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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Dining Out: An Anthropological and Cultural Appreciation of Eating & Food

Source: Britain's Multicultural Cuisine by Oli Soden 

With people working increasingly busy lives and the economy that is forever changing, there has always been a necessity to eat. Finding food to eat is both straightforward, challenging and time-consuming. With so much variety to choose from and restaurants, take- aways, fast food places offering different types of menus from different regions of the world, narrowing it down to just one is dependent on a number of factors: pricing of the food, location and distance of travel to the establishment, how much you are going to pay, are you dining by yourself or with others? Do you go for food that you are familiar with, having eaten it before and liking it so much...., or do you go out of your comfort zone and be more experimental & try out new dishes? Are you into one type of cuisine, or are you open to anything, or everything?   

So in that respect, there is a lot to take into consideration when it comes to deciding where you want to go and eat out. 

In early 1970s Britain, our relationship with eating out, & dining in restaurants was not done out of pleasure. You had to have a lot of money to be able to afford to go to a restaurant. 

(above: 4 friends raise a glass during a meal at Sloop John B's at Chelsea Pier, 1974, photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images) 

It wasn't until immigrants arrived in Britain, as well as in the US, Australia, Canada and parts of central and North America that we developed a taste and an appreciation for eating out and that it later became more widespread. They opened take- aways and restaurants and they were bringing over inexpensive, varied and interesting ingredients and dishes from afar to us. They were bringing their food culture to us; in doing so, they helped democratize and diversify the Western dining experience. They made us realize that eating out in public doesn't have to be (overly) extortionate, that eating out doesn't have to be a social class thing, and yet at the same time, you can enjoy foods from around the world, without having to spends lots of money or go abroad to sample them. 

Being bombarded with so many choices, not only means everyone won't be eating the same type of foods as each other at the same culinary establishment, but that in addition, we all have different tastes towards various regional foods. It's just a nice feeling to be in a country - especially in a country, where you have different immigrant communities in your area and that the multicultural aspect of the population also reflects the abundance of Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Italian food available. In Britain, we have Indian, Italian, Chinese, Turkish with French, Portuguese, Japanese & Spanish at the bottom in terms of popularity whereas in the US, you have traditional American cuisine, Mexican, Tex-Mex and Southern followed by Cajun, BBQ and steaks. As for Chinese, it is currently America's most popular ethnic cuisine. 

Sources: China Highlights, BBC

It's pretty interesting how Indian food is really popular with Brits and Mexican food is huge with Americans, considering as a) both Indian and Mexican food are known for their hot & fiery spices and b) that Brits and Americans each have their own spicy overseas equivalent - i.e. Indian curries with Naan bread for Brits and Mexican enchiladas, tortillas for Americans. 

For Bell Hooks, mass culture presents the idea of the enjoyment of racial difference; this is known as the commodification of 'otherness'. She described ethnicity as a 'spice', a seasoning that can liven up a dish that is mainstream 'White culture' (Moore, et al Rubin 72). 

Food is a culture in a general sense - but food can also be a cultural and racial code to signify ourselves, where we are from, our heritage, upbringing & sense of belonging to that culture, of our roots, ethnic, historical and family ties. Food can develop into a cultural product that isn't devoid of geography and the pursuit of enjoyment & pleasure. It speaks to us on so many levels, not so much in terms of dieting. By enjoying the food we eat, do we understand and appreciate that culture & the significance of the migrant community those dishes had originated from. As well as in realizing why certain groups and nations are known for or associated with eating certain foods. For the Chinese, it is said that we eat 'anything with 2 legs - except humans' and anything with 4 legs - except a bed. Chinese eat many other things besides rice, noodles, meat, seafood (26). 

