“We Are What We Eat” — A Very Serious Study of Global Cuisines from North to South
“We Are What We Eat” — A Very Serius Study of Global Cuisines from North to Southes teler — a blessing from the papaya-loving tropical angels above
The golden hypothesis in cultural anthropology, extensively substantiated by my anecdotal traveling account, dictates a close correlation between a nation’s distance to the equator and the vibrancy of its cuisine and its people. For instance, the daily sustenance of an average Nordic person, whose seafaring ancestors spared no time on the frivolous task of procuring the finer delicacies, consists of all the possible combinations of coarse wheat bread and chunks of bland cooked meat, occasionally seasoned with butter, salt, and pepper. Fresh vegetables and tropical fruits, much beloved by the younger generation of Vikings now spearheading the fearsome veganist campaign, are in fact a fairly recent import to the nation’s gastronomic consciousness.
Similar to their lackluster cuisine, the Nordic people carry an aura of placidity in interacting with curious travelers from other parts of the globe. A jolly person in nature, I was amazed by the courteous and distant manner in which the locals conversed with foreigners at their shops as I strolled around the main boulevard in downtown Reykjavik. Genuine and kind, they were nevertheless utterly uninterested in small talks and unmoved even when I alluded to my great admiration of Thor and their World Cup saga. Once in awhile, someone would reciprocate my gesture with eager and keen interest. To my great dismay, however, I was to soon find out that these select few were all fellow European guest workers from countries in the warmer climate, usually Portugal, Greece, and Italy — all famed for their culture of hospitality.
As you move south from the monochrome of the Arctic Circle, the vibrancy of regional cuisine and inhabitants’ character increases accordingly. Such a pattern is manifest if you journey around the coast of the Mediterranean, where the locals consider preparing a flavorful and often lavish mid-day meal a cultural imperative. Just take a look at the dazzling variety of their baklavas, and you get my point. Similarly, the shopkeepers at the marketplace would often try to bond with you in a brotherly manner by consistently referring to you as “my friend”, “my brother”, or attempt to build a flirtatious rapport with you by calling you affectionately as “my darling”, “my dear”. I cannot tell you how many times I knowingly fell into this ingenious trap, often at the hands of a certain fair lady with a nectar-sweet voice, and carried home some piece of pottery that I evidently did not need. Yet, such is the classic Mediterranean hospitality at its best.
When you move further down the world map to around the equator, you encounter an explosion of colors and flavors gastronomically. Take Indonesia, for example. Situated at the very heart of the equatorial zone where rainforests meet seasonal monsoons, this tropical nation is blessed with colorful and savory produce of all kinds, so much that the array of tastes at any curbside dessert shop will bemuse the most tested palate. Just take a look at the much-beloved post-iftar treat in Indonesia — es teler. This deliciously mixed cocktail delight is made of diced fruits procured from all corners of the archipelago — avocado, cantaloupe, pineapple, papaya, squash, grass jelly, and coconut meat, paired with shaved ice and condensed coconut milk and sweetened with cocopandan syrup. The luscious texture and mesmerizing color of this concoction change from each bite to the next, none of which tastes the same. Imagine savoring a spoonful of this after returning to the palm trees’ embracing shades from the scorching summer heat in Jakarta. When I first had it at the recommendation of my friend Keyla, I was convinced that it was a blessing from the papaya-loving tropical angels above — only the gods are capable of such a majestic feat.
Similar to their food, the people of the tropics are usually the most vibrant and joyous. When I arrived in Jakarta last summer on an ordinary night, I registered the city’s boisterous spirit with full amazement as my driver deftly negotiated through the hectic late-night traffic en route to my hotel. Everywhere we passed, the narrow streets were packed with endless rows of vendors cooking and selling late-night delights, graciously leaving just enough space for an experienced chauffeur to squeeze his vehicle through the buoyant chaos. The meandering lines of pop-up restaurants extended from the curbside to the neighboring parks and alleyways, gathering crowds of families and children in the open air. Traditional Malay pop songs were played through loudspeakers, inviting bystanders, young and old, to dance together to the beat.
Now, compare this scene of merrymaking with my lonely stroll on the empty boulevard of Reykjavik while fighting the blustering wind from the Arctic. How does my hypothesis stand?