How culture affects cuisine
One of the benefits of dealing with different cultures is the opportunity to explore the tastes of foreign lands and other people. Food and drink are as much representations of culture as are the arts, architecture, attire, or human behavior. Most of us experience this for the first time when we travel: what people abroad eat can be quite different from the home menu. Often our culinary preferences have an effect on the vacation destinations we choose. And when professionals ponder whether to accept an overseas job assignment, the local fare can have an impact on their decision.
It probably happened to you, too: You had this amazing wine in Spain, you ate this incredible dessert in Turkey, you tried this fantastic dish in India, and you bought this item that pampered your palate to bring it back home with you — just to feel the disappointment upon your return that your culinary souvenir simply didn’t pass the taste test at home.
While part of this experience may be owed to the fact that you tasted and felt your surroundings differently while on your trip, it is also very likely that the flavor gap is related to the food production standards in your country.
U.S. news site Vox.com recently published an article about this phenomenon (Why fruits and vegetables taste better in Europe). It was written from an American perspective and tries to explain why the flavors of certain food categories don’t seem to compare well across the Atlantic:
“I was 16 and visiting family in a rural backwater in northeastern Italy. At a modest hotel restaurant, I ordered a plate of spaghetti with cherry tomatoes. The dish was revelatory. Despite the simple ingredients — pasta, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, salt — it was densely packed with flavor. The tomatoes had the perfect ratio of sweetness to acidity, tasting nothing like the watery produce I was used to in North America.”
Why do groceries taste different in different countries?
According to agricultural experts there is some truth to the assumption that groceries do have different qualities in different countries, or rather, in different cultures. In the case of the United States and Europe this has very little to do with location, soil, or climate. The main reason why produce tastes different here and there is choice. Consumers in the U.S. have other preferences in groceries than most Europeans. It comes down to culture.
There is no scientific reason why American farmers couldn’t produce the same flavor-packed tomatoes you find in Italy. In fact, American consumers could have the most amazing tomatoes. If consumer behavior was different.
The Vox.com article tells the story of Harry Klee, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida, who “spent years developing a nutrient-dense tomato that also happens to taste great. It’s been called — by a panel of 500 experts — one of the most delicious tomatoes on the planet. And it isn’t grown in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius, as Italy’s famous San Marzano tomatoes are. It’s grown right here in the US, in Gainesville, Florida. Klee’s tomato, the Garden Gem, is also eminently durable, with a great shelf life and track record of disease resistance — properties growers care about. But he’s been told the Garden Gem is a little too small (about a half or a third the size of your average supermarket tomato). And that means it’d require more labor to pick, and therefore a little more cost. The fact that it’s delicious doesn’t count for much.”
Economic feasibility combined with a consumer preference that values low prices more than flavor has been incentivizing growers to plant varietals which produce a high yield, are resistant to disease, and can handle transportation and storage with low breakage.
Let’s look at how this situation is influenced by culture. In the chart below you see a comparison of the country scores for the United States, Italy, and France according to Geert Hofstede‘s cultural dimensions model. U.S. consumers on average are highly individualistic, motivated by short-term gains, and fairly indulgent. Italian and French consumers, by comparison, are less individualistic, more long-term oriented, and more restrained.
If we apply these scores on Hofstede’s dimensions to consumer preferences, it explains why Americans generally don’t like seasonality and expect all types of food and produce to be available year round. As individuals with a desire to act on culinary impulses they accept trade-offs in flavor, if the foods they want are always in stock at affordable prices. This also translates into the restaurant world: Portion sizes in the U.S. usually exceed those in Europe, often at a much lower cost.
American consumers value fast rewards in large quantities, writes Vox.com: “That’s why you see gigantic strawberries and fist-size apples on the store shelves. Since Americans like their produce big, and big fruit is more efficient to grow, growers do everything they can to supersize their fruit, even at the expense of flavor.”
Italians (and other European cultures) often value quality more than quantity. Of course you will find out-of-season produce on the shelves of grocery stores in Europe as well. However, demand for better quality is greater in the old world. Italians especially are willing to sacrifice short-term gain for a much greater long-term result. Take, for example, the method they use for producing dry-cured ham, their world famous prosciutto: The process is meticulous and is practiced to this day in Italy. The slaughtered pigs can only become prosciutto and salami during the luna calante, the waning moon that follows the full moon. According to old farmer’s lore the meat could go bad, if it isn’t cured by the moon.
This method may not appear to be perfectly scientific, and it is one of many examples of the kind of obsessive focus on food quality Europeans are known for. This obsession on culinary tradition is a cultural feature. Most of the immigrants who populated North America during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries left Europe for political, economic, and religious reasons. Along with their quest for a better life in the new world they left behind many of the old world experiences which they felt were limiting. Among those were agricultural standards as well as cooking traditions. Of course Italians brought their pasta, Germans their bratwurst, and Jews their Challah, but the ingredients needed for these signature foods weren’t as easy to come by. As people had to improvise, the rigidity of old traditions sometimes gave way to a more relaxed interpretation of traditions. The low score for the U.S. on the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension is a reflection of that.
Add to this the unwavering American belief in progress and the benefits of technology, and it becomes clear why adherence to tradition doesn’t have to be a strong value. Food for U.S. consumers is produced throughout North America and shipped across the country. Refrigeration technologies were first adopted here and made it possible to store perishable foods longer. The industrialization of food production resulted in new breeds of produce. The population growth called for higher quantities. Farmers and growers are paid for yield, not for flavor.
Finally, geography plays another role here. European cultures are rather regional, and this means food traditions have remained intact in fairly small areas. Within these regions and communities people often shop locally, from regional producers. And they shop more frequently than Americans. Europeans often go to the local market daily, whereas millions of shoppers in the U.S. purchase one or two weeks’ supply of groceries in one single visit to the big box store.
All these consumer choices, based on cultural behaviors, have had a lasting impact on how our food is grown and what it tastes like.
How is culture influencing your cuisine? Use the comment box below to share your experience.
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