Dig In: how food became my gateway to another culture
Justin Scott // managing editor
I’ve been fascinated by cultures throughout my whole life, be it my own or others’. As a young kid, my favorite book was a pyramid shaped pop-up book all about Egypt, its empire and Pharaohs. I would read books or watch documentaries about how cultures had evolved over time, some being lost and others growing and splitting.
As my father is a passionate learner, especially when history is involved, I’d often end up watching shows like Rome, Shogun or The Tudors when other kids my age were watching Even Stevens (yes, my mom agrees, I was far too young for the content).
Rarely though, did I experience other cultures, I’d simply look at them from the outside. Sure, I’d go on road trips across Canada and the US, and even went to Europe when I graduated high school, but I never really immersed myself in another culture. The closest I got was maybe my Grade 4 trip to the Long House outside of Squamish, where my classmates and I spent a weekend learning about the First Nations people’s traditional ways of life by living them.
Aside from that, my best friend was Italian, but we were more focused on sports, girls and video games when we were growing up than we were sharing our family’s pasts with one another. And living in Deep Cove my whole life, there weren’t a whole lot of other cultures around to be exposed to.
All of this changed once I started dating a girl who happened to be Persian.
Once we got serious and I started to meet her family and spend time at her house, I was thrust into a whole new culture. Soon, I was at family gatherings and meeting her family friends. It was great. There was however one thing making my transition into their community challenging – language.
The Persian language of Farsi is beautiful. I love listening to people speak it, I just don’t understand it. So, as I was starting to attend more and more Persian gatherings, it was hard for me to connect with people through speech. It’s not that no one speaks English, but when they’re together they naturally speak in their native tongue. I could tell it was occasionally frustrating for people I was meeting as well because the Persian culture is so welcoming and accommodating, and sometimes people felt as though I was missing out due to the language barrier. Luckily for me, there’s another language I do speak fluently – food. And if there’s something Persians do well, it’s food.
My girlfriend’s family and friends and I quickly realized that although we may occasionally struggle to have an in-depth conversation about our musical tastes or political views, we could certainly share meals. And it was through these experiences that I started to learn.
I’d be having a certain dish and someone would come up to me and explain how it came to be, or how it was made in the region in which they came from. Slowly, through discussions of preparation methods and ingredients, I began to learn of Persia’s past.
With figureheads like Donald Trump describing Iran as if it’s a country of extremist terrorists, many don’t realize the wealth of history and culture the Persian people have. In fact, up until Iran’s Cultural Revolution in the early 1980’s, the nation was an extremely open and cultural state, giving Europe’s best a run for their money. However, after the revolution, many things changed in Iran, which lead to many Iranians leaving.
Canada now has the fifth largest population of Persians outside of Iran in the world, with just over 200,000 as of 2015, 30,000 of which live in the Greater Vancouver area. And areas like Lonsdale have become thriving Persian communities.
Now four years into our relationship, the original issues I’d encounter when meeting her family or friends have dissipated, but our shared experience of food is still going strong, and still allowing me to learn. Just the other week her family had guests over and a debate over how to properly cook a certain dish broke out between two guests from different regions of Iran, from which I learned more of the culture’s history.
This phenomenon however, is nothing new. Shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Eddie Huang’s Huang’s World, or most recently David Chang’s Ugly Delicious do impeccable jobs of showcasing cultures through food. And I myself, can think of few better ways to be introduced to a culture. So, the next time you’re out getting Pho or Kebab, take the time to talk to whoever’s serving you about their connection to the food, you never know what you may learn.