cultural food traditions

By Adriana David
Steeple correspondent

Food is one of those things we simply cannot live without and much of our day revolves around it. We have comfort foods, tailgating foods, party foods, and special diet foods. In this article, I am excited to take you on an adventure exploring cultural food traditions.

We will be discussing the cultural food traditions from:

  • Sri Lanka
  • England
  • Germany
  • Uganda
  • India

What are Cultural Traditions?

When discussing traditions, one would be remiss not to include food. Even for someone like me, who doesn’t hold on to many traditions herself, I have those foods that I come back to time and time again. One example of a meal I grew up with was a casserole consisting of broccoli,
chicken and rice. It was delicious. 

Food, much like clothing or art, are as expressive and individualistic as a fingerprint. Cultural food traditions around the world are both fascinating and enlightening.

Each culture, for instance, has its own ways of expressing their traditions through food. Many people from various cultures choose what foods will be served based on meaning and color of that food.

In addition, food can be presented in many ways. From what’s served on the dinner plate to what utensils are used, including chopsticks, forks, spoons and knives, as well as eating with bare hands, every culture has those staples that are passed down from generation to generation.

Why are Traditional Foods Important to a Culture?

As I explained in my last article, the importance of traditions is not always obvious to the naked eye. A tradition can be whatever is important to you and your family. Additionally, tradition can be and usually is a large part of a person’s cultural identity.

Your cultural identity is often made up of your family’s origin, regional history, where you were born, and where you grew up. Therefore, cultural traditions are adaptable, taking on new additions and changes as generations move forward and make their own traditions.

When it comes to cultural identity, food is an aspect of that identity that is often more impactful than all others.

Consider grilling in the summer – your standard fare of hamburgers and hotdogs here in the United States of America. Some other examples include the turkey we eat with our families on Thanksgiving Day or the ham that many Americans eat on Christmas day.

Of course, the U.S. is not the only country to connect food to tradition. Almost every country and culture in the world hold some important traditions that center around food.

cooking, pies, vareniki

Cultural Food Traditions around the World

For time immemorial, families have gathered around the dinner table and shared unique memories there. Food certainly has the ability to bond families and societies together like nothing else. Every day, new family traditions are being made at the dinner table.

Where ever you are in the world, food has the ability to connect us to our culture and to the people whose cultures are different from our own. For this story, I talked with people from all over the world to get a sense of what their traditions are and how their culture’s food reflects that.

FOOD TRADITIONS IN SRI LANKA

“The most important concept behind the Sri-Lankan dishes is that even if the food is cooked to perfection with the correct flavors, how one decides to eat them plays a huge impact on how one will taste them,” says Dulitha from Sri Lanka. “The most common ingredient found in most dishes is coconut and all dishes are spicy to some extent.”

Food traditions in Sri Lanka begin with rice. They grow more than 15 different varieties. Next to rice, coconuts play an important role in hundreds of dishes from coconut milk to coconut treats.

Another traditional Sri Lanka food is curry sauce. Curry has a long history and has been prepared in several regions for hundreds of years. Sri Lanka curry dishes are prepared with chicken, beef, goat, fish, shrimp, and crab. The rich broth varies in color and flavor depending on a wide variety of spices it is prepared with.


FOOD TRADITIONS IN ENGLAND

One of my college friends, Morwenna, shared some of England’s traditional foods.

“In Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, traditional food includes roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, toad in the hole, pigs in blankets, gravy and chips (fries), cheesy chips and rhubarb crumble,” says Morwenna, who is from Leeds.

Family Search has several delicious traditional English food recipes that you and your family will love, including shepherds pie, black pudding, and scotch eggs.

bakery, fermentation new, german bread

FOOD TRADITIONS IN GERMANY

Aline is another college friend of mine and was happy to share with me some of the food traditions in Germany.

“In Germany, we eat bread in all its shapes and tastes, especially for breakfast and dinner,” she says. I personally eat it all the time. We also eat Brötchen, which are bread rolls, sliced meat, and Fleischkäse, which is mixture of corned beef, pork, and bacon. We also eat Quark, which is a dairy product, Apfelschorle, which is apple juice and sparkling water, Marble cake and Black forest cake, just to name just a few.”

