Updated: Mar 18, 2022
When my family gathers to have dinner, we call everyone from around the house into the kitchen, and one of my parents asks “Who would like to pray?” We bow our heads and thank the Lord for our food. We then fill our own plates in the kitchen, grab utensils, and move to the dining room, each to his designated seat at the table. Our dinner ranges from foreign cuisine to exactly what my mother ate growing up. Does this sound similar to your own mealtime? Many who grew up in the U.S. will say it does. Those with other backgrounds might share a meal quite differently.
Though many cultures have set eating customs, many families will expand or add to it. My sisters and I sang almost constantly growing up, so we did have one unique rule: no singing at the table. We also didn’t usually have beverages while we ate. Eating and dining customs vary from culture to culture, which includes country to country, city to city, and family to family. How do they vary across the globe? Let's dive into food cultures around the world.
Any American readers will most likely picture Chinese takeout at the mention of this cuisine. While the dishes served in the U.S. do carry many trademarks, there is more to the Chinese food tradition. A Chinese meal consists of two components: the “staple food”, or fan, normally rice, noodles, or steamed buns, and ts'ai, vegetable and meat dishes. Rice is the staple of choice in southern China, because rice farming is concentrated in the south, while wheat is grown in the north and hence noodles are usually the fan. Dairy is used minimally in cooking, and ginger, garlic, and red pepper are common spices (Chang). When sharing a meal, the Chinese prioritize the elderly and guests; both are served before others, and dishes are arranged to set the best ones in front of them (www.travelchinaguide.com). Well-known for inventing chopsticks, China has spread the utensils to several other Asian countries.
Indian cuisine is another that has been brought overseas and into other cultures. Common dishes include rice, breads, and strong, pungent, and oftentimes colorful sauces like curry. Traditional Indian culture, instead of having its own distinct cutlery, is characterized by eating with the hands. “Food is meant to be a whole sensory experience,” and touch is added to taste and smell. However, Indians commonly consider the left hand as unclean, and so do not use it to eat (Win). Sorry, lefties. Mealtimes occur when the majority of family members are home and prefer to eat, as the Indian culture prizes family (Fuller).
Similar to Indian food, Ethiopian meals are typically eaten using one’s hands. Porous injera, fermented bread that looks much like a pancake, is used to scoop up sauces and stews; you then pop the whole morsel into your mouth (Lynch).
Being invited to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a sign of respect and friendship, and this ritualistic roasting, grinding, and brewing of coffee can occur up to three times a day. It is customary for the woman of the house --or perhaps a younger woman-- to make the coffee, while her guests socialize. She often spreads green reeds and flowers on the ground where she’ll work, and the whole process can take up to three hours (Goodwin). However, the Ethiopians believe this time-consuming process to be well-spent, as coffee is integral to (and originated in) their culture.
Brazilian food is the product of three cultures merging. The indigenous people had access to the foods native to Brazil --cacao, nuts, and fruits. From the conquering Portuguese came cattle, pigs, salt cod, sugar, and coffee. African slaves brought rice --and more importantly, resourcefulness. In using what they had, the Africans created and doctored and adapted dishes. They are most responsible for Brazil’s modern cuisine. The national alcohol of Brazil, Cachaça, was created by the Africans with the runoff of sugar. A variation of a Portuguese dish is now the national food (Pegler). This dish, called feijoada, consists of a black bean and pork stew served over rice (Findley). History has a heavy hand to play in how culture forms, and this is very clearly demonstrated in Brazilian food tradition.
Colombian food, like most South and Central American menus, is heavily laden with starches and carbs: potatoes, corn, and rice are the top ingredients. Anyone who has seen Disney’s Encanto will remember the arepa, a fried corn patty, often filled. Poultry is preferred to other meats. Lunch is the main meal of the Colombian day and prioritized as a communal meal. Dinner is often not served until 8 P.M. This is also true for many other Latino cultures (Alexandria).
The French are careful to savor their meal. It is much more than energy or nutrition. They make sure to take their time enjoying each component of each dish. In fact, the French generally do not eat in transit. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are taken at table, without rushing. Restaurants are open during mealtimes only. Snacking throughout the day is also uncommon. Lunch, the largest meal of the day, is around noon, and the French are not wont to eat again until dinner, around 8 P.M. This is why though bread, cheese, pasta, and chocolate are staples of the french diet, the French are generally fit. Food is not abused, it is savored (Rider).
From mealtimes to manners, traditions, and the food itself, each country has adapted its cuisine to match its culture, or perhaps in some cases, the culture has sprung from food tradition! What do your family's or community's customs look like at mealtime? Let us know in the comments!
Alexandria. “Colombian Food: Background and Food Culture.” The Foreign Fork, 4 Mar. 2020, https://foreignfork.com/recipes/southamerica/colombian-food/.
Chang, K. C. “Food in Chinese Culture.” Asia Society, 2 Sept. 2008, https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/food-chinese-culture.
“Chinese Food Culture.” Chinese Food Culture: Table Manners, Dining Etiquette, https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/cuisine.htm.
“A Comprehensive Guide to Indian Cuisine: List of Popular Indian Dishes by Region and Type - 2022.” MasterClass, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/all-about-indian-cuisine-the-most-popular-dishes-and-where-to-start#is-indian-food-healthy.
Findley, Jessica. “Brazilian Food and Customs.” The Windup Space, https://thewindupspace.com/brazilian-food-and-customs/.
Fuller, Kim. “Eating Habits in the Indian Culture.” Synonym, 26 June 2018, https://classroom.synonym.com/eating-habits-in-the-indian-culture-12083298.html.
Goodwin, Lindsey. “Everything to Know about an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony.” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 11 Apr. 2019, https://www.thespruceeats.com/ethiopian-coffee-ceremony-765830.
Lynch, Lily. “Traditions in Ethiopian Food Culture.” SANKARA, 19 Nov. 2019, https://sankaracuisine.com/blog/2019/11/18/traditions-in-ethiopian-food-culture/.
Pegler, James. “Brazilian Food Culture.” Outwardon.com, 2017, https://outwardon.com/article/brazilian-food-culture/.
Rider, Anna. “The Strange French Food Habits That Confuse Foreigners.” French Together, 6 Sept. 2021, https://frenchtogether.com/french-eating-habits/.
Win, May Malar. “Indian Eating Habits, Foods and Custom.” Spice Garden, 4 May 2018, https://www.spicegardenrestaurant.com/indian-eating-habits-foods-and-custom/.