Bags of exotic spices in local market

Culinary culture: 5 reasons to get to know a new country through it’s food

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What’s the fastest way to get the pulse of a country? Some argue that to truly understand a culture, one must live and work with the native population. For those with a limited time-frame, you would do a lot worse in looking to the kitchen for those local insights. In fact, no matter how long you spend in a country, you should take the time to really get to know the local cuisine. Here are just five reasons to discover a country through your taste buds.

Ingredients are key

It’s no secret that understanding a country’s favourite ingredients gives you a better understanding of the native environment. Whether it’s the rice and noodle dishes of the East or the olive-infused dishes of the Mediterranean, the ingredients used in local dishes can tell you a lot about the cultural, geographic and historic influences embedded in a country’s DNA.

For instance, countries that sit along the ancient silk road stretching from the Far East to Northern Africa to Western Europe have, over the years, incorporated a range of spices into their own national dishes. By understanding where these ingredients originated you can begin to build a picture of the imports that have shaped the cultural landscape.
The next time you’re in a new country, take a stroll through the local markets and see what ingredients are on offer. Even when you think you know a country, wandering between the array of colourful herbs and spices is sure to offer up some unexpected finds.

Collection of exotic spices in bowls
The range of ingredients on offer can reveal a lot about the history and geography of a country

Eating styles can be enlightening

Turns out how a dish is eaten can tell you a lot about the local people. For instance, it is common in parts of East Asia to eat most meals with chopsticks. There are competing stories behind the origin of chopsticks. One argument is that the Chinese philosopher Confucius, a vegetarian, argued that knives were inappropriate at the dinner table. Another school of thought claims that, as populations grew, food became scarcer. As a result, food portions became smaller. Instead, people cut food into smaller morsels and employed chopsticks to ‘pick’ from the pot.

So when you’re next travelling, do some digging into the eating practices of the country. Take time to watch how others eat (without making it weird) and try to master the technique for yourself. It can help you learn more about the country but, just as importantly, it could also help you avoid any embarrassing social faux pas.

Noodle dish with chopsticks resting on bowl
Understand why people eat the way they do to understand the culture

Cooking methods are a revelation

Similarly to the eating techniques of different countries, traditional preservation and cooking techniques can reveal a lot about the way people live. In many countries, the cooking methods employed can vary hugely from region to region, making the national dish a valuable starting point to understanding the unique distinctions between different provinces, cities, towns and even villages.

For instance, in northern India, food is often cooked in a tandoor – a circular clay wood-fired oven – as it enables several different dishes to be cooked simultaneously. This has been an essential feature in north Indian villages for hundreds of years, as the women of the village would gather in the evening and cook their dough to make the roti for the other villagers.
On your next international excursion, take some time to inquire about the techniques used by the chef. You could go away with more than just a new recipe.

Chinese chefs cooking local dishes in kitchen
Cooking methods can be dictated by a range of factors, many cultural

Comparisons say more than you think

Going out of your way to sample the same meal in a range of restaurants can help shape your knowledge of how the rest of the nation enjoys their dish. Of course, you won’t want to eat one dish everywhere you go. Nevertheless, sampling a national dish in different locations can add some shading to your knowledge of the various influences in a country’s history.

For instance, in China, the same dish can be replicated multiple times with hugely different tastes, depending on the location. Whether it’s the spicy noodles of the subtropical Sichuan province or the saltier, richer flavours of the cold northeast, dishes can retain the ingredients while varying to suit local tastes.
Exploring the myriad varieties of a single dish allows you to appreciate the diverse hues that make up a country and understand the ethnographic and cultural differences behind regional identities.

Traditional Cuban dish of ropa vieja with rice and beans
The cooking and presentation methods of a dish can reveal hidden influences

Understanding through experience

It’s only by putting yourself in the shoes of the locals that you begin to truly grasp their circumstances. Food is universal but the ways in which we preserve, prepare and enjoy it varies hugely.

All of this requires not just sampling dishes, but talking to locals about other aspects of their culture. Seeing the dish prepared before your eyes can be even more enlightening.

With a Genie phone, guests can find incredible local cuisine at every turn. With an array of apps to guide visitors to the most authentic experiences, there’s never been a better time to explore the world through your taste buds.