Writing the multicultural experience
A famous chef, James Beard, once said:
Food is our common ground, a universal experience.
Who could dispute that food is a universal experience? But is it really a common ground?
I have my own prejudices about food, like everyone else. That’s because the culture and, yes, the religion in which we grew up shape our tastes and preferences.
I asked my husband (of Polish descent) once what the strangest food is that he has ever eaten. He said raw sushi. But I love sushi, so he and I do not speak a common language there.
I also love oysters, which he, at first, preferred to eat fried. But he tasted the freshest raw oysters on a trip we took to La Rochelle, north of the Brittany coast in France. La Rochelle claims to have the best oysters in the world and you realize it’s true with your first bite of their oysters. Now, he likes oysters.
Maybe, the right experience can change one’s preferences, maybe even her prejudices.
I have traveled in Asia, Europe, and parts of north Africa, so I have eaten not only raw fish, shellfish and various kinds of fungi and seaweed. I’ve also tasted seven kinds of mole, a couple of red spicy grasshoppers, countless stinky cheeses, meat in blood sauce, and, of course, many flavors of French macarons. I’m not a big meat eater but I have eaten tongue, feet, tail, some pig innards, and even pig snout.
Isn’t it weird, then, that the strangest food, for me, is a vegetable from my childhood? Okra. Not that I disliked its taste or its smell. But I could never take its sliminess. This is an individual quirk, obviously, and not culture-based. When I confessed to this in a post, a lady blogger from India shared her trick with me: Roast with spices. No, I haven’t tried that method yet.
I am fairly adventurous about food, probably because I’m not shy about crossing cultures. Sampling cuisines from different countries can be a delicious, painless way of immersing yourself in an otherwise strange culture, if you don’t balk at trying unusual foods.
And, of course, describing ethnic food and dishes helps situate stories with multicultural characters and scenarios, lending them realism and authenticity. In the Pacific island to which the protagonists return in Welcome, Reluctant Stranger, their island host shows her American guests the dishes she’s serving:
“Roast pork, the best part about it is the crispy skin. Oxtail stew in a peanut sauce with beans, eggplant, and chunks of banana blossoms. Raw fish—very fresh, still alive when we chopped its head of—in coconut cream and juice of a native citrus. Grilled oysters gathered off the coast, south of the city.”
In all three novels of my series, Between Two Worlds, I have included dining and eating scenes not only to help the story along, but also because I think food and eating are such primal, usually pleasurable, experiences that just reading about them can make one go “yum” or “yuck” depending on her taste. One reviewer confessed to finding herself “hungry a lot” while reading Hello, My Love—a novel that features delectable dishes in dining scenes.
Food and eating descriptions are a way of eliciting emotions in a reader. I include them where I can. Besides, I love writing about them.