We are what we eat

By Lubna Abdel-Aziz

All of man’s celebrations revolve around food. Feasting among all races and religions is marked by prayers, song, dance, special rites and attires, but mainly special foods. We all know why we eat, but the what, when, where, and how, vastly differ from culture to culture. Among Muslims the Holy month of Ramadan is as much about fasting as it is about feasting. Families and friends gather round the ‘Iftar’ table to break their fast and relish their many traditional dishes from soups to desserts. Eid Al-Fitr (Lesser Bairam), follows with its specially baked goods of cakes and cookies, that help the faithful celebrate the end of the fast.


We celebrate with food

Among man’s basic needs, food is the one without which he cannot survive. All occasions are celebrated with good food, amidst good friends, accompanied by the sound of chatter and laughter, the spirit of joy and continuity, making it as pure and as revered as an act of prayer. Its variety of taste, flavour, texture, colour and aroma, add to our satisfaction and pleasure. Its elements of consolation, give it a place at funerals as a memorial to the dead. Even business deals only profit when accompanied by the ritual of food consumption.

Why do we eat what we eat? Food culture goes beyond what is merely consumed. It involves forms of serving, hospitality, heritage and tradition. Certain foods are preferred by different groups because our diets are determined by our geographic location. We eat what is available, convenient, and appropriate for our climate, mostly what our parents and their parents ate. If we live by the sea, fish would be our main staple, if more inland we rely on cattle and livestock, vegetables and grain. Our soil determines what we grow. Tropical areas grow a variety of fruits and vegetables all year round. Rice prefers the lowlands where the soil retains the water.

With the importance of geography declining today, preservation, transportation and tourism have led to an exchange of foods and eating habits, making all foods available to all peoples at all times. Today we can enjoy bananas from Ecuador, oranges from Spain, olives from Italy, pineapples from Hawaii, salmon from Scotland, sardines from Norway, no matter where we live. Culture also values the aesthetics of a meal. A Japanese spread is carefully arranged to make each dish beautiful, and the French spend as much time cooking as making the meal pleasing to the eye. A Swedish smorgasbord is a dazzling array of sumptuous tidbits.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) established World Food Day in 1980, recognised by 150 nations as an international holiday. This year FAO designated October 16th, as World Food Day 2006, its theme: “Investing in Agriculture for Food Security.” World Food Day is a reminder that in this decade alone, 100 million children will die from malnutrition and other diseases caused by lack of food. The Latin motto of FAO is “Fiat Panis” (Let there be bread), and bread is indeed considered the staple of life. Bread is the one food that permeates all celebrations. Since wheat was first grown we have made dark bread, light, flat bread, leavened bread, loaves, rolls, crackers, breadsticks, pastries, pancakes, in every shape and form, long, narrow, round, wide, large, small, and circular. Bread was considered a gift of the gods by ancient peoples, and Catholics believe that during holy communion, bread is changed into the body of Christ. “Breaking bread” is an international symbol of everlasting friendship and loyalty.

Food and religion are closely associated. Christians, Muslims, and others, give thanks before starting a meal. The psychology of food taboos helps define social and religious boundaries الحدود . For the French and Chinese pig meat (pork) constitutesيشكل  fine meals, but prohibited among Muslims and Jews who consider it unclean. The origin of this prohibition is found in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, as well as the Holy Qur’an. The taboo arose because pigs are literally dirty animals, who wallow in mud, and eat all sorts of garbage from which they contract parasitic worms that can cause disease in humans. Hindus object violently to eating beef. One third of the world’s cows live in India, and no harm is ever inflicted upon them. Considered a symbol of fertility and motherhood, cows are sacred, and as such, protected by law. They wander freely, wear garlands during festivals, and are prayed for when sick.

Have you ever tasted horse meat? It is big in France, but is fed to dogs in Britain. You may find roast dog distasteful but, known as the ‘horseless goat,’ it is a fine delicacy in China and Korea, and was also enjoyed by Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, and Aztecs. Would you relish a menu of ants, caterpillars, locusts, raw ducks’ feet, dragonfly larvae, whale blubber, or silkworms? Yet somewhere in the world these specialties are eaten every day in Asia, Australia, Africa, North and South America.

How about raw monkey meat, fried grasshoppers, sautéed iguana, roasted elephant, broiled alligator, hearty snake soup, bear paw steak, donkey meat sausages, kangaroo tail ragout? If you think those strange foods belong to other distant far off countries, remember some of your own foods may seem strange and unappetising to others. Lamb or calf’s brain, eye of roasted lamb’s head, snails (escargot), sea-turtle soup, frogs’ legs, bull’s testicles الخصيتين , camel humps, goat meat, fish eggs, are also not relished by others.

We celebrate our diversity  التنوعand welcome learning about other cultures by sampling their foods. We may just end up loving it. Who would have thought that the world would devour raw يلتهم fish wrapped in slimy seaweed, yet Japanese sushi continues to grow in popularity.

Eat what you please, whether with wooden chopsticks, silver utensilsادوات الاكل على المائدة , or your own fingers; let your only reservation تحفظ  be the amount you eat. Gluttony الشراهة  has long been acknowledged as one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, so do heedيصغى  the warning, that excess of any food may also be harmful to your health!

We may live without friends; we may live without books;

But civilized man, cannot live without cooks!

Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 — 1873


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