Food has an important role in realising national identity, based on traditional recipes and a shared culture. Certain ingredients and dishes are claimed as a national staple, defining that nation's food habits. They often come with a particular story and history of how recipes developed. In this sense, food has been claimed as national by nationalist agendas.
Should we be focusing on national lines to distinguish food cultures? What about regional differences in food practices, ingredients and recipes? In a world of nation states, it seems inevitable to distinguish practices along these very national lines. Nonetheless, regional differences in food practices are present in all countries, which means it may not be so simple to define food culture through a national lens.
Turkish food is a particularly good example for illustrating this. Turkey’s broad geography expands from the Aegean to Eastern Anatolia and from the Mediterranean up to the Black Sea. With such a large geography comes diversity in ethnicities, backgrounds, histories, climates, cultures, among others. All of this brings the presence of different peoples, dialects, ingredients and food practices. The range of climates in this vast terrain result in varying regional ingredients that are available as components of common dishes. Turkey owes its diversity in food practices and cultures to all of these factors.
Along the Aegean coastlines, one will encounter dishes made out of fresh herbs and olive-oil together with a lot of fresh seafood. Further below, in the Mediterranean and South Eastern Anatolia, the weather is warm and the soils are fertile. As one moves further towards South-East Anatolia, spices and tomato paste (known as salça in Turkish) become an inescapable ingredient. Also featuring a large range of fresh produce, spices are heavily used in this region as it is located on the former spice and silk routes. Popular spices include, hot pepper flakes, paprika, sumac, cumin and mint which are used in meat and vegetable dishes.
With high wheat production, grains are used generously in Central Anatolia. The region faces extreme temperatures with steaming hot summers and snowy cold winters. As a result, many dishes are made from preserved items such as cured meats, dried fruit, dried nuts and grains.
Up north, you have the Black Sea coast where fishing is widespread and the climate is rainy and damp - ideal for tea and hazelnut production. This region is most known for their Black Sea anchovies (known as hamsi in Turkish) that are locally fished and prepared in a variety of ways such as in bread, stews, rice among others.
Turkish cuisine is one example to illustrate how diverse food cultures can be within a country. A regional perspective to food also allows us to view commonality in recipes between countries. Looking at the Mediterranean region, many countries in fact have their version of, give-or-take, the same dish. Recipes differ incorporating available ingredients at hand, but the vision of the dish remains a constant. Stuffed vegetables of various kinds are a classic dish throughout many Mediterranean countries running from Greece and Turkey, to Syria and Iran. The ingredients used in the rice filling vary depending on the region and the personal palette of one’s family, but the idea behind it remains the same.
So how should we be thinking about food cultures if a multitude of food cultures exist within nations while common dishes transcend national borders? This is definitely something to contemplate further for a better understanding of the origin of ingredients, the development of recipes and the creation of dishes.
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Maki Kimura (2016) Food, national identity and nationalism: from everyday to global politics, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39:13, 2450-2452.
Reddy, G., & van Dam, R. M. (2020). Food, culture, and identity in multicultural societies: Insights from Singapore. Appetite, 149, 104633.
Photo credits to Yonca Zaim