of the way it looks, smells or tastes?
- Because you find the idea of eating that kind of food unappetising or unethical?
- If you were invited for dinner and didn’t like a certain food, what would you do to avoid
offending the host?
Students watch the video. Ask them:
Why is the man served the same dish several times?
What could he have done to avoid this situation?
Students read about the table manners of different cultures and decide if they are the same or different in their culture.
They then make a list of important questions about eating habits when interacting with people from another culture.