In my CRS400 class last week, I finally tried Ethiopian food. As a foodie and connoisseur of anything spicy, I thought that trying Ethiopian food would have come a lot earlier. Nevertheless, it was fantastic.
My class and I dined at Addis Restaurant, a local Ethiopian restaurant near the Kings Cross train station in London, UK. From the moment we walked in, we were surrounded by unique African décor, and could smell the amazing food cooking in the kitchen. Our waitress briefed us on how to eat Ethiopian food, which is often done communally around small circular tables, and to my surprise, with your fingers. The dishes are each served atop a crepe-like pancake called an Injera, which allows the juices and seasoning to steep the bread for maximum flavor.
The dishes were wonderful, and by the time the infamous Ethiopian coffee was served, I had tried lamb, chicken, beef, lentils, and so much more. My love for spicy food had been satisfied and I had added another culture’s food to my ongoing list of foreign cuisine. However, this made me wonder about my own culture’s food—cuisine in America—and whether people had the same immersive experience I had trying Ethiopian food.
Unfortunately, my perception of American cuisine is characterized by greasy and fattening foods that can be produced cheap and in large quantities. I immediately think of McDonalds, Burger King, and other health-diminishing chains that contribute to America’s growing obesity problem and our cultural ignorance towards nutrition. As Americans, we “super-size” everything, and create inordinate portions that foreshadow health concerns. Ironically, one of the things I noticed while studying in London was how packed American chains such as McDonald’s were at all hours of the day. I thought to myself that surely Europeans knew how bad it was for them, however, every McDonald’s I have seen is more crowded than those in the United States.
Of course, there are certain American foods for which I am proud and feel a close cultural bond, however, because of the lack of culture surrounding American food and a national emphasis on fast food, I tend to hold no significant beliefs when it comes to American food.
Having a meal such as that at Addis Restaurant, I felt for one of the first times in my life, that the servers of the food had a connection with what they were serving us. The way they poured the coffee and described each dish highlighted the importance of food within their culture. Moreover, it illuminated the fact that Americans generally place little importance on food. Yes, the United States is filled with millions of restaurants and diverse food, but these foods are brought to America by other cultures, and shared as tokens of immigrants’ heritage. As a result of this culinary diversity, I have become adaptive to other foods. Living in Washington, D.C., a city characterized by diplomats and a diverse population, I have grown up next to foreign restaurants. Perhaps this is why I have such an affinity for Indian, Thai, and Lebanese food.
Because of my American heritage and my country’s national ignorance when it comes to food, I am indifferent when other people reject American food. I have been in situations where I have been the foreigner rejecting someone else’s food, and it is quite unpleasant (Note: never reject an Italian’s food). I recognize that there are some foods which one may not wish to eat, and thus, I am understanding of someone rejecting a culture’s food.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned at last week’s lunch was that food is often a vehicle for cultural interaction. It evokes emotion, creates social gatherings, and provides outsiders with a window into a specific culture or ritual. While pride and appreciation for my culture’s food may be negligible, I can appreciate other cultures that do place emphasis on their native cuisine. Although part of me wishes Americans valued food as an integral part of their culture, we can enjoy other cultures through their foreign cuisine.