Orange peel, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, clover, parsley, mint, lavender…
Are you already smelling and/or tasting these ingredients? To what kind of dish would you add them? A main course? A dessert? Or a tea?
Food is possibly the thing that unites us most to our environment, the elements and the ephemeral part of life. Without food we cease to exist. We are in contact with food on a daily basis because we depend on it.
Such close contact to the substance that provides us with energy has turned it into a close vehicle of culture, identity, sense of place and means of relating, sharing and celebrating. Diverse cultures have developed traditional dishes with specific ingredients or specific ways of preparing or preserving food. Think of kimchi, baba ghanoush, miso soup, mole, boerewors, lussekatter… Dishes from all corners of the world with strong tastes and scents with their own tricks and traditions.
Food holds value due to conviviality and community and can define aspects of social living such as gender roles. It is fascinating to contemplate how certain types of food, that form our sense of identity and relation to space, in many cases are dependant on the climate, type of soil and way of doing agriculture, as well as socio-cultural contexts and history (think of war and post-war conditions, trade routes, slavery etc.).
When I lived in Amsterdam and managed the community garden Op de Valreep Tuin, we – an ethnically diverse group of urban farmers – grew, cooked and ate food together. During that time, I exchanged seeds with a Danish farmer who grew a type of parsley that Turkish women used to prepare a traditional dish. He explained to me that the Turkish women from his community in Denmark had reminisced over their typical parsley until they finally got hold of that specific type and the farmer had decided to grow it for them. Most likely the specific taste of the condiment helped the women deal with their past in their homeland whilst creating community in their new home.
Food tickle our senses of smell, taste, sight and even touch (think of when you burn your tongue!). Is it our necessity for food that has made it that we engage with it in such a multi-sensorial manner? Or is it food’s multi-modal way of entering our persona that makes it that we value it so? No matter what, food was my way, as a child, to reunite with my ‘lost homeland’. When my family moved from Sweden to Spain when I was little, we used to drive for hours to get to the nearest IKEA. We would walk through the whole shop, not buying or interested in anything, to reach the Swedish food supermarket at the end. Us children would go crazy! It was our closest link to that place we missed so much. Food become a way of relating to place and identity (past, present and future), as comfort, memory and serves as a union between people. Oh, the joy of IKEA!
The Refugee Food Festival
The Refugee Food Festival must be a similar experience to some, as my IKEA experience. The Refugee Food Festival is a culinary and solidarity project born in 2016 and is a citizen initiative aimed at welcoming and integrating refugees into Paris. The project uses cooking and eating as a springboard to discovering flavours from all around thw rold by bringing citizens together around the table whilst also offering professional training. The initiative was initially a festival held every year in June and has now been hosted in over 18 cities around the world (including 11 EU cities, New York, San Francisco and Cape Town). Today it has become a project providing training for refugees – uniting new restaurateurs to refugee cooks. Realizing the power of food in building cultural connections, the founders, Marine Mandrila and Louis Martin, raise awareness by speaking directly to diners’ taste buds. In this project taste, smell, touch and sight come together to open up possibilities, friendships, memory, identities and community.
Food is not a ‘new media’ but is as old as our existence. Yet, it is thanks to the ‘new media’ in our lives that projects such as The Refugee Food Festival exist and flourish. It is most likely thanks to ‘new media’ that the Turkish women obtained their parsley seeds and it is definitely ‘new media’ that makes it that I do not have to drive for hours to get my Swedish food fix anymore, I simply order it online. ‘New media’ and globalization has made food from all corners of the world more readily available and has changed our relationship to food, and thus altering certain aspects of our identities, sense of place, memories, traditions and culture. Yet, no matter how our relationship to food changes, we will never stop needing its energy input. The smell, taste, sight and touch of food goes far beyond our rationale and digs deep into our ancestral beings. Let’s hope that food never disentangles from its sensorial experience, and becoming a ‘new media’, not even in the furthest future.