Food Experiences from Around the World

It is true that food satisfies one of our biggest biological needs, and that on a basic sustenance and survival level, stimulus from food provides a hit of dopamine from the ol’ brain. But food experiences can also be and do so much more, from fostering profound levels of understanding and feeling, to creating connections and commonalities through shared experiences. 

I am currently grappling with the nuances of to be and to be (or, estar and ser in Spanish).  If you check with my tutor, I am certain she would say it is not a pretty process. Fortunately for myself and travelers alike, food is a universal language we do not have to overthink in order to experiment and engage with it, or even derive joy and amusement from it. 

It is true that food satisfies one of our biggest biological needs, and that on a basic sustenance and survival level, stimulus from food provides a hit of dopamine from the ol’ brain. But food experiences can also be and do so much more, from fostering profound levels of understanding and feeling, to creating connections and commonalities through shared experiences. 

Participating in food traditions, special customs, and cultural celebrations lends to developing a deeper awareness, respect, and appreciation for how others live around the world. When I travel, I am always looking for ways to experience and learn about a culture through a food lens.  Celebrations that center on food have especially shaped my perceptions of the past and present, and have inspired me to be (ser??) and remain curious about the future.  

In honor of a new Gregorian year, I wanted to share an assortment of fun food traditions from around the world.

King for a Day!

Gallette des rois (King’s Cake) is a French tradition and a tale as old as the 14th century. Traditionally, it is shared at Epiphany, but today it can also be an opportunity to gather for the new year. While it may be mostly for the kids now, if you like cakes and being King or Queen, it’s for you, too. This pastry puff cake has a fève or little figurine hidden inside and whoever gets the slice with the fève gets a physical or more often figurative crown for the day.  Typically, when the galette des rois is served, a child goes under the table and calls out names to determine who gets each slice to ensure a double blind control placebo test, or no playing favorites. My friend Gabrielle shares her memories of growing up in France celebrating, as well as how she maintains the tradition in the states.

Galette des Rois by Kacie Merchand

Grapes for Luck

The twelve grapes of luck is celebrated in Spain and many Spanish speaking countries. This custom is believed to yield luck and prosperity for the coming year. Gatherings often take place around the town square, or in homes celebrating with family and friends. At the stroke of midnight, in unison and with each of the twelve bell chimes (one for each month of the year), a grape is consumed. 

Alejandra, a native to the Basque Country, says this can be a laugh-inducing experience with everyone trying to gulp down grapes to the tune of the bells without choking or spitting them out. She compares this tradition to watching the ball drop in the states, but instead of the countdown to ring in the new year, family and friends gather around the TV to hear the bells at midnight.

She was kind enough to offer this fond memory below, 

Alejandra “12 Bells for Luck” by Kacie Merchand

Greens for Greens!

In southern parts of the US, collard greens are sometimes consumed in some form or dish on New Year’s day. Traditionally, greens represented dough, bacon, cheddar aka money, while black-eyed peas are another food symbolizing luck. Black-eyed peas, a type of field pea, are often the main character in Hoppin’ John, a dish of peas, rice and pork, eaten for the new year in some homes.

Like many dishes, it is fascinating to learn about the stories they tell. Black-eyed peas likely appeared in the states via the slave trade. Field peas are a great source of fiber, and serve as a rotational crop for many farmers to help put nitrogen back into the ground. And while there are multiple theories around the legend of Hoppin’ John–such as being named after an old man with a hobble who sold peas and rice on the streets in South Carolina–some food historians believe it stems from the French term, pois pigeon (dried peas).

Interestingly, Hoppin’ John is similar to common dishes found in parts of West Africa, including Senegal. 

Home is Where the Heart Is

Thiéré (Senegalese couscous) with spicy lamb stew, is a delicious dish often eaten during the Islamic New Year, Tamkharit, in Senegal. While I have yet to celebrate Tamkharit in Senegal, I had the privilege of joining in festivities at the close of Ramadan during my first days in the country, almost twenty years ago. It was such a memorable event that helped me feel right at home in my new surroundings.

I recall how my senses became heightened, how colors appeared more vibrant, how music and prayers flowed into the streets, and new smells flooded my nostrils. I felt at ease in the warm night air, celebrating, laughing, and sharing mouth watering foods with my host family. 

Bond over Feasts and Sweets

Many years ago, the process of preparing foods for Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) with a woman from Gujarat sparked my interest in learning more about India. Diwali is observed by people of many religious backgrounds over five days, marking a celebration of light overcoming the dark. The dates are based on the lunar calendar and occur typically after the summer harvest. As with most celebrations, they vary by region and traditions, but it is generally a time for families and communities to gather, visit, exchange gifts, feed the poor, and bond over sweets and feasts. 

Another food-related social event common around the holidays in Mexico is a Tamalada, or a tamale making party. This social event  goes well beyond simply preparing a delicious food, it brings families together and symbolizes unity among a community. 

Pro tip: If you are already thinking ahead to your next celebration, consider making a tripe and hominy soup often served for the new year with tamales, and known to be good for hangovers!

Interested in experiencing unique cultural celebrations, or gaining a deeper understanding of other parts of the world? How about exploring a tasting map that connects you to other regions and landscapes, or seeing for yourself where your food comes from?

CreateJoy is here to help you to find a learning experience that aligns with your personal interests and travel goals!

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