New Emissary

Making Food Connections

Food. We all have intimate and complex relationships with it. But what makes it such a compelling cultural issue?

I’m pretty sure I first came to notice how food is so interconnected with cultural identity through my parents’ attitudes toward it. For instance, my father—who has been a sushi chef in Canada for nearly three decades—still argues passionately how ‘incorrectly’ the food is prepared and served in Japanese restaurants there.

I remember he’d sometimes come home ranting about how he’d found non-Japanese cooks working in the kitchens serving the wrong sauce (not the thick brown traditional tonkatsu sauce, but the much lighter tempura dipping sauce instead) with fried pork cutlets, or how he was being told to cut the sashimi too thick for ‘real Japanese cuisine’ standards, or that local customers were putting too much soy sauce or wasabi on their sushi, destroying the ‘true flavours’ of the food. ‘Why don’t they just buy it at the supermarket and eat it at home?’ he’d ask, ‘Or they can go and eat that all-you-can-eat sushi. It’s the same thing.’ I admit at the time I thought it was all a bit of an overreaction.

My mother, in contrast, showed her rejection of her native culture through an open distaste for the country’s traditional cuisine. She’d prefer toast over rice for breakfast, cook pasta over soba for dinner and always seemed to make a point of arguing miso soup was ‘just salty water’ and thus poison for those like her, with high blood pressure.

Both cases have underscored for me the extremely complex relationship we all have with food. These ties can be broken down into hundreds, if not thousands of ways of thinking about the issue. There’s dieting and body image and all the implications of that on the individual or society-wide level. Then there are all those people who choose to work with food or engage it with related issues of culture, ethnicity and ethics. What makes it such a compelling cultural issue is that cuisine is something we’re forced to have contact with on some level every day.

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For example, when I spoke to Indian foodie Gaurav Jain, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and CNN and maintains a popular blog that records all of his own dining experiences in and around Mumbai, he told me that he believes Indian food ‘absolutely’ connects him to his home when he’s away for travel or work: ‘There were times when I have found nothing to eat of interest, and it’s always been easy to regress to Indian cuisine. It’s a space I know and feel comfortable with.’ Jain’s favourite Indian cuisine is north Indian, and he says he enjoys it because ‘it covers a great deal of styles, flavours and can be terrific if done right.’

So, in the first entry in a new series looking into the topic starting next week, I’ll focus on food and identity in India, speaking not only to some of the best-known Indian food experts and authors around, but also to locals who will share their experiences and feelings about their nation’s food. Combining the theoretical with the everyday, I’m hoping to shed some light on the connections between people and food in one of the biggest and most dynamic countries in the world.