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Culinary Heritage: Food as a Tool for Cultural Exchange

Inherently, humans have many differences, whether it be nationality, favorite sport, religion, and so on. But there is one factor which connects us all despite our contrasts – food. Food is the number one factor which every person on the planet can enjoy with little to no issue. It is something that enables a connection to be formed from Japan to Spain to Australia and with our ever globalizing world, will only continue to expand. But, not only is food a means of acquiring nutrition, but also an instrument of cultural exchange and thus understanding food can be an incredible insight into ones culture and lifestyle. Whether it be a recipe passed down generations, traditional holiday dish, or simply your favorite food, appreciation and interest in food not only nourishes one’s body, but also is a means of expressing ones cultural heritage.

Moving abroad for anyone can be a scary thing, and even more to a whole other continent. Not only do you have to adapt physically, but also culturally with one of the largest cultural obstacles being cuisine. I reached out to three young adults from Asia and Europe, all of who are currently or have recently been studying in an exchange programme for their studies. Juliette Odolant from Australia and France, Beom Seok Kim from South Korea, and Daryl Magno from the Philippines, all participated in an exchange programme, bringing them across the globe from their homes.

Juliette Odolant is an Australian-French third-year student reading Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Chinese) at the University of Cambridge, currently on her year abroad in Taipei, Taiwan. She was born in Sydney, Australia but moved to France when she was 6 years old (her father is French, and her mother is Australian), then moved to London when she was 18. She is currently in an exchange program with the National Taiwan Normal University. Daryl Magno, from the Philippines, recently finished his Doctorate in Pharmacy from the University of Malta in collaboration with University of Chicago Illinois. Currently, he is working as a community pharmacist in Malta’s largest retail pharmacy group and as a Responsible Person (RP) in a pharmaceutical company. Beom Seok Kim is from South Korea and is currently studying in Dongguk university. He has double major in social welfare and advertising, and is set to graduate this year. He studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain from August 2020 to April 2021 and is studying marketing and European culture. Thus, each of these three people packed up and travelled across the world in order to experience a new, different, and exciting culture.

One of the first obstacles one faces with moving to a new country is how to cook for themselves. There are two main choices that occur - do you cook the food from your home, or do you cook the local food? For Juliette in Taiwan, Asian cuisine was not something she dabbled in stating “The nearby Asian supermarket tantalized me, but I didn’t feel confident enough with the complex characters on the rows and rows of mysterious jars and cartons to pick much up aside from tofu, black bean sauce and dumpling wrappers.” However, after moving to Taiwan, she has explored a wider array of dishes from Eastern and South East Asia such as Pad Thai, soup dumplings, and egg or kimchi pancakes. Juliette explains that over the past few months since moving to Taiwan, there has been a strong shift in her cooking habits.

She explains “ It may stem from the fact that there’s a lot of new, exciting and relatively cheap ingredients which I’m always interested in trying, from varieties of mushrooms I didn’t even know existed to thousands of different sauces and spices which I can experiment with.”

Daryl, who is currently in Malta, prefers to cook his own cuisine from the Philippines instead of local cuisine, on the occasion that he does have the time and energy to cook. “It gives me more comfort having something familiar that reminds me of home.” Beom Seok, on the other hand, cooked European recipes whilst studying in Spain, stating: “Spain has so many kinds of food and food materials. Pork and beef are very cheap and vegetables are very fresh. They are even cheaper than in Korea.” When asked why he prefers to cook European food rather than Korean food, he replied that European recipes are easier than Asian recipes. Moreover, he would exchange recipes and cooking styles with his flat mates, each teaching each other about the food from their respected countries.

But not only does the choice of whether or not you will cook the local food or your home food depend simply on your own choice, but also the availability of ingredients. In Taiwan, Juliette found a Carrefour, a trademark French supermarket, just ten steps away from her house. However, she was surprised to find that it is primarily stocked with Chinese ingredients, with only a small international aisle replete with some very specific, nostalgically French items, many of which were overpriced, and though I do miss a good French cheese, I do not miss it enough to accept publicly giving off the impression of being a desperate, non-integrated expat, frequenting only the international sections because I turn my nose up at local cuisine.”

