Cultural heritage in your tummy

Most of the time I think we just go along without thinking much about such big themes as Our Cultural Heritage. But these days I've been contemplating more and more on this. One reason for this has been the movie Lost in Translation. For various reasons, this movie has brought up a lot of debate and thinking about what it is to be Japanese. (Some of the conversations about the movie are on my other blog.)

One way that we experience our own heritage, or other cultures, is through the food we eat. For foodies, this is obvious, but for non-foodies I think this very important aspect of our lives is overlooked. Having lived for most of my adult life (and much of my childhood) outside of Japan, one of the ways in which I hold on to my Japanese heritage is through food. When I eat something so very-Japanese like natto, I'm not only eating it because I want to, but the whole experience reminds me of times in the past. It reminds me of the homemade natto my grandmother used to make (wrapping the beans in rice straw to ferment it). When I make tempura, it reminds me of the ones my mother made, or the huge mounds of vegetable tempura that my aunt would make for family gatherings. When I make miso soup, the smell of it reminds me of the past, in a good way.

It's not just Japanese food though. Having lived in New York for many years, I feel fits of nostalgia for things like bagels and pizza and hotdogs. So, when I bake bagels, it reminds me of those monster bagels I used to get from Ess-a-Bagel. I have yet to duplicate a real good New York style pizza, though I've come close. As for hotdogs...well, whenever I am in New York I have to make at least one trip to Papaya King on 86th and 3rd for their "better than filet mignon" hotdog with a cup of papaya or mango juice.

If I look at what I eat though, it's a mishmash, as I am sure it is for most people. This past week or two for instance, we've had spaghetti a couple of different ways, a mushroom risotto, chili con carne, a chinese meal featuring sweet and sour pork, a Japanese-style and Indian-style curry (on two different nights of course), and cornbread. For lunch we often had the typically Swiss combination of crusty bread and cheese. We cooked and ate that all without much thought for cultural heritage, but what we eat reflects where we've been, and who we are.

How does the food you eat reflect who you are?

Filed under:  philosophy memories

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wow .. this blog makes me very hungry :) hehee

I agree totally with you, maki. especially as I grow "older" I'm finding it is becoming increasingly important to me the cultural significance of the food I eat, and I'm more conscious of preserving traditions, as it were.

and you're right, it's also not just about my Chinese culture and heritage, but also about the other food cultures I've picked up through my life so far... the food has become a reflection of where I've been, the experiences I've had, who I am...

: )

Being Malaysian Chinese, food is central to our culture. It celebrates moments, heals our illness, commemorates significant events and provides an endless topic of conversation.

Many of my childhood memories are composed entirely of tastes and smells. Its no wonder that I love food so much now. And not just Malaysian style food, every kind of food - especially food cooked with love and attention to detail.

The stuffed bread looks amazing, I'll definitely have to try it. Have to say, I'm not a huge fan of Natto or fatty tuna, much to my Japanese host family's amusement!

Definitely. I think this is something I get from my father; he has always taught me to view both the preparation and the consumption of food (and its procurement; he's an avid hunter and fisherman) as a sacrament (and this coming from a dyed-in-the-wool atheist). There are a number of reasons for this, and a big part is the connection to one's own heritage and the heritage of humanity itself inherent in the act of experiencing food. Very well put, Maki.

This is an old post, but one that strikes a chord with me today, as I sit by an open window, reveling in the depths of Indian Summer, which always makes me crave my mother's Gateau Sirop (Cajun gingerbread).

My cultural heritage is mostly Cajun, and while I grew up much as you did, Maki, bouncing from country to country and house to house, my mother did instill in me an appreciation for the food of our birthright, most notably in my grandma's seafood gumbo and a hot slice of Gateau Sirop made with Steen's cane syrup, accompanied by a cup of black Community coffee.

Here's the rub; I've suffered with chronic illness all my life, and a great lot of it has boiled down (pun intended) to being gastrointestinal in nature. I gave up sugar in 1989, wheat in 2007, dairy somewhere in between, not to mention numerous other "staples". If I had ever been destined to become a foodie, my gut decided it had another path in store for me. I've pretty much had to sever all emotional ties with food - except one - piping hot, perfectly steamed Japanese rice, for which I developed a love when we lived near Hiroshima. I digress.

Frankly, I don't miss much food, but I do miss the emotional connection it brings to other people. Cajun families are large (my mother is one of eleven children), and food is the centerpiece of life. While I don't particularly miss the heavy roux and sauces (I've never been much for heavy foods), it does bother me that I couldn't, for example, indulge in the jambalaya and etoufee we served at my wedding in Louisiana a year and a half ago. I also can't drink, which severs the other significant emotional catalyst at family gatherings. I do feel I'm missing something by not being able to indulge in those birthrights. I can share in the laughter, I can share in the memories and I can share in the joy of the moment, but having to sit out dish after dish of history; that's difficult, and I have yet to find a substitute for it.