Coming Together Over Food

The Cross-Cultural Power of Food: Coming Together Over Food

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Food is an important context for global and cross-cultural understanding. It is both highly global, as it is consumed worldwide, yet highly local, as there are significant variation in food across countries and cultures. 

Leisurely meals build trust

When Jackson Ridl, '18 BSB, moved to Hong Kong to work at consulting firm Mazars as part of the Carlson Global Institute’s summer business internship abroad option, he expected a rapid pace—flashing lights, speedy luxury cars, and fifty-hour work weeks. What he didn’t expect was the leisurely attitude around the traditional Chinese meals. “Dim Sum and Hot Pot are the two meals that come to mind when I compare Hong Kong’s cuisine to the United States’,” he says. “These meals take time to slow down from the fast-paced lifestyle of living in a megacity and reflect and unwind with those around you.”

When he was first introduced to Dim Sum, his co-workers described it as kind of like a Chinese version of tapas. Dim Sum translates in Cantonese to “small snack,” and during the meal, many small dishes—ranging from chicken feet to custard buns—are ordered and shared between those sitting around the table. “When enjoying Dim Sum, traditionally, multiple hours are invested into the meal to allow time to sip tea and talk with those around you,” Ridl says.

The other traditional dish, Hot Pot, is another lengthy meal where everyone shares the food. “I’d liken it to a Chinese version of fondue that uses soup instead of oil to cook the raw ingredients on the table,” Ridl says. “You can spend hours at the table snacking and talking, and I’ve found this to be very intentional.”

The leisurely hours spent at these meals are trust-building in Chinese culture, Ridl says. “As people spend more time with you, get to know you as a person, and start to understand your personality, they will begin to trust you more,” he says.

Dim Sum and Hot Pot are woven into the fabric of Chinese culture to grow and build relationships. Ridl adds that even other underlying Chinese traditions are expressed during these meals. “The youngest member of the table cleans the dishes and chop sticks before the meal. This shows respect to your elders, an idea that goes well beyond the table and finds its way into every aspect of Chinese culture,” he says. 

Dining is a collective experience

Born and raised in Minnesota, Thomas Pedretti, an accounting and finance major set to graduate in 2017, thought it was important to try something different for his semester abroad. “I thought Asia would be perfect,” he says. “After hearing about the kindness and friendliness of the Thai people, I knew that Thailand was my choice.”

In Thailand, Pedretti noticed two things about its food traditions. First, Thai people often like to order a wide variety of food for the entire group and then share each of the dishes among everyone. Second, all of the street vendors across Bangkok had almost identical prices for the same dishes.

“I think that both of these elements display their high level of collectivist values,” he says. “They prefer to share their food with others because they want each person to try everything, even if that means they receive less food because others eat more.

Pedretti also was surprised that the Thai dining experience centered far more around the group than the individual. “In American culture, we seem to be focused on our individual experience,” he says. “If food is not up to the standard a customer expects, they might send it back in America. But in Thailand, even when served a completely different dish than the one you ordered, you just say ‘Mai pen rai’—which means everything is fine—and eat it anyway with a smile on your face.”