Eat! It Creates Cultural Understanding

Last week, biscuit in hand, brötchen in belly and face smeared with the remnants of another chocolate themed post-dinner treat, I hit a wall. I ran into that sucker chocolatey face first and rubbed my plump little limbs all over it, begging it to, for once and for all, come between me and German bakeries. To stand firm in the entrance of those fragrant, starch-proffering havens, blocking the scent of fresh baked Laugenstange and sugar-dusted, jam-fattened Berliners. To put an end to this frenetic, sweaty, crackly-with-chemistry love affair with bread that has been ruling my life for eighteen months.

I have been bread, biscuit, chocolate and lolly free for eight days now. It had to happen. The turkey had to freeze. There have been times I have come within a whisker of hitting the aforementioned wall, but at the last moment, veered off and landed in a pot of cheese smeared bread rolls or comforting, creamy pasta. Each time, I simply haven’t wanted to detach myself from the baker’s teat, enough. I have been sucked back in for one more big, soft, white, salted, pretezelly bread stick. But this time I was ready to, shaky of hand, put down the biscuit and step away. Seven days off the starch, I have to say, I feel marvellous.

But all of that is by the by. Overhauling what has come to be a very comfort food based diet and less than ideal routine, got me thinking about the whole food thing. More specifically, the whole food thing when travelling and living in another country and culture is involved. Because food and culture are best friends, life partners, soul mates.

Discovering the way other cultures eat is one of the greatest pleasures of travelling (arguably life). Eating locally, and with locals, stumbling upon a city’s delicious secrets, learning what countries consider the staples of daily life, is a constant delight, one that forms a great deal of travel’s backbone. Oh sure, I may have gained a good whack of weight, but I am utterly without regret. I do not begrudge one of those German pommes drenched in mayo, or one bite of those Belgian waffles. I refuse to hate on any piping hot ceramic bowl of moussaka Greece has fed me, or berate those long digested Lindt pralines. And I would wedge in ten more New York slices if I could and wash it down with a big old Mexican fajita and some fried camenbert at the drop of a hat, if I were to find myself, once more, in New York, Mexico or New Zealand.

Waffles in Amsterdam.
Belgian fries.
Fried fish in North Germany.

When you are in the midst of somewhere new and wonderful, you want to try it all. You want to have your cake and eat the specially seasoned chicken with a side dish of cool, crunchy Weißkraut, too. And you should. Eating and travelling go hand in hand. Whole cultures are unlocked by examining what it is they put in their bellies and when and how they do it. And entire friendships are born over a table of typical produce. Food is both a huge part of how we culturally define ourselves and how we socially interact – within and across cultures. It is a glorious, all encompassing thing that traverses almost each facet – biological, cultural, social and emotional – of being human. And, quite apart from the anthropology of it all, who knows when you will be back in that city that serves up chocolate crepes on every street corner. Get it while the going’s good!

Things with food step up a notch – heat up, you could say – when you move to a different country. Settling into a new culture involves settling into a new cuisine, one that may be wildly or mildly different to your own, but a new one nevertheless. Things you may have eaten plenty of in the past may not be readily available in your new local supermarket, or a popular feature on local menus. In their place, however, other delicious things will be readily available – things like salty, saucy schnitzel! – and these things will become staples at the expense of those your metabolism is more accustomed to. It’s all part of the process.

Chocolate covered EVERYthing at a fair in Münster.
Cheese in Holland

Along with the brand new smorgasbord to familiarise oneself with, one’s food habits change. One thing I really had to adjust to, in the early days and before I reclaimed my own routine enough to reestablish my own eating rules (and yes reclaiming routines and habits is as big a part of moving countries as anything) was eating late. It’s a European thing and more marked in some countries than others (Spain, I am looking at you). In the 2 months I lived with my German parents, before moving into my apartment in Münster, not only did I eat like a lamb being fattened for slaughter, but I did it two or three hours after my Australian stomach was used to shutting up shop for the night. I would love to be the kind of person who shovels in a 10 o’clock dinner of cream on carb and sleeps like a baby, awakening with a flat, empty stomach ready to go again the next day, but I am not. I need to eat dinner between 6 and 7pm and then, save for cups of tea and a few little sweet things, put out the Closed sign. I snatched that habit back as soon as I could.