As many have realized, so-called “international food stores” are often relatively expensive. For example, Beom Seok explains that even though there are many Asian stores that have a variety of Korean, Japanese and Chinese food, they are around 10-20% more expensive than in Korea. He therefore brought a lot of Korean instant noodles to Barcelona, as he was worried he would not be able to find them there. “I am lucky that Malta (…) has a big Filipino expat community,” explains Daryl, expressing that he does not need to journey far in order to get a taste of home. “We have quite a few Filipino restaurants and grocery stores which cater to our needs. Obviously, I will not find everything but the common ones are here. Lately, there are a lot of Filipinos who are selling home cooked meals as well in Filipino chat groups which makes the options even more varied.”

The availability of restaurants which serve international cuisine is also something that aids in the diffusion of cultures across the world. However, the culinary level of the restaurants vary along with other factors such as price and availability. As Juliette explains, “The Taiwanese love French cuisine, or their version of it. I have had some very good experiences, some very bad experiences, and some very funny ones. In my opinion if you want really good French cuisine, you’ll have to be ready to spend quite a lot of money. Taipei has many Michelin-guide or even Michelin-starred French and French-fusion cuisine which are really incredible, but obviously not the kind of experience you can treat yourself to every day.” So when Juliette found more affordable French restaurants or cafés, she found that the food was more French-Chinese hybrid than truly French. “You ask for a savory galette, but should really be prepared to find a Chinese pancake with plain cheese and an egg on it. If you want a salad, be prepared to have it sweetened with strawberries and embellished with something resembling onion flakes but which in reality is pork floss!”

Beom Seok also experienced confusion in Barcelona when he visited a Korean restaurant, asking for a dish he knew, but receiving another one completely with the same name. Moreover, he realized that the restaurant targeted local people as the food was a lot less spicy than how it normally is in Korea with a lower quality of ingredients used. “I wanted to introduce Korean food to my friends, but could not as I was disappointed about the taste.” Likewise, Daryl has experienced the same problem where the majority of food from Asia is adapted to the European taste. “My friends and I have discussed this whenever we try Asian or Filipino cuisine that there is something different about the supposed “home food”. I am no expert with food culture of the two continents, but they are very distinct or at least to me. I guess my best example would be the level of spiciness which is usually toned down here in Europe.”

But with any new experience, knowledge is gained. For Juliette, she recommends trying the best that you can to integrate into the food customs of the country you move it as its “it’s cheaper, more exciting, and provides you with knowledge and experience you will cherish for a long time. If you feel overwhelmed by choice or don’t know where to start, you can ask a local friend to recommend their favorite foods to you, take you on a food tour or simply cook together!” She adds, “if you struggle to read menus or the labels of products in supermarkets due to language barriers, you can simply take pictures of the menu on google translate and translate directly – though this should be a last resort, try and memorize food names quickly and you’ll be able to impress locals as well as other international people!” Beom Seok also recognizes the importance of food culture integration stating, “Food culture in my opinion is very important and more so to learn another culture. This is because food culture has a historical background of each country. So don't be afraid to try other countries' food. As you become familiar with food from other counties, you can get closer to that country.”

And finally, Daryl provides our readers with these tips. “Don’t be scared to immerse yourself with your home country’s community. Also, this may sound familiar to any Filipinos but never convert whenever you buy our local ingredients. It will be heartbreaking I am sure so just buy it if you can. But also make sure you did your assignment and compared prices on different stores. “Moreover, one thing I do when I travel anywhere in Europe is I try different Filipino restaurants. For some reason, there is still difference in taste and that can be really good. But ultimately, someone new to a country or a continent shouldn’t be scared to try the local food. I think food is one great way to get to know people and the country. So just try.”

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