By Yari “Aeslene” Mena, Staff Writer
As I reflected on my eating habits during one of the busiest spring semesters of my college career, in the true spirit of comparing myself to others, I began to ponder questions about other cultures as well as my own (Mexican/Latin American).
So I began with the founding culture of the organization I’ve devoted most of my time to the past couple of years, Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc., and found that the Asian continent has a variety of unique dietary cultures among its countries. The southwest region of Asia that includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma has Persian-Arabian roots, which share naan, mutton, kebabs, strong spices along with their signature staple food: curry. On the opposite side, in the northeast (China, Korea, Japan), they use more fats, oils and sauces in their cooking and stress the use of utensils. The foods and spices they use are also used for medicinal properties. The southeast region (including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and others) prepare more light foods with subtle use of herbs and spices for flavor. Other differences arise in serving of food: the northeast region favors serving individual portions, while the southwest comes together and shares central dishes.
Latin America features Mexico, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico has its own variety of sub-regions due to differences in climate that include dishes like mole, pozole and tamales. Dishes gravitate toward the use of tomatoes, jalapeños and oregano. The Caribbean relies on beans and starches. They have dishes with influences from different parts of the world like mangu, African-inspired, mashed plantains and sofrito (a purée of tomatoes and herbs and spices such as cilantro, parsley, pepper and garlic that is much like Italian soffrito). Adobo seasoning mix is a staple in many Latin American kitchens, not just the Caribbean. The mix includes salt, pepper, turmeric, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano, which can be found in liquid, paste or powdered forms. Central America, with the exception of Guatemala, uses chili peppers less than the rest of Latin America. They continue to use corn for masa harina, which is used to make tortillas, pupusas, empanadas and tamales as well. They share beans and rice as a staple food with the rest of Latin America and use the ingredients to make a dish called Gallo Pinto. South America is unique because of the Spanish and Portuguese roots in its dishes. Its coastline allows for plenty of seafood in dishes like ceviche.
I haven’t even mentioned the social aspect of eating. Eating with others in general brings a sense of community and togetherness, so much so that some literature compares meals to The Last Supper. Across the globe, different cultures have special meals on holidays. Some religions practice having large feasts after periods of fasting. In America, food trucks and festivals have become popular, and summer barbecues and cookouts have always brought American communities together.
The history of food cultures and the heavily advertised social aspects of eating through ads and social media posts led me to examine my own eating habits and those of others around me. I observed what happens when these habits are thrown into a busy, contemporary life.
Regardless of where I lived, whether at home with my family or with sisters in an apartment closer to school, I found that my schedule and budget dictated how and where I ate my meals. On mornings where I was running late, I would pack cereal, walk out the door and eat as my car engine warmed up or as I set up my GPS. Some days, I would eat the majority of my meals in the car or on the train to school or work. Until recently, the few meals I did eat at a table were usually while I was studying for a test, writing a paper, sitting at a meeting or drawing in the studio. A lot of these meals were also eaten alone or with a friend that was also multitasking.
I reached out to 30 individuals to see what their meals were like. The majority of responses were from Asian Americans, the next largest group being Hispanic/Latinos, followed by Caucasians, with African Americans being in the minority. The age breakdown of this focus group included 69 percent 18-24-year-olds, 24 percent 24-29-year-olds, and 7 percent 30-40-year-olds.
Several individuals who filled out the survey also expressed similar experiences of eating alone, although responses varied. 31 percent of responses indicated they eat alone on a typical day, while 58.6 percent said they share between one to two meals with someone daily.
Jenna Murray from Atlanta said she prefers to eat alone, while Andres Rincon from the same area doesn’t mind one way or another. Amy Cao, who grew up in a household that ate conveniently as each person got hungry, ate her meals watching television to feel accompanied.
One person reminisced on eating with family and sharing dishes compared to the single dish meals he or she eats now, mainly alone. Mina Phan, who is Vietnamese, stated that eating as a family was stressed, but ironically, she grew up eating on the go, out or alone doing homework or multitasking. All habits carried into her adult life.
Xenia Chon shared very positive aspects of Korean food culture including family dinners and celebration and care of their guests and people eating together. Another insightful response came from Liliana Chen, a woman of Latino descent whose husband has Asian roots.
“My eating habits are very different from my own culture, mainly because my husband is Asian and I am Latino,” Chen said. “I had to adapt to what he was used to eating and [bring some of the Asian culture into my cooking].”
Chen’s response brought to light a more touching side to our contemporary American lifestyle: one where cultures come together and eat at the same table as a family. Yet another response from Yanni Ouk discussed the growing appreciation for his culture’s food as he grew older. Foods that he refused to eat as a young boy became foods he could eat and thoroughly enjoy as an adult.
While this search for information and answers all stemmed from a realized sense of loneliness at the dinner table (or, you know, also behind the steering wheel munching on Chick-Fil-A hashbrowns on the way to class), often times others in school and/or working full-time jobs eat meals the same way. College and life in general can be tough on our eating schedules, but by recognizing our habits, we can feel less alone when we realize the importance of sharing a meal with someone every once in a while. This realization can also help us find the sense of community that our cultures take pride in.
Featured Image: Liliana Chen
Article Images: Yari Mena, Andres Rincon, Jarleen Dong, Leo Rodriguez
The Dietary Culture of Asia. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2018, from https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/dietary-culture-asia
Asian Cuisine & Foods : Asian-Nation :: Asian American History, Demographics, & Issues. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2018, from http://www.asian-nation.org/asian-food.shtml#sthash.ZBelo7pi.dpbs
Latin American Cuisines by Region [Pamphlet]. (2009). Boston, MA: Oldways. https://oldwayspt.org/system/files/atoms/files/TradDiet_LARegionalProfiles_0.pdf