And the last thing I have found – through serious field work – is that, really, you need to get it out of your system. You cannot stop until you are ready, so sometimes – or in my case, anyway – there is no point trying. There’s no point being restrictive and mean to your little belly who just isn’t yet sick of Doppelkekse  with tea or unbelievably good schnitzel being a menu staple. Ride it out. Enjoy it. Get deeply, intimately acquainted with the way your new home eats, because that’s the way you will get deeply and intimately acquainted with its heart.

Trust me – and my belly – we would know.

A Danish hotdog.
Fresh cherry pies in Amsterdam.
A banana split in Bavaria.
Schnitzel!
Tomato balls from Santorini

16 thoughts on “Eat! It Creates Cultural Understanding

  1. Those are some Glorious treats! And finger-lickin good pictures. I am steadily working my way through the German goodies, but hope to try them all…someday.

  2. Germany/Holland/Belgium = homes of the treat. Pies, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, bread … they have never tasted so good!

  3. Mouth-watering post and photos! This rings very true to me (English, living in France – I was working my way through a pain au chocolat while I was reading this. Not a healthy breakfast option, but too good to turn my back on). Many of my closest friendships here have been made and cemented around the dinner table, and an appreciation of French cuisine and regional specialities in particular is always highly valued. As is a willingness to taste anything they care to put in front of you, which often seems to come as a surprise to French hosts who know that as a nation we can be a bit squeamish about food. It can occasionally be a challenge in a country where they try to ensure that no part of an animal goes to waste, but also leads to tasty discoveries that I would never have made in England – grilled pigs’ ears or duck hearts fried with garlic and parsley, for example, both of which are delicious. Not always easy to convince visitors to give them a go though!

    I did and still do miss certain foods that are not so readily available here, such as cottage cheese and sausages prepared the British way, but like you say, new foods will be there to replace them, and it is all part of the process. On the other hand, I have also become accustomed to eating much later in the evening now, and when I go back to the UK, my poor belly is not always ready to accommodate a large meal at 6 in the evening, or drinks in the pub straight afterwards!

    I just found your blog, and am really enjoying reading it. Thank you 🙂

    1. Phwoar, duck hearts? You are so much braver than I am. I can’t even stomach a simple pig’s joint hahaha. The eating late thing I just cannot do, as much as I wish I could – too many years having early dinners! It does get trickier in the summer, when it is so light for so long, you feel dinner is lunch and when it gets dark you should have another dinner haha.

  4. I do my best but I’m ashamed to say I’m a timid eater, even here in the States. I’m getting better as I get older, but I’m going to Scotland in a few months and haggis will be right OUT.

    1. I am quite timid as well, I think – in that I wouldn’t eat pigeon, dog, horse etc etc and I really don’t think I could do haggis. I am timid with my meats, that’s what it is! Everything else, bring it on!

  5. I remember flinging along a very, VERY similar line as I ate my way through Europe last year… ”but I *have* to eat these fries smothered in mayonnaise. IT’S A CULTURAL EXPERIENCE! Sure, you can purchase Lindt chocolate in Australia, but hey… I’m in Switzerland! I *must* inhale a block right now… IT’S A CULTURAL EXPERIENCE!”

    Lovely (and delicious-looking!) photographs 🙂

  6. I couldn’t agree more. I love to eat my way through a country. Spanish food, I have found, is my weakness – I could make myself sick on it, but it’s soooooo worth it.

  7. Agreed! Some tasty treats you got on this post. It is so hard to get off the habit of eating some things once you have tried them, Dutch cheeses, chocolate (real), etc. The German bakeries were a huge temptation when I went to Germany!

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