You can learn a lot about a culture just by looking at its cuisine. Food not only tells you what meats, vegetables, and spices are naturally available in an area, but it also can reveal interesting details about a culture’s customs and history. For instance, you can learn about migratory patterns of different cultures and various trade routes that have made their way through a specific region by the meals that are being prepared there. Take a look at Peruvian cuisine. It not only has distinct flavors that can only be found in Peru, but it also has prominent culinary influences from Africa and Spain. Many Peruvian dishes are an intricate fusion of all three.
Environmental factors have a large impact on cuisine. The amount of rain, sunlight, and heat an area receives in a year will significantly impact what vegetables and fruits will grow there. For instance, grapevines prefer a temperate climate, with warm, dry summers and mild winters. Winters of sustained cold will kill grapevines and areas with high humidity promote vine disease. This is why wine is very much a part of French, Italian, and Argentine cultures where the climates align well with optimal wine grape environments. It’s not to say that you cannot grow grapes in tropical regions or regions with very harsh winters, but it typically is not a part of the traditional culture of those areas.
Religion may have the biggest impact on a culture’s cuisine. Buddhism considers all living beings to be sacred, therefore cultures where Buddhism is the prominent religion, the cuisine tends to be vegetarian- or vegan-focused. In Islam, food preparation must follow specific practices such as ritual slaughtering procedures for meats, fasting during the month of Ramadan, refraining from ingesting pork and intoxicating liquor. And in Judaism, there are strict rules about what is considered kosher, meaning suitable or pure enough for consumption. Because of these various religious practices, a culture’s cuisine can be very much influenced by the prevalent religion.
We love to visit local farms to learn about how food is produced, to talk to the farmers, ranchers, and producers to understand their perspective, and to taste the local flavors directly at the source. Trying the local cuisines can be one of the best ways to learn about different cultures, and frankly, it is half the fun of traveling to new places!