When I was in kindergarten, my mom read my favorite book to my class, How My Parents Learned to Eat. It’s the story of a Japanese woman and an American man who learned to use each other’s traditional utensils when they met: a fork and a knife for the Japanese woman and chopsticks for the American man. After reading the book, even though my family is not Japanese, I asked my mom to teach me how to use chopsticks.
My parents, who are White, felt strongly that their two children should be exposed to different cultures. They taught us that people have varying customs and traditions, which is what makes the world interesting and special.
We frequently traveled or spent time with friends and family from other backgrounds, including an aunt who grew up in Chile and an uncle who was raised in Thailand. I was amazed at how our childhoods seemed similar, even in such different parts of the world. My uncle attended synagogue and played Little League in Bangkok, just like I had done in New York City.
Food was important to my family, and often the way my parents introduced me to other cultures was through food. By the age of eight, I had tried cuisines ranging from Vietnamese to Moroccan. My favorite foods included creamy saag paneer and savory arroz con pollo from our regular takeout spots. Employees at the restaurants always told me that I had “an advanced palate” for my age, and this made me feel mature and cultured. At the time, though, I did not understand that the foods I was eating were Americanized and I was not really immersing myself in another culture.
An Education in the Americanization of Food
One day when I was 9, I had a conversation with my uncle from Thailand. I told him how much I loved Thai food and said, “Pad Thai is my favorite.” His response shocked me.
“Did you know that Pad Thai is barely eaten in Thailand?” he said.
“How come?” I asked. “It’s delicious.”
“Well of course it exists over there, but it’s really a dish catered to American tastes.”
This raised many questions for me. How and why do certain foods become Americanized? Why are more authentic foods not commonly found here? I now longed to taste a “real” Thai dish.
After researching answers to these questions and talking to my parents, I learned that “Americanizing” certain foods is done in an effort to appeal to American tastes. Many people prefer familiarity, and adapting certain foods to American tastes makes customers more comfortable and ultimately helps restaurants to succeed.
Additionally, traditional ingredients are often hard to find or expensive in the United States, so they might be replaced with commonly found American ingredients. I was sad to learn that restaurant owners felt the need to disregard parts of their culture in order to benefit people like me. I understood the reasons why they did it, but I wondered how this made them feel. It must have been challenging to prepare and serve food that was not representative of what they had grown up eating.
I wondered what was culturally lost by doing this. The conversation with my uncle led me to realize that the foods I was eating were not necessarily providing me with a true “taste” of other cultures. At first, eating ethnic foods made me feel worldly, but I eventually realized that wasn’t the point. I sought a way to better relate to my friends and neighbors of other cultures, and to some extent, I thought knowing a bit about their authentic cuisine could help me do this.
My parents had taught me to value diversity from a young age, and this stuck with me. I appreciated growing up in the “melting pot” that was New York City, and felt lucky to be surrounded by a rich mix of worldviews and cultures. However, I wanted to connect to people around me without an Americanized lens. If restaurant owners felt the need to adapt their food to please the American palate, was dining out really providing me with any insight?
Learning Not to Oversimplify Other Cultures
There was a Spanish restaurant in my neighborhood where we ate quesadillas and hard-shelled tacos, but I asked my parents to take me to a more authentic Spanish restaurant.
We arrived to the upbeat sounds of Flamenco music and the alluring aroma of garlic and what I eventually learned to identify as saffron. This was different from the atmosphere I was used to at my neighborhood spot, where loud TVs played sports games. When I opened the menu, it was vastly different. I switched from my usual orders with a side of French fries for patatas bravas—fried potatoes in a spicy sauce. I was excited to try this authentic meal and when the food arrived, I looked for the defining moment in which I would understand Spanish culture.
But that didn’t happen, of course. Clearly, there is no single moment — whether through food, conversation, or even travel — that will be truly transformative in understanding another culture. To think so overly simplifies the depth and richness of cultures around the world. Food is only one aspect of culture, and neglecting to recognize other key aspects makes it impossible to understand and appreciate our differences.
I thought back to the book How My Parents Learned to Eat. If I thought this book taught me about different cultures when I was young, I could read more advanced books now. I picked up The Kite Runner, which gave me deeper insight into economics, gender, and religion in the Middle East.
I realize now that understanding a culture different from one’s own can’t be done just through what they like to eat. The next time I’m able to travel outside of the country, I’ll expose myself to the art, the history, the landscape, and other aspects beyond just what’s on my plate.