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Food Is The Ultimate Culture Spark

The power of food

Hands kneading bread

Have you ever walked into the kitchen and got hit with a smell that brought back a flood of feelings and memories? Food has an incredible way of enabling conversations around a family’s stories and heritage. From growing it, preparing it, eating it, even cleaning up after it - food is one of our favourite culture sparks.

A culture spark is something that we’ve discovered in our conversations that is an important element when trying to discover our histories. Stories and conversations don’t just happen - the most thoughtful and authentic stories come when people are in a mindset to share. It has been said that sharing food is sharing love, and so we thought we’d start there!

If we think back, it’s the kitchen counter and dining room table that happen to be where the best stories are made, shared, and retold. Memories of past times come from the sights, smells, and flavours of traditional and comfort foods. On the other hand, there is something to be said of consistency - the repetition that brings us back to past times doing the same activities. It creates a bit of a zen that frees us to get out of the to-do lists of today and let our minds wander. Finally, there is the comfort that comes from food - the safe and satiated feeling that spurs a willingness to share. All of this comes together to make food the ultimate culture spark.

There are infinite ways that food can bring us closer to our cultures and families. We’d love to hear yours, so please do share below, but in the meantime, here are a few stories that we were inspired by:

The Flavour Of Family Love

Our friend Alex shared something in his Korean culture called Son-mat (손맛) which translates to "hand taste." He notes that “there were a lot of flavour profiles and nuances on why certain dishes exist, or why we eat certain things, and even how you cook.” But it’s that “hand taste” that is the most unique. “It's sort of the taste that's imparted through your experience and through the love that you put into the food. My mother's son-mat, or my grandmother's son-mat is how their lived experiences in cooking this food has resulted in a very specific flavour profile that you just can't put in a recipe book. Their son-mat flavours are passed down through generations in the food they feed their families. I'm trying to refine my own son-mat and get to a point where I don't need to follow a recipe book. I can literally just throw [ingredients] into a bowl and out comes delicious food and it's never measured."

A Catalyst To Embracing Your Roots

We asked our community: To anyone who shares your culture, what's one way they can start to embrace it? Sara’s answer had to do with food. She said “come to Shabbat dinner, a Rosh Hashanah dinner (Jewish New Year) or a Chanukah party and celebrate happy holidays.” The most overwhelming way our community felt you could immerse someone into their culture was by inviting them to a holiday dinner. It’s not just the energy and ritual of a celebration, but the special dishes saved for these special occasions that really felt like an invitation into your culture.

History, memories, and culture are passed down with flavours. Sara speaks fondly of her mother’s brisket and chicken with matzoh ball soup, as not only the flavours of the holiday, but also “making those in order to keep mother’s memory alive, and to make her be a part of the celebrations that we would have.”

The Universal Language

So many of us who have immigrated away from our genealogical home find that food is the easiest way to stay close to their culture. In chatting with Laith, we learned that being Lebanese is a point of pride, but not speaking the language is a huge barrier to feeling connected with the culture. He says, “I don't feel connected to the Arabic world because I can’t communicate with my family, at restaurants, or with street vendors. But with food, the language is the food. To cook with, or for, someone, food is the way that my mom can show me something and I feel more a part of my own culture. Not being able to speak Arabic distances me from relating with my Lebanese family; but around the table at a meal, I feel more at ease. We can share something and be closer.” As Laith loves to cook with his mother, and has a strong appreciation of the ingredients, recipes, and cooking methods, he has found that food is one way in which he feels more accepted.

Next time you sit down with your family for a meal, think about the history or significance of the dishes, the love that went into its preparation, how it is bringing you closer to your cultural roots. Like all things, recipes evolve, and that is a special part of how your family story has evolved. So ask the questions, and use your next meal as a way to discover more about your history. Here are a few questions that might help start a conversation:

  • Is there a history or importance to this dish?

  • Do any of the ingredients have any significance?

  • Is there a special method or trick to making this dish?

  • Who taught you to make this? Have you ever altered it to make it your own?

  • Are there memories that this dish makes you think of?

  • Does our family have a secret recipe?

There are so many culture and story sparks - not just food. Sometimes it’s watching a show or sport on TV, a song, a craft, a chore, resting or tea time.

What are some of the activities that foster the most conversations around your culture and family history? Share them with us below, because what works for you might inspire someone else to discover their stories.

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