Food Culture and Globalization

We live in a globalized world and it takes no stretch of the imagination to picture a traveling businessman having bacon and eggs for breakfast in New York City, a plate of pasta on his layover in Rome, and finishing the day out with a traditional Middle Eastern dinner in Dubai.


The world is open to us and that includes the world's vast diversity of flavors and cuisines.


There has always been an exchange of food culture and knowledge when two different cultures would meet. From the black pepper trade of the ancient Romans to the introduction of potatoes from the New World into Irish cuisine, new flavors and cooking techniques were often incorporated into cuisines as a way to add a bit of interest.


It can often be hard to draw the line between what is truly "traditional" and what parts of a food culture have been influenced by outside forces.


Today though, in our incredibly globalized world, it's not just pieces of the cuisine that travel, in the form of ingredients or single recipes, but the entire cuisine as a whole.


Immigrants bring their traditional food cultures with them, travelers seek out the flavors they encountered halfway around the globe when they return back home, and even those people who might never leave the borders of their own country seek out a bit of adventure while browsing the "international cuisine" section of their local restaurant guide.


Finding “ethnic” food from around the world is easy in most big cities


Food cultures truly have spread to the point where you can now find Mexican restaurants in Northern Thailand, Japanese sushi in the Middle East, and the all-American cheeseburger served up at a street food cart in a small, remote Amazonian city.


As our world becomes more and more connected, food culture is no longer tied down to where it originated from and can spread far and wide.


While it does seem incredible that you can eat traditional Indian curry while sitting in the middle of someplace like Berlin, it's important that we don't forget that the international foods we eat, no matter how far they have traveled or how much they have become a norm in our communities, have their own "cultural DNA."


It is far too easy for us to forget this point and to strip the cuisines of their true history.


We must remember where our food has come from, not just physically by tracing back to the farms where the produce was grown, but culturally by acknowledging the generations of people who developed and perfected the cuisines.


When you appreciate a food's cultural DNA as much as you appreciate its basic flavors, you honor the people who created it.


When you don't appreciate it, you run into problems and risk "culturally whitewashing" the cuisine.

As we encounter new cuisines, it is easy for trends to develop, driving interest to certain cuisines in particular.


Mexican restaurants seem to be found in every city in North America, no matter how small, and the sushi craze has made Japanese cuisine one of the most profitable restaurant categories.


However, as trends drive money, it is easy for a food's cultural DNA to be overlooked in an effort to turn a profit. 


How authentic is the sushi or international cuisine found in major cities of the world?


In New York City, it is estimated that 85% of all the Japanese restaurants are owned and run by non-Japanese chefs and owners. This trend has caused, in many cases, a loss in the authenticity of the cuisine. How "authentic" do you really think that spicy tuna roll is?


In an effort to benefit from the Japanese trend, other Asian cuisines are even being relabeled "Japanese" to grab customer's interest. There have been cases of Korean or Chinese restaurants passing themselves and their dishes off as Japanese, hoping to join the Japanese food bandwagon.


Japan has started to take notice of this and, in an effort to preserve the authenticity of their cuisine abroad, have opened up new work visas aimed specifically at training foreign chefs in the TRUE art of Japanese cuisine.


Even when a food's cultural DNA is left intact and when the dishes remain authentic, it can be hard for a cuisine to stay true to its roots halfway around the world from where it was born.


While true, authentic Mexican restaurants can be found all over the world, the food has often lost its local heritage. Mexico is a large country and each region has its own unique dishes but when you transfer the cuisine as a whole, say to China, you often lose this regional diversity.


A burrito is a burrito, a taco is a taco - at least to people who have not had much experience with Mexican cuisine. The subtle differences between the Northern and Southern Mexican flavors, or the uniqueness of each community's mole, is forgotten and overlooked.


Recipes are boiled down to the bare basics of each dish and the real diversity of the cuisine is lost.

Despite the difficulty of preserving a food's cultural DNA as it travels, we can at least preserve the cuisine back home, where it was born, right?


Well, here globalization takes another swipe at the efforts to preserve the uniqueness and diversity of the world's cuisines. Globalization inevitably brings with it corporate capitalism and, as most of the power of corporations lies in the West, Westernization.


Traditional foods and recipes are being replaced by multinational food imports


We are happy to take cuisines and spread them around the globe - the unique flavors and ingredients grab people's attention, increasing profits.


This is a one way street though in many places.


International cuisines brought in by foreign corporations are marketed as new, interesting, and different while at the same time traditional cuisines are marketed as old, tired, and often times less healthy or simply too time-consuming to prepare.


Despite the fact that sushi and Japanese food has taken over as a much-loved global cuisine, recent studies in Japan have found that many school children there are more easily able to identify hamburgers and pizza vs. traditional Japanese dishes.


In Bolivia, as corporations buy up all the quinoa crops to import to health-conscious consumers in the United States or Europe, Western products are now being marketed to local Bolivians as healthier, tastier, and more importantly, as luxury goods.


Globalization has opened up the vast diversity of food cultures around the world. Many international cuisines can no longer even be called foreign in the major cities of the world, with endless options from Peruvian food trucks in New York City to Michelin-starred French restaurants in Hong Kong.


This shift, from local to global food, is impacting not only what we eat but how to define and understand our own food cultures.


There may come a point where food cultures have blended and overlapped so much that finding their roots, their cultural DNA, is impossible.


Before that happens, let us appreciate and remember the people who gave us these delicious cuisines, the cultures whose chefs have, over generations, perfected the flavors and techniques of their recipes, and the communities who have openly shared their unique food with the world.