The Flavors of Our Travels

How food weaves into the narrative of cross-cultural exploration

Posted Jan 25, 2016

Africa Studio/AdobeStock
Source: Africa Studio/AdobeStock

The joys of the table belong equally to all ages, conditions, countries and times; they mix with all other pleasures, and remain the last to console us for their loss. Jean Antheleme Brillet-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste (1825)

What is it about a bite of a sinfully ripe tomato, the smell of herbed olives, and the crunch of a warm baguette that can bring back recollections of sun-drenched Mediterranean summers on a gray winter’s night? The spell of food on our emotions and cognitions is far-reaching. It all begins with the perception of flavor – an intricate affair involving the stimulation of all the major senses. Our eyes and noses are usually the first ones to the feast, before the receptor cells of the tongue’s taste buds connect with sensory neurons and transfer information to our brains. There are only five basic tastes. Yet, their dynamic interplay with multisensory impressions creates myriads of flavors to color our palates. Flavors come alive on cross-cultural expeditions. Of course, the sights of novel landscapes imprint in our eyes. The sounds of foreign languages set in our ears. The smells of the air, the earth, the cities stay with us long after we return home. But then there is taste – the jolt of ginger, the whisper of nutmeg, the shock of chili – all enthralling our senses with distinct vigor. All bearing their own secrets, their own clues to other ways of being. The role of food in our travels cannot be underestimated. Food, after all, is a gateway to the cultures we are exploring, and later, a faithful gateway to our memories.

As an expression of culture, food has become a defining feature of our identities. Thus, one of the most intimate routes of discovering cultures is through their culinary traditions. Taste allows for a meaningful, if not a transformative relationship with a place. It intercepts the delicate rapport between the hosts and their guests. With food, we build bonds, learn rituals, take sips from history, before suddenly, something that was distinctly theirs becomes also ours. Whether we eat from porcelain saucers or wooden bowls, with chopsticks, hands or silverware, whether we sit on tatami floors or around dining tables, food brings us closer to each other. Food can teach us trust. It can teach us to become tolerant and to withhold judgment. It can teach us flexibility. It can teach us adventure and creativity. Communing together with food can relieve and magnify emotions, uniting us all just as much, in laughter and in grief. As flavors weave into our travel narratives, food becomes a platform for an exchange of cultural currencies and a shared celebration of identity.

Traveling between cultures does more than stock our bags with knowledge and experience. It expands our arsenal of spices for the dishes we will be concocting, for the life we will be living. It gives us courage to mix and match ingredients, dream up new combinations and discover new harmonies. Somewhere along the changing backdrop, food becomes a bridge not only between people but also between the past and the future, between the known and the unknown. And when we are back at home in the solace of native tastes, it is often the memories of food that stay with us most vividly from our cultural explorations.

Eating is an affectively charged experience. While memories associated with strong emotions are more easily remembered and recalled, odor-evoked memories possess a particular emotional potency, thanks to the neuroanatomical connection between the olfactory system and the brain’s amygdala (emotion) hippocampal (memory) complex. Memories are hence readily formed around food. In fact, involuntary memories – memories that are evoked without deliberate effort upon exposure to environmental cues such as taste and smell – have been shown to be most frequently positive. This “culinary time travel” can explain how the taste of childhood can transport us to grandma’s kitchen, and how a spec of spice can whisk us far away. In Swann’s Way Proust famously describes the moment his narrator is overcome by an “all-powerful joy” (p.48) as he eats a madeleine soaked in tea, before realizing that his unexpected pleasure was due to his recollection of his long-forgotten childhood Sundays with his aunt. Thus, Proust concludes, is the role of food in preserving our past, that when the passage of time scatters and breaks things, leaving nothing and no one to survive, only taste and smell – “more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful” (p.50) – remain in our memories.

Food then, on life’s sweeping stage, is a protagonist. With its vibrant scripts of flavors and scents, it defies time’s dutiful dulling of our recollections, helping us keep our happy memories longer. I was last under its spell when I found myself standing frozen in front of a quiet teashop in Tokyo’s bustling Kichijoji neighborhood, breathing in the spilling billows of roasted green tea from the store’s open doors, as my soul heaved and churned with nostalgia for a home long forsaken. There is no love sincerer than the love of food, wrote George Bernard Shaw. According to the archives of our Proustian moments, there is no love stronger than when it is shared, as we gather around food with companions (in Latin: com=together, panis=bread) old or new, in our homes or theirs, kneading captured moments into memories we will hold dear for the rest of our lives.

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