Learning History Through Food: a very short essay.

I like to learn. I find myself reading something about a place in passing, a side note in a larger passage, and that thing, that place, gets stuck in my brain. I seek out more information, be it books, novels, movies, and even food. Often, when learning about a place or a people, I try to recreate some sort of food as a way to connect. How much can one really understand a place never before visited by learning about the food? As it turns out, a lot. Here are just two examples:

Bánh Mì, the classic Vietnamese sandwich that has gained quite a bit of popularity in recent years, is a wonderful example of learning through food. Pork, pâté, pickled vegetables, a smear of mayonnaise, and a healthy dose of Vietnamese history fill the bánh mì’s crusty baguette. Baguettes, mayonnaise, and cold cuts are not historically Vietnamese cuisine; they were introduced to the country by the French during their colonization of the country. Initially, any imported goods were only affordable to the French. Around the outbreak of the First World War, there was an increase in European goods in Vietnam, and they became affordable to the Vietnamese. It wasn’t until after the defeat of the French that the Vietnamese modified traditionally French ingredients, and added what was available to them locally. Baguettes remained a constant, thanks to American wheat shipments. The bánh mì made it’s way out into the world following the end of the Vietnam war, after millions of refugees fled the country. There is a lot of history packed into that baguette.

Come Taco Tuesday, you will find any number of people tucking into Tacos al Pastor, a popular Mexican food this side of the border. But it is another dish that tells a bit of the history of its country. In the late 1800s, Lebanese immigrants, fleeing the oppressive Ottoman regime, arrived on Mexico’s shores. More Lebanese immigrated in the 1920s and 1930s, this time for more economic reasons. Like immigrants everywhere, they brought with them their food customs. Like all immigrants before them, they had to make do with what was available to them. Tacos al Pastor evolved from shawarma, layers of highly seasoned lamb, spit-roasted, then shaved into a pita. Once in Mexico, the Lebanese immigrants used the more readily available pork, shaved into a thick tortilla along with a little pineapple. Salsas and limes replaced yogurt, and Tacos al Pastor were born.

The world is filled with examples of food as a means to learn about a people. It doesn’t always have to do with colonization or migration (but often does). Why does that group of people have a certain diet? Because they are isolated mountain people, or surrounded by water. People do move, though. They move in search of food (see: spice routes), and they want food after they move (British curry houses). Volumes could be written about the histories behind the dishes. Learn about the food from a place, and learn about the people. And eat!

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