In an article by Robert A. Leonard Ph.D and Wendy Maliba, they state that food is ''an important part of who you are. The food you eat, and how you eat it, can identify you as a member of a group. And further identify what smaller group you belong to within that group''. If you eat with a knife and fork, you are a Westerner, if you eat with chopsticks, then you must be Chinese, Japanese, Korean or of East Asian descent. The concept of race and ethnicity is linked to food, a country's eating habits, as well as nationality (Marshall, 2014). 

In the BBC4 documentary Spicing Up Britain, Kenneth Lo once said the use of Chopsticks by the Chinese goes back to the days of Confucius. He said ''a man of virtue will never live or go near the kitchen or slaughter house, because he didn't want to hear the killing of animals or see the meat being sliced up''. Therefore, the Chinese felt it wasn't right to cut up & consume meat with a knife and fork at the dining table, and so they used chopsticks instead of a knife and fork. 

Things such as Chinese roast pork, roast duck, chicken, during preparation were cooked as whole, were sliced into pieces, put on a plate and served with a dipping sauce. 

Leonard and Maliba further highlighted 3 food - type concepts that each examined its significance and role in each culture. These are:

Indispensable foods - foods that are used to form a complete meal. For Americans and British people, meat with a type of vegetable or vegetables and perhaps a sauce or gravy to make the dish less dry and enhance the taste & flavours. 

Emblem foods - foods that are identified as the 'main foods' of that culture by outsiders of that culture. Examples of Emblem foods would be Sweet and Sour chicken or pork, egg fried rice, chow mein, egg rolls, Chop Suey - and yet many of these dishes are rarely eaten by native and overseas Chinese. 

Insider foods - foods that people within that culture eat and those who are not of that culture or race either do not eat or of whom don't eat much of. Examples of insider foods include Dim Sum for Chinese, Kimchi for Koreans, Serbian and Scandinavian cuisine. 

Our food choices are influenced by many different factors: cultural, religious, economic, availability, education and knowledge; the main reason we eat is out of hunger and to avoid starvation. We eat to survive; because if we don't eat at all, or there isn't enough food available and/or we go without food for years, we would die as a result. We are sometimes tempted by our urge to eat food that contains fat and sugar that for those who are overweight and obese, eating too many sugary and fatty foods would lead to heart attacks, strokes, other diseases and later on, death. 

Therefore, health very much plays a role alongside food - it's not just about the food we eat, but also, the types of food we eat and how much of it we consume. With food, there has to be a balance when it comes to human consumption. 

Dining out used to be for upper-middle class White couples, families, working individuals serving traditional fine dining, British/English/Western cuisine. The arrival of migrants however dispelled this idea, and by opening up more and more eating establishments serving dishes from many parts of the globe, eating out was less to do with money - even though it is still expensive to eat out today - and was more about being appreciative of the various cultures; food-wise, as well as ethnically and nationality - speaking. For the owners of these restaurants, it was their way to earn a living as a business & to financially support their families- yet they had to find ways to adjust to the British lifestyle and way of life. They did this by creating, serving and selling food, to suit the taste buds of non- ethnic people (or be it people outside of their ethnic group). 

By having these restaurants & enticing us to dine out, migrants have helped transform the Western eating and dining experience; in turn, it has become a Western multicultural eating experience, encouraging us to try out foods we never had encountered before, and of which we may not have enjoyed eating beforehand. Culturally, it has become a more accepting way for us to get to understand and learn about their country's roots through the food and by devouring it. The desire to build a better life in a new country for themselves and their families on a social and wider level, have not only impacted and changed the way we dine out.... 

But it has become instrumental for migrants and ethnic communities to enable us to usher in and assimilate ourselves into a wider part of our multicultural societies. 

  • Food and Chinese Culture: Essays on Popular Cuisine
  • Raising The Bar: The Complicated Consumption of Chocolate - Food For Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture
  • Spicing Up Britain: How Eating Out Went Exotic, BBC2, 2015 
  • Why Do you Eat The Food You Eat, Margaret Marshall, 16 September 2014 
  • Why Do We Eat What We Eat: Food Choice a Complex Behavior, 2004

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