7/26 - Food & Culture

I haven't updated this blog for a while, being extremely busy  teaching  summer courses.  My energy was totally drained in the last two weeks. However, after finally finishing teaching, I have a sense relief. I had quite busy life during past few weeks, but did not pause my culinary exploration. I have been pondering  the topic of "Food and Culture" without  having the time to verbalize my thoughts. 

Give Us This Day Our Daily Rice

 There are times when the prayer "Our Father" becomes most meaningful especially when we pray "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...Give us this day our daily bread." In the West, bread is one of the most important components of a common meal.  God is helping us with our daily bread.

But what about other parts of the globe? In the Middle East, daily bread is Pita Bread or flat bread without yeast. It has been culturally important for the people in this region even from the days that the Old Testament was written. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites who left Egypt following Moses complained that they had no "manna" or bread for life (Exodus 16:1-36). In fact, they were in the wilderness, and only wild animals were available for food. Also, they could collect plenty of wild edibles like cactus. Did they kill and eat animals or eat cactus salad like today's Mexicans do? Probably they did. But for anyone from the Middle East, meal without "manna" or Pita Bread is not meal. In my understanding, the Israelites coming out of Egypt were tired of eating meat and wild plants without their accustomed manna, their most essential food, and therefore complained to God.

This story may eloquently illustrate that human soul needs to eat something more than the body requires. The Bible also says, "If he ask a fish, will give him a serpent" (Matthew 7:10)? Serpents or snakes are very nutritious and a delicacy among many East Asians. (I myself like Chinese snake soup very much). However, the Israelites did not want to eat snakes, although they were as nutritious as fish. It may not have been a part of their culture. I came to the conclusion that in the Bible, God provided the food that their souls longed for, rather than the simple substance that their bodies' physiology required.


livingRice01In the Far East (China, Japan and Korea and their surroundings), the most essential food is "daily rice" instead of daily manna. In Japanese language, "gohan" or the word for "rice" also means "meal." Breakfast is Japanese is "asa-gohan" or "morning rice," lunch is "hiru-gohan" or "midday rice," and supper is "ban-gohan" or "evening rice." For some of you, this may sound 'wired to eat rice three times in a day'.  (A diabetic person like myself cannot put life at risk by consuming rice three times a day, because rice, particularly thesticky rice favoured by the Japanese, contains massive amounts of carbohydrates). However, eating "daily rice" all the time is typical for the Far East. The Japanese have had no patience with the lack of rice, and in the past there have been many riots due to prolonged shortages of rice.


I will respectfully take your life

In Japan, there is a special word said prior to the meal as a custom. They have to say "itadakimasu" or "I will respectfully take it." The underlined concept of the phrase is paying deep awe and honour to the food eaten and to the person who served it. Etymologically speaking, "itadakimasu" was originally "inochi o itadakimasu," which meant, "I will respectfully take your life."

Suppon or soft-shell turtle is my most favourite food and considered a energy food in Japan. In Canada, it is available only at T&T food stores either ready to serve or frozen. But, in Japan, restaurants serve only live suppon to customers because they believe that the dead ones are not fresh enough and less tasty than the live ones.

When I still lived in Japan in my late teens and early twenties, I went every once in a while to a suppon restaurant to eat "maru nabe" or "soft-shell turtle hot pot". The chef would pick one up from a fish tank and ask me if it was acceptable. I said "yes" if the soft-shell was big or chunky enough. Then, he butchered and cooked it in front of me while I sat at the counter. First, he flipped the soft-shell upside down and the creature struck his head to turn it back to the original posture. Then, the chef quickly held the head and slashed it with a butcher knife. The chef mentioned that if he was not careful enough, the removed head would bite his finger and break a bone. He also poured creature's blood into a bowl and mixed with shochu, or Japanese rice vodka. Shochu with the blood of suppon is considered an extremely powerful energy drink! (Maybe three times as powerful as our RedBull energy drink).

After the shocking moment of decapitation, the chef skilfully cut the creature into pieces, removing entrails from the inside. (All internal organs except bladder are edible and highly nutritious). He put them into very old clay pot to cook with sake, soy sauce, ginger root and some vegetables. The "maru nabe", made of a live suppon or soft-shell turtle, had an exquisite flavour. I admit that I was addicted to it! (I often went there before writing final exams, so that I was energized and did very well). It was quite an expensive food for a student like me, and yet I spent almost all my savings on this delicious meal. At the same time, I developed a deep awe and sense of honour for the creatures that were transformed into a delicious meal for me, and gave me enough energy to pass my exams.

Suppon chefs often participate in an annually based Buddhist ceremony called "suppon Kuyo", to honour the souls of slain soft-shell turtles that had given their lives to sustain the physical well-being of customers and provided the chefs well paying jobs as well.

In fact, for people who have lived throughout antiquity all over the world, the slaughtering of animals for food has been an extremely normal and ordinary activity. At the same time, people have developed a sense of honour and respect for the slain animals, and sometimes have worshipped them as gods, because the creatures sustained their lives. People, who lived in Japan during the Jomon era (ca. 10,500-ca. 300 B.C.), or Japan's Neolithic period, consumed dolphins as their food and worshipped them as the gods who sustained their life. When people slaughtered and ate the animals, they had a religious ceremony to bury their remains and prayed so that the spirits of the slain animals came back as dolphins to feed them again.

In a Judeo-Christian context, those animals were not objects of deification. Instead, the people of God developed a sense of awe and reverence to the creator who gave them dominion over all creation on earth, and the right to kill and eat living creatures on the planet (Genesis 1:28). It was a profound awareness that God gracefully gave his permission to take an animal's life to sustain our own.

Modern people tend to attribute slaughter for food consumption as a cruel act, even though the majority are not vegetarians or vegans. I have noticed that many in North America prefer eating fish without heads and tails. If fish have a head, they are classified as dead or slain animals, and provoke guilt feelings. However, if they see only square pieces of meat like ones I ate in Crescent Beach, they are simply chunks of protein or substance for consumption. It is my personal opinion, that we must face the reality that we cannot survive without consuming other life forms (either animals or plants).

Japanese rice farmers have been exploring an option to decrease pesticides so that people can consume their crops safely. They had to find an alternative way to keep rice paddies from destructive insects. They found a solution, by raising ducks on their