My husband Paul and I recently returned from Richmond, BC, in Canada, where almost three quarters of the population is Asian, and I consumed my body weight in Chinese food. Hong Kong style. Szechuan. Chiu Chao. Mandarin. Taiwanese. Pineapple buns when I got up, dim sum for lunch, a steaming bowl of soup in the afternoon, and then a full meal at night.
And never once did I see a bowl of rice on the table. Once, a waitperson asked if I would like a bowl of rice, but, when I looked around me at the Asian diners, I saw that none of them were eating rice, so I politely declined.
After my first three or four rice-less meals, I decided to ask Chinese diners why rice was so conspicuously absent.
“It’s no longer in fashion,” one of them told me.
“Rice is yesterday,” another replied.
“Ask the man in the green shirt at our table. He is expert at ordering. He will have a good answer.”
“You mean he does all the ordering for you?” I asked.
“Yes. It is a very important skill. He knows how to balance the foods and make the right choices.”
Suddenly, it was no longer about rice. It was not about ordering food from a menu. I was having a Chinese immersion experience in Richmond. And it was about food as culture.
People are obsessed with food. The Travel Channel has morphed into a channel about consuming everything grand or gross that walks, crawls, swims, slithers, leaps, flies, creeps, sprouts, or is concocted in a kitchen. And folks depart for trips armed with a list of restaurants where they want to eat, and foods they want to sample.
In addition to providing new taste sensations, eating food from other cultures can be a way into the thoughts, beliefs, and values of people who belong to that culture.
We can learn what wealthy people eat, and what foods are consumed by the impecunious. Some dining options are chosen for status, and others for sustainability. We can observe who sits where at a table—are the men all grouped together? If a table is rectangular, who sits at the head of it? Who does the ordering? Who is served first? What is the history of the comestibles? Were they first consumed by royals or warriors? Are certain foods believed to bring long life, good luck, sexual prowess, or attract love? What begins a meal, and what ends it? Is there a balance of sweet and sour, like life itself? Is cooking communal, or a solitary act? Is dining in restaurants a big part of the culture, or do people usually eat at home? How about gender equality: who does the cooking, and who cleans the dishes? Do diners linger over the meal, or eat quickly?
On the island of Yap, in Micronesia, Paul and I were invited to the home of a local politician for dinner. We inquired at our hotel about what would be an appropriate gift. Wine? Candy? Cake? We were told that a beetle nut branch would be the best choice. And a staff member obliged by cutting a branch for us so we could bring the legal, widely-used mild narcotic along. We ordered a cab, and were deposited in an area in the middle of a jungle. The politician never showed up, and his family never introduced themselves. When it came time to eat, we were served scrumptious fresh fish wrapped in banana leaves, but there were no utensils. And no one else was eating. We exchanged quizzical looks, and then Paul and I dug in with our hands. There was nothing to drink, so we finally asked if we could have some liquid. A young man shimmied up a tree and gave us a coconut. There was no straw, and he showed us how to jerk back our heads and drink from the shell.
When we finished eating, the family ate. Without them explaining anything, we understood that guests were honored, and no one would think of dining until the latter had consumed their meal. As we relaxed into the situation, they relaxed too. We laughed and talked about food and food customs and it was both a delicious and a deliciously memorable dining event.
In my experience, people love talking about food, and if you ask a few questions, they will be happy to open the culinary door to understanding more of their culture.
At the end of a meal, you can fill your belly, your mind, and your heart—which is the best way to travel.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer, blogger, speaker, teacher, and author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the newly-released THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ. Contact her at email@example.com.