From Turkish Çiğ Köfte to Indian Paneer Butter Masala and Thai Pad Phak to Nepali Chowmein, we Spicyroad members all have a special place in our hearts for certain dishes from our journey. Each of these dishes (and many more that we’ve tried), are no longer simply “meals” in our minds; to us, they carry so many fond memories from our travels and remind us of the people and things we love from each country. Although not everyone has the opportunity to travel around the world the way we do, you don’t necessarily have to in order to connect to other cultures – you can do it simply by trying a new culture’s cuisine. In this way, food bridges cultural divides, which is what I would like to reflect upon in this article.
People have always looked down upon those that are different from them, but these days, peoples’ fear of the unknown is breeding more violence and hatred than ever in the 21st century. After all of the truly inhumane acts of terror and shootings across the globe in recent years, more and more countries are closing their borders to immigrants and refugees, out of fear. With all of this, as well as with the hateful rhetoric coming from many conservative, right-wing politicians and media in particular, we’ve forgotten that these people that are trying to enter our countries are just that. People. Yes, they may look different from you and yes, they may act differently because of the culture that they grew up in but at their core they have similar hopes, dreams and ambitions to you and me. But how can we remind ourselves of this? How can we change this mindset so as to not build up a fear of outsiders? It’s not an easy question for sure, but there are solutions and from my experience, sitting down and sharing a meal is one of the most relaxed, enjoyable and effective ways to do so.
The concept of food bridging the gap between people of different cultures is a concept that some of us understand in theory, but one that I never truly understood in practice until I began this Spicyroad journey. Sure, food brings us together because we ALL – no matter your age, gender, race, religion, sexuality or whatever else, need food to survive. And sure, eating food from another culture allows one to expand their culinary horizons and get a taste (pun intended) of a world that differs from their own. But as I have come to realise, eating and/or preparing a meal with someone can do so much more than that.
Allow me to explain.
As part of our Spicyroad project, we often used to host small, international cooking events called (M)Eat-Ups. The aim of these events was to invite local couchsurfers to come together and prepare a traditional meal from their home country to share with all of the people who attend. Apart from being a fun evening that included a buffet of delicious food from across the globe, it also gave us Spicyroad members the chance to collect the recipes we needed to fulfill the food aspect of our mission. All of our (M)Eat-Ups have been very successful, as we have been able to taste dishes and collect recipes from Poland, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Georgia, Korea, India, Italy, Ukraine, Germany, Australia and Russia (just to name a few!). We were also very fortunate to stay with hosts or friends who were especially passionate about food and loved to share their culture through the meals they taught us how to prepare. With each new dish from each new country, I learned about people and different regions of the world in a new and unique way.
For example, at our very first (M)Eat-Up in Warsaw, when one of our guests first presented a slightly bizarre (yet surprisingly delicious) dish from his home in Catalonia, I was initially confused. Catalonia? Is that a country I have never heard of? As I would soon learn, Catalonia is a region in northeastern Spain and as I spoke to our guest while he prepared his dish, I came to learn a lot more about this region previously un-beknownst to me; about it’s exciting Castell building festivals, unique language and cuisine, as well as its dramatic political past and strong sense of nationalism because of it.
You might be thinking: “But how is the food itself responsible for one learning all of this? Isn’t most of this information the kind of thing that you can read about online or in books?” That may be true, however the difference is this: the food provided me with the opportunity. The opportunity not only to learn and connect with someone and their culture by listening to them, but also through seeing them, smelling, tasting and touching the food that they prepared. By engaging all 5 senses, the learning process becomes so much more dynamic and I am better able to retain the information presented to me. Not to mention, preparing a meal with a stranger provides time for two or more people to get to know one another, and the relaxed nature of the activity provides fertile grounds for interesting conversation. More importantly though, the effort that someone puts into willingly preparing a meal for another person can translate into something even more powerful: love.
Although there is an infinite amount of information available to us these days (and all just a quick tap on our smartphones away), the love that comes with a home-cooked meal is what creates a desire within us to learn. When I look back at each of the recipe cards I’ve made, I’m reminded of the sweet, caring nature of the person who cooked the dish for me. The time and effort they took to prepare something for me to try, I see as a genuine gift. Such a gift then makes me care about the other person and want to learn more about where they come from and that is something we sure as hell need in today’s world of fearing the unknown. And that is exactly what our Spicyroad project is all about.
Of course, I’m not saying that strangers making each other food will eliminate humanity’s fear and subsequent hate towards the unknown and therefore solve all of the world’s problems. But maybe, just maybe if more European families chose to share a meal with a family of Syrian refugees from time to time, we could certainly be off to a delicious start!