Menus at restaurants—especially fast food—are becoming more diverse. McDonald’s has a new “Worldwide Favorites” menu, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Sacramento Bee said a local Taco Bell will feature multiple alcoholic beverages this fall. With new menus everywhere, it’s worth looking at what the world is eating.
If you live in the United States, you might be surprised to see a Stroopwafel McFlurry in McDonald’s, but in the Netherlands it’s a staple dessert item on the fast food chain’s menu. It might also seem strange to order a Baja Blast with Ketel One in it. But if the test market is successful, the cocktail may be coming to a Taco Bell near you. Despite the spread of most foods to all four corners of the Earth, humans still have wildly different diets owing to our diverse cultures.
Washoku—The Japanese Harmony of Food
In Japan, a sort of culture of food called “Washoku” has arisen. “The first kanji character, for ‘wa,’ means ‘harmony’ in Japanese,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The second kanji character, for ‘shoku,’ means ‘foods.’ So, ‘washoku’ literally translates to ‘food of Japan.'” She said that according to the United Nations organization UNESCO, washoku is defined as a social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice, and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation, and consumption of food.
Washoku is primarily concerned with ingredients that are both local and natural, such as rice, fish, and vegetables. “It includes things like pickled vegetables; soups made with tofu, kelp, and miso; and sides of cooked tofu, vegetables, or fish,” Dr. Crittenden said. The philosophy of washoku has permeated into other aspects of Japanese cuisine as well, such as the balance of fresh fish, rice, and seaweed in sushi, but even more interestingly, washoku is found in bento boxes.
Generally, bento boxes—which date back several centuries in Japan—are single-serving meals in small containers portioned out by each food item. They’ve become such a staple of Japanese culture that, according to Dr. Crittenden, mothers often spend up to 45 minutes preparing their children’s bento boxes for lunch at school. They carve fruits and vegetables into patterns, shapes, and even tiny likenesses of animals for their kids to enjoy. In recent years, bento boxes have taken off in America as well. Americans who favor bento boxes say that they help with portion control and help to convince their kids to eat vegetables due to the fun shapes in which they are served.
The Three Sisters of Central and North America
In traditional Mexican cuisine, the tortilla is one of the most well-known and common foods. “Food historians believe that the tortilla has been a mainstay of the diet in the North American and Mesoamerican cuisine for almost a thousand years,” Dr. Crittenden said. “They were a principle food of the Aztecs, who are rumored to have eaten several with every meal, using them to dip into mole or other sauces.”
Dr. Crittenden explained that tortillas were originally made of maize. “Traditionally, tortillas were made by curing maize kernels in lime water, grinding them up, cooking the flour, and then kneading it into dough and pressing it into flat patties before cooking it on a flat surface like a griddle,” she said. Not only are tortillas incredibly versatile, but maize is also known as one of the “three sisters” crops. The other two are beans and squash. All three were classically grown by Native Americans and they have a rich history, as research suggests that all three have been regularly grown together for 5,000 years.
“The three crops were originally planted close together because they benefited one another,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The maize provided a structure for the beans to climb, acting like a pole; the squash acted as ground cover and mulch, helping to provide moisture to the soil and prevent weeds and pests; and the beans added nitrogen to the soil that the other two plants could use.” Mexican cuisine has become a major part of the American diet as well. It’s estimated that as of 2015, there were more than 40,000 Mexican restaurants in the United States.
As restaurants diversify their menus and bring worldwide favorites to our doorstep, we may find ourselves enjoying some eye-opening cultural experiences. Just as Japanese and Mexican cuisines have thrived in the United States, the ever-broadening choices to treat our palettes show no signs of stopping any time soon.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.