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Great Reasons Why Food Is the Best Way to Get to Know a Culture

by Cris Puscas

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Whether you consider yourself a foodie or not, food is part of your daily routine.

Also, food has a way of bringing people together. It is the focus of celebrations and casual get-togethers.

George Bernard Shaw said it well: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

Often, the food we eat has been passed down to us by the generations that came before us. The food that our parents prepared for us when we were feeling sick is most probably the same that you are likely to prepare for yourself or your kids when feeling unwell.

And when you find yourself traveling to or living in other parts of the world, making your traditional meals can be a great way to alleviate your homesickness.

Famous chefs and bloggers alike have made their livelihood out of getting to know cultures through their foods.

Many of us have traveled and tasted the world’s cuisine while watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or Parts Unknown. Peter Maneas is colorful and exuberant in his show My Greek Odyssey, which surely makes you want to book that culinary vacation in Greece.

Following on their footsteps, the next best thing is to go on a culture & culinary vacation. Not only will you get to sample mouthwatering dishes – and learn how to cook them – but you’ll also get to know more about the local culture and how it influenced the cuisine.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why food is a great way to better understand a culture:


Local Cuisine Gives People an Identity

eating together

Tell us: how many times have you been traveling and found a restaurant serving your traditional food? Were you compelled to go in and order a dish you’ve been missing?

Years ago, I was visiting Vienna with a group of friends. And one of them insisted on checking out the only restaurant in town serving Romanian food, just “like at home”.

People pride themselves in their local food. And when they become expats, they often open restaurants where they serve traditional dishes from their home countries.

People who identify with these dishes often flock to the restaurant as it feels like their ‘home away from home’. Chances are, in this type of restaurant, you’ll get to meet fellow expats and enjoy spending some time speaking your native language.

And by the way, if you are looking for ethnic foods when traveling, these are the restaurants you want to seek out! The dishes will be authentic and cooked with love. 


Every Dish Has a Story


When you engage with the locals, they will tell you in detail how the dish was discovered.

For example, the Italian dish arancini has two stories. Both are told in different regions - in Palermo, the dish has a round shape and a feminine name (arancini) while in Catania, it takes a cone shape and has a masculine name (arancino). The two versions have different ingredients and the same delicious taste.


Food Shows Our Values & Way of Life

Horiatiki salata (classic Greek salad)

What you eat and how you do it tells a lot about the person you are. Food sheds light on the people’s way of life, their cultural values and their perspectives on life.

Greeks have strong ties among the community. Mezedes (appetizers) are shared among the diners. The stories told over tzatziki, spanakopita, and dolmades create lifetime memories.

» Read more about Why You Should Go on a Culinary Vacation in Greece

For the Italians, food conveys warmth, love, pleasure, nutrition, and history. This means that Italians hold their food in great esteem and they often talk about food. They also don’t mind spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Family meals are often elaborate festivities with piles & piles of dishes being served during an entire afternoon.

» Read more about Why You Should Go on a Culinary Vacation in Italy


Use Meal Preparation & Dining to Learn More

making pizza in italy

On a culinary holiday, you get to join in the food preparation.

While learning from world-renowned chefs has its perks, learning from the locals opens a window into their culture. Notice how, when preparing a traditional meal, they are never in a hurry and they use the same ingredients every time they prepare that dish. This is to ensure it does not lose the original taste.

As you get to know each other, they will be prompted to tell you how their community came to be, the challenges they have faced and the opportunities available in the region.

When dining, observe how they eat their food. In many cultures, various dishes are added to the table and everyone digs in.

Wine & spirits are also an important addition to the table.

Hungarians & Romanians in Transylvania pride themselves with their palinka (plum brandy). Ouzo is always on the Greeks’ tables and you bet you’d be tasting limoncello when you dine in Italy.

When you get a chance to taste the wine produced from a small backyard vineyard, only then you’d get to really understand a culture. Bottled wines from famous wine manufacturers have become famous around the world, but you want to experience that “kick” a home-made wine gives.


Staples of Local Cuisine Are an Insight into History

Sarmale (meat filled cabbage rolls) in Romania

Photo credit: Rafael Robles via Flickr

Take the Romanian cuisine as an example. Sarmale (cabbage rolls) are eaten throughout the country but they have regional subtleties. Also, they came by way of the Ottoman Empire (during the occupation).

Dolmades (yes, the Greek ones) can also be found in all regions. Greek families have ruled in Southern Romania, leaving their imprint on the foods.

The origins of mititei (or mici) is still unknown but stories date back to the early 1900s when they were prepared on grills in Bucharest.  Now they are so ingrained in the local cuisine, that they are considered purely Romanian.

Traditionally a “tail to snout” cuisine, the dominant religion (Greek Orthodox) has also influenced the dishes. There are numerous Lent varieties of staple foods, made with simple, yet filling ingredients. Sarmale for Lent (basically a vegan version) features mushrooms instead of ground meat.

In Transylvania, the cuisine was heavily influenced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which used to be part of). Gomboti – plum dumplings – derives its name from silvas gombot (Hungarian). And many traditional Hungarian dishes that are common in Transylvania, never made it across the Carpathians.


Discover Other Languages

eating and talking

People across the world love to gather around the table. Preparing the foods and eating also spark great conversations.

It’s the best opportunity to learn how to correctly pronounce foreign-language menu items. Or try to translate them to English.

Also, people have different ways of sayings to open a meal or thank for the meal. Whether you learn how to thank the host or want to properly use the pre-meal savings, knowing the local lingo will not only help you immerse in the culture but also build quite a hefty vocabulary!

Looking to learn about a culture through its food without burning a hole in your wallet? Why not join a budget culinary vacation

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