Many people think of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and beer when they think of traditional German foods, but German cuisine is so much more!

Slow-cooked meats such as sauerbraten and schweinshaxe along with flammkuchen (a German-style pizza) and hasenpfeffer (rabbit stew) speak of a rich heritage.


FOOD TRADITIONS IN UGANDA

For food traditions in Uganda, I asked Dr. Kenny Lule to fill me in. He is an MD in rural Uganda as well as pastor of Esuubi Community Church. You can read his inspirational story “Following God’s call to Uganda ministry”.

“In a cultural setting, a meal is served when all the children and their parents are seated around it. The meals is served on a mat like material, and on top of layers of banana leaves that have been covering the steamed meal are laid on and food will put on these leaves.

“Part of sitting together like this was to emphasize family culture, but also to ensure that kids have good eating manners, which you would call table manners in the West and of course in educated families of Uganda today.

“Such practice you rarely find now in urban educated families. Dining tables are being used and even those who can’t afford one, won’t go for the ancient discipline of eating around a mat.

“One local food, Matooke, is a plantain steamed in banana leaves and mashed. They serve meat with it. Most of the time it is beef. Our tribe is mainly a game tribe; our forefathers hunted a lot. Our meat is mostly boiled and fried into spices. It’s not like the American steak.

“We also have other foods like sweet potatoes, potatoes, cassava, yams and maize. Apart from meat, we also have other sauces like beans, ground nuts paste made from peanuts, fish in different varieties and preparations, and chicken. Most of our dishes are steamed.”

FOOD TRADITIONS IN INDIA

For food traditions in India, I contacted Evangeline who shared with me common foods as well as traditions centered around them. Evangeline is a blogger at A Kernel for Christ as well as a mom of two young children. I was fascinated as she explained the cultural food traditions of her native home.

Here’s is Evangeline’s story:

Growing up, if there was one food that was a staple in our home, it was idli. Idli is basically a steamed “cake” made of fermented rice and black gram (also known as the mungo bean),” she says. “When I was younger, I tried to stay away from them as much as possible because I found them bland. In recent years, I’ve developed a great fondness for idli given how versatile it can be – not to mention the huge favors it does for one’s waistline.

Given that it is fermented before being steamed, it is light and doesn’t leave you feeling lethargic. Traditionally, idli is eaten with Sambhar – a stew that is made up of lentils and a variety of vegetables. Although that is a spectacular combination, idli can be adapted in many forms to make it more appealing to picky tastebuds. For instance, my three-year-old loves to eat his idlis with a dab of honey.

South Indian foods are almost always eaten steaming hot. When I first moved to Austria and met my first Italian friend, I was shocked to see her eat bread, butter, and honey for breakfast. In my husband’s home, bread is only eaten by someone who is sick and cannot ingest anything spicy.

Indian food is impossible to recreate without authentic spices. When I first moved to Austria, I was disheartened to find that there was no Indian store in the town that we were living in. In order to help my sad, spiceless cupboards, I started to bring spices from India every time we went there on vacation. I would make a long list of everything we needed and my mother-in-law would dry, grind, and pack the spices at home.

Agriculture is the primary occupation of Tamil Nadu with rice being the most widely cultivated crop. Consequently, the staple food of the state is rice. We enjoy a large variety of foods that are steamed, boiled, baked, and fried that has rice as the base.

Lunch is usually packed at home by the woman of the household for those who go to work and for school-going children. This is usually a form of “variety rice.” Variety rice is basically rice mixed with an ingredient that gives it a unique flavor. For instance, coconut rice (thenga saadham), tamarind rice (puliyogare), mint rice (pudhina saadham), Sambhar rice (Sambhar saadham), and even curd rice!

Whenever we gathered for a meal, especially when guests came over, I remember my mother never sat at the table and ate with us. She stood by the table and made sure that everybody ate to their satisfaction and took it upon herself to serve people as they partook of the meal. She always did it happily and was most content after each person around the table had their fill and was satisfied.

This is the custom that is generally followed in homes around Tamil Nadu. Hospitality is paramount and guests are treated with the utmost respect and are given a place of honor. Although this might seem strange to the outsider looking in, I’ve grown to appreciate the attitude of service that I see the women in my culture develop.

Although it is perfectly acceptable that they eat their meal at the same time as everyone, they put the needs of others before them and tend to everyone before they fulfill their own needs. When it was only the four of us, my mother would first serve us the food that she prepared and then sit down to eat along with us.

I do not ever recall eating at a table while growing up – it was always on the floor, with a sheet spread out under us to protect the carpet. It is only in recent years that families have adopted the culture of sitting around a table. For centuries, the family meal was shared sitting on the floor.

More cultural traditions to come

I loved getting to learn about food and cultural traditions. This article is the second of four installments in my ongoing series on cultural traditions. Next time, we will be taking a look at cultural traditions of clothing. Like food, clothing plays an important role in the ways cultures express themselves.

This is oftentimes in ways people would not expect. From saris in India,
kimonos in Japan, to kilts in Scotland – there’s a lot more when it comes to cultural clothing than what we see on TV. Join me for the next installment.

Continuing cultural food traditions with your family

Rosevine Cottage Girls have an amazing chocolate cake recipe that has been in their family for generations. Not only does this cake recipe give them a connection with their ancestors, but it teaches each generation that they are part of something bigger than just themselves. They are drawn into a feeling of belonging.

What cultural food traditions do you embrace and wish to pass down to your children? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

You might also enjoy these posts about traditions!

Mourning rituals around the world

Baby Shower Traditions

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27 thoughts on “Cultural food traditions you don’t want to miss”

  1. Another great article, Adriana! I was similar to you with not too much personal food culture growing up. It was once I married my husband who is part Italian that I learned so much about cultural food traditions. I love the countries you picked out as well. Thanks for a great read!

  2. Very interesting to read about all the different cultural food traditions. It is fun to learn about other countries and the food that is special to them.

  3. Meghan Villatoro

    This is a neat post. I love learning about different cultures and traditions. I am from the US but I have been living in El Salvador for many years now. One of my favorite things about this country is its food and how it came to be important to them! Many of the traditional dishes go all the way back to their native people so long ago!

  4. I love this, as a Canadian living in Zimbabwe, I now have a much greater appreciation for the culture around food. In Zim, the staple food is sadza, and I have learned to make some of the cultural dishes. But since my husband taught me, the women here always tease me a little because I serve food the way a bachelor would. There’s so much to learn about the techniques and some things don’t translate easily when the traditional food is cooked over an open fire. Thank you for this beautiful insight into dishes from around the world.

  5. You are so right, we love food and look forward to the cultures surrounding a meal or recipe. I fondly think of my mum’s cooking and how much l miss it having moved to another country, but your post reminded me too of travel and how we link popular destinations with new foods!

  6. Very interesting to read about cultural food traditions. I don’t really think about it until I travel and cannot buy and eat foods I’m used to. Thanksgiving is a time for traditional foods for my family. Just yesterday my family was telling me what foods were their favorites for our Thanksgiving meal. Looking forward to it already!

  7. I am Nigeria, this is new to me. With my new age celebration, I decided to try out new things. Perhaps, I could include food, who knows?

    Thanks for putting this out

  8. Growing up in an Italian family, food was (and still is!) a huge part of our culture. I love learning about other cultures and the foods they eat. This post was not only informative and interesting…it made me hungry! 😉

  9. Food is such a central part of our culture. The type of food, the spices that make it smell or taste a certain way, and the times of the year when we eat different things. It’s very interesting to compare these traditions and cultures!

  10. Well, this article is right up my alley! I love food and learning about food traditions. In New Orleans we talk about, make and eat many different types of foods. It is part of our culture. Loved reading about these other cultures!

  11. I loved this article, Adriana. So great to go behind superficial knowledge of other people’s culture and food traditions to learn more. And I did learn more! The “table” is so important – (even if it is sitting on the floor) – the being together sharing food and love.

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