Why We Should Talk About The Culture Around Food

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Why do we assume people know about steak tartare but not yukhoe? Or that fine dining cuisine usually means French or Italian not Middle Eastern?

Food and culture are deeply intertwined and it’s important to consider the wider contexts of what we eat. It’s more than just food as it forms a central part of who we are and how we grew up.

Culture Needs To Be A Part Of The Food Discourse

“I think for a lot of cultures, especially my own, the entire culture revolves around food,” said Jess Ho, food journalist and host of podcast Bad Taste.

For Jess when people see “food [as] just food” it feels like they “aren’t interested in the culture” of food.

The customs about what and how we eat are just as important as the food itself. And it’s often a memorable moment when you realise how different they can be like for Executive Chef Paul Farag.

He described a component of Middle Eastern food as the table being always being preset “with a couple of little things” you can nibble at before the main course arrives.

“Bread is a huge part, rice is a huge part. We don’t have dessert, it’s fruit at the end of the meal and a couple of bits of pastries. The first time I ever went to a Westerners house as a kid I got a plate and I had the meat and three veg sort of thing. And I was like I’ve never experienced this before.”

Paul developed his menu to connect with his own Egyptian heritage as well as exploring the unique flavours of Middle Eastern cuisines.

“All the way from the north of Africa into the traditional Middle East, all the way to Iran, the cuisine changes, the dishes change. The more east you go, there’s more subcontinent flavours of more spice, darker deeper flavours.”

Redefining What Audiences Know About Food

Paul told Junkee that he’s particularly passionate about breaking the mould and redefining what people expect from Middle Eastern food.

Redefining what people expect from food in general is also a topic of Jess’ work in food journalism as she explores what it means to write about food for a particular audience.

“There’s an expectation of familiarity with cuisines like French or Italian, but not so much with other cultures. It’s kind of this constant juggle of why can I say something like steak tartare and assume that everyone knows what it is. But if I say yukhoe you have to define that. It’s always explaining someone else’s culture or my own culture through the white gaze.”

This idea of assuming knowledge with cultural cuisines was a key part of Paul’s work at AALIA, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Martin Place.

“The whole thing is like Middle Eastern food is it’s typecast. It was always something that I never wanted to do because I didn’t want to be typecast with the way I look,” he said.

“I’m trying to pioneer a change in the lexicon. Every dish has at least one Middle Eastern sort of terminology. A few people have given me a bit of backlash about that but you go to a French restaurant and every single word is written in French. And if you don’t speak French, you sort of have the waiter sort of guide you. 

So it’s just more something like, why? Why can’t we bring that with Middle Eastern condiments and Middle Eastern flavours and ingredients?”