culture and food

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Any human society's ethical, intellectual, and theological structure revolves around food. While eating itself is a very private act, Albala (2011) contends that the food consumed and the eating habits chosen by a community play a critical role in the development of a shared history that encourages involvement in the social body of belief. Simply said, food and the act of eating convey people's ideas, social backgrounds, experiences, and culture; in other words, you are what you eat, according to Xavier (2013). However, when it comes to cultural identities, food and eating habits are often relegated or overlooked, and emphasis placed on the so called deep structures of cultures, among them language, religion and history. However, a peoples’ food and eating habits often outlive vernacular language. While vernacular languages may significantly change over time due to interactions with other communities, descendants often continue preparing and eating similar kinds of foods as their ancestors. As such, though the role of food and eating habits has been neglected as a marker of cultural identity in the academic sphere, it is a better in marking cultural identity when compared to vernacular language (Civitello, L. (2008). This research explores the role of food and eating habits as a critical marker of cultural identities and heritage in different nations and ethnicities.

According to Albala (2011), food habits include not only the ingredients and the dishes prepared but also the techniques used in the preparation, coking and preservation of the food, the presentation and array, frequency and timing of different meals, the etiquette followed while eating the foods including who serves the food and who eats first, as well as the role of foods in festivals (Claxton, 2008). Preparing food and eating is purely never a biological activity since the process always imbued with meaning, which is communicated or understood in various ways. For instance, social preparation and eating of food is an activity that is conducted for other purposes rather than mere nutrition. Though food preparation and eating methods are different across different cultures, it is evident that they are not random but rather a representation of a peoples’ culture. Unlike language and other markers that significantly change with time due to interaction, food habits pass the test of time and outlive several generations. For instance, Civitello (2008) argues that it is common to come across an American Asian preparing local Asian foods even though the person may not know any Asian language. The fact that food habits outlive other cultural markers makes it the most appropriate marker of cultural identities and heritage in different nations and ethnicities (Civitello, 2008).

According to Albala (2011), the tradition of eating a particular food regularly is directly related to the geographical location, the quality of the surrounding environment and most importantly, the ancestral habits of the environment. However, in the long run, the food taken becomes a vital part of its cultural representation, and a carrier of cultural symbols. As such, food is in most cases used to flagging the national, regional and local identities of the people, whereby specific habits are considered to reflect specific cultures. For instance, eating with chopsticks is largely used to represent Chinese or Asian cultures (Xavier, 2013).

According to Kniazeva and Venkatesh (2007), the earliest comprehensive analysis of food in relation to the lives of the people and its place among other products offered by Levi (1981, 1999) in the consumer behaviour discipline. Using interviews Levi (1999) evidenced that human food habits are highly symbolic, as they are part of the process of searching meanings based on the analyses of myths told within a culture. This makes foods and food habits a carrier of a symbol that a culture identifies with. This made different cultures adopt different food habits, with different cultural subgroups adopting different roles in the various food habits of their culture. For instance, Kniazeva and Venkatesh (2007) noted that the female gender in the Indian community was tasked with the preparation and cooking, while their male counterparts the search for food. This led the conclusion that on the basic, food, food and eating habits are used to express cultural identities (Kniazeva &Venkatesh, 2007).

Kniazeva and Venkatesh (2007) research resonated with Xavier (2013), who postulated that food practices and habits help in creating long-lasting cultural identities in human. Using South and Southeast Asia as the case study Xavier (2013) evidenced the important role played by food in establishing or influencing the religion. According to the research, rice is the staple food in the South and Southeast Asia region thus is held in great regard among the people. Consequently, the people created the rice goddess, doubles up as the goddess of fertility. The rice goddess remains a dominant cultural symbol among South and Southeast Asian religion, and signifies how food influences the religion. Additionally, rice is used to shower the newly-weds to pray for their fertility, a religious practice that has since been borrowed by other cultures. The use of food to shape the religion is also analysed by Claxton, (2008), who argued that food helps to articulate the separateness of one creed from another using dietary taboos. As such Claxton, (2008) argued that religions declare certain food types, or food preparation procedures a taboo to distinguish them from others.

Food consumption techniques vary across cultures but have a significant meaning and influence of the peoples’ ways of life. Kniazeva and Venkatesh (2007) evidenced that the use of the right hand while taking meals is widespread in South and Southeast Asia and how this phenomena is still culturally significant in these regions. Even today, children in these regions are trained to use their right hands while taking their meals, which mark a significant representation of the peoples' culture in the region. Similar the use of chopsticks are still commonly used among ethnicities of the South and Southeast Asia, as opposed to cutlery, which is widely considered to have a European descent. Thus it is a common site to be served using chopsticks in establishments that serve Chinese or other South and Southeast Asia foods, since the chopsticks are used a representation of the cultures of these regions (Xavier, 2013).

Food habits are strongly associated with collectively shared and in most cases well-articulated meanings and images. In most cases, the type of food prepared has a cultural meaning and represent a specific occasion festivals, age bracket or gender, and rarely are the types of food used for alternative use besides their cultural importance (Xavier, 2013). For instance, Matta (2015) found out that turkey is the most common source of meat in many European and American families during the Christmas and thanks giving holidays. Other foods that have a cultural significance of the festivity period include gingerbread biscuits and liqueur chocolates in Germany, black and white pudding of France, and chicken with a stuffing made from a range of fruits and vegetables in Nicaragua. Additionally, Matta (2015) showed that fondue is considered by many Americans a fun meal, and the hamburger symbolically a teenage food. In an extensive study on Thanksgiving rituals Kniazeva and Venkatesh (2007), evidenced that Jell-O, one of the popular foods of the time is used to symbolize traditions and a bonded family, where the vegetables and the roots representing the common agrarian roots of American people, while the extensive use of butter instead of margarine conveys the message of triumph nature of agriculture over commerce (Wallach, 2013).

Food preparation, serving and consumption techniques which evidently vary with cultures, has a significant influence on familial relationships. In a study to evaluate why food is an important part of culture, Sweden (2012), evidenced that the type of food, preparation methods, as well as service and consumption methods reflects the peoples’ way of s life, thus can determine the Geert Hofstede cultural dimension. For instance, Civitello (2008), found out that Japanese work colleagues eat together after the work day, thus the conclusion that Japan has a collectivistic culture that puts group welfare before personal interests. Conversely, the study found Italy scores high on Femininity versus Masculinity score owing to the procedures followed in preparing their foods. This research corresponds with Wallach (2013) research, which explained that the fact that America culture is individualistic is attributed to the fact they consume fast foods. According to this study, consuming fast foods make Americans spend less time on the table taking their meals and conversing with their families over dinner tables, thus their individualistic nature (Wallach, 2013).

Evidently, food habits and practices have had a significant impact on the peoples' cultures, but what is the use of a culture if it cannot be preserved and passed on to the successive generation? Civitello (2008) argues that food preparation practices, most notably social eating provides a platform on which cultures are shared, thus passed on to successive. However, modern families are less likely to prepare their cultural meals. Factors such as convenience, price, nutrients, fat levels, calories among other factors are often considered while preparing foods. Additionally, the eating practice is increasingly becoming an individual affair owing to the changing tides of the time. Eating together in majority of modern families is almost impossible due to work and schools. Even when together, this noble practice is faced with numerous distractions such as televisions and other electronic devices. Kniazeva and Venkatesh (2007), argues that a peoples culture was often revealed and passed on during meal time, thus concludes that peoples culture is likely to be forgotten and completely lost owing to the fact that family meals are less common owing to the busy lifestyles of the people. Consequently, Civitello (2008) advises that we need to make social eating a priority in our eating habits to preserve the peoples culture.

In retrospection, food is a food is a central feature in the ethical, philosophical and religious framework of any human society, and though the actual practice of eating is purely an individual affair, it is pivotal reflection of the people’s culture. The food practices, which include the process and technique used to prepare the food, the way the food is served and consumed, communicates the peoples’ culture. The food taken is directly related to the peoples' culture, where taboo foods are used to distinguish religions. Foods may also be mould objects of worship such as the rice goddess of Asia. Food is also culturally significant thus there are foods used for specific functions, foods for specific ages and genders. The food preparation and consumption procedures are equally significant as they help to shape the peoples culture; thus, eating practices may be used to determine cultural identity of a community. Food eating practices such as social eating is specifically important in passing peoples culture to successive generation thus should be protected. Thus, though sometimes relegated or overlooked, food habits are more appropriate measure and identifiers of the peoples culture as compared to the so-called called deep structures of cultures, among them language, religion and history, since lightly put it, you are what you eat.


Albala, K. (2011). Food cultures of the world encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.

Civitello, L. (2008). Cuisine and culture: A history of food and people. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley.

Claxton, M., (2008). Culture, food and identity. Culture and development.

Kniazeva, M., and Venkatesh, A., (2007). Food for thought: A study of food consumption in postmodern US culture. A Journal of Consumer Behaviour.

Matta, Raúl, (2015). Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage. In Anthropology of food. Brulotte, L.and Di Giovine. Retrieved from

Wallach, J. J. (2013). How America eats: A social history of U.S. food and culture. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Xavier Romero-Frias, (2013). On the Role of Food Habits in the Context of the Identity and Cultural Heritage of South and South East Asia. Cultural Heritage and Identity International Symposium 2013. Retrieved from

March 15, 2023

Food Sociology

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Eating Habits Society Eating

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