It is undeniable that food plays as much a part of our culture as anything else in our heritage. These days, we are blessed with the ability to access almost any type of cuisine. If it is not already in a local store, we can probably order it or find a recipe online, or we could even travel abroad to experience the authentic culture. We can even see new fusion dishes from contrasting cultures being invented and making their way into people’s daily lives.
Before globalization, food rarely traveled far from its home. At most, it may be sent to a neighboring people or plundered during war. However, it was next to impossible that anyone from a land far away would ever be able to taste a dish from another civilization. Many societies were also limited in the types of ingredients they could use in their food because each land had its own natural produce, and perishables such as crops could not be sent on long journeys to trade with other lands. This resulted in different types of food being eaten in different parts of the world. As such, early food culture in most societies blossomed independently.
Today, we can tell a lot about a culture just by looking at its traditional food. Food teaches us about how people used to live, work and socialize. For instance, we can probably guess what the people did for a living, whether they were farmers, hunters or fishers. We can also tell if the people suffered shortages of food or harsh winters if they tended to preserve their dishes with salt or pickles. We can guess how the people traditionally ate their food, and if they placed heavy importance on communal sharing and eating around the table, or preferred to have their individual meals. We can taste the unique flavors of each culture in how they prepare their dishes and present them. Additionally, we can see how different cultures came up with different ways to use the same grains, vegetables and meat in their dishes.
Food has been a matter of importance for a long time. In fact, some early settlers traveled across continents for the purpose of food. For centuries, the spice trade flourished along major trading routes, spreading all kinds of seasonings such as cassia, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom to regions all over the world. Spice-producing regions and their distributors saw how valuable these items were. Once the people of the West had tasted food flavored with spices, other dishes seemed bland without them. The demand for spices was high enough that wars were fought over it. Arab traders refused to divulge the real sources of their goods, and instead spun ridiculous tales detailing how their spices were obtained in order to protect their trade.
In the tenth century, Venice and Genoa found a rivalry with each other when they both began to prosper through trade. This resulted in the three-year naval war of Chioggia, ending in 1381, after which Venice secured a monopoly on the spice trade in the Middle East for the next century. This brought the Venetians great profits from trading spices with European buyers and distributors. Although the Europeans were aware of where the spices came from, they were unable to find other means of obtaining the goods until sea voyage became accessible. Explorers such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot set sail with the hopes of reaching the lands of spice. They were both unsuccessful, but did manage to discover other types of crops from the lands they reached, such as chili peppers.
The spice trade was then dominated by Portugal, whose expedition was the first to bring spices directly from India to Europe through the Cape of Good Hope. However, Spain continued its search for an alternative supply of spice, sending Ferdinand Magellan with a fleet of five ships on an expedition. Although Magellan was killed on Mactan Island in the Philippines in 1521, Juan Sebastián Elcano commandeered the only seaworthy ship left, Victoria, and returned to Spain with a cargo full of spice.
Spice was not the only contested commodity. Tea was just as attractive a necessity, particularly to the early Europeans who never had access to it until about 1610. When tea was first imported, it was seen as an exotic medicine. Then it quickly became a healthier alternative to gin, and was finally incorporated as an everyday drink. The English, Dutch and Russians alike had a taste for the beverage and consumed quantities of it, even making efforts to cultivate the plant in their home countries. Seeing this as an opportunity, the British began taxing the sales of tea, which at one point accounted for ten percent of the British tax income. Quantities of tea were also smuggled both to avoid the taxes and also as a protest.
In what was known as the “Tea Race”, Dutch and British ships raced to import tea from China to Europe in the shortest amount of time. This had a more practical reason apart from competitiveness: the longer tea leaves remained on a voyage, the more likely they would get spoiled or taste bad. However, the only other alternative – transporting the tea by land through Russia – was too expensive an option, due to the high tariffs Russia imposed on tea imports. On the other hand, Russia was able to enjoy the best tasting tea since it could transport a regular supply of tea from China via caravan on land.
The mass importation of tea resulted in trade imbalances as none of these countries had quite enough to offer China in exchange for the bulk of tea they required. While the British, Dutch and Russians could have raised the prices of tea at home, they preferred to increase the importation quantities instead of limiting people’s access to tea. This led to attempts to cultivate tea in cheaper places, such as Indonesia, India and more favorable parts of Russia. Tea was also cultivated to a lesser extent in other places such as Africa, South America, and even California and South Carolina.
Eventually, spice and tea both became so commonly traded that they are now found in common meals all over the world, even if they were not originally grown in that area. Today, it is difficult to imagine our favorite cuisines without any of these ingredients.
Despite the key differences in how food culture has evolved in different societies, we can perhaps see that humans are really not all that different. While there is much we can learn from trying the food of other cultures, each cuisine bears some similarities to every other, fueled by human desires and needs at its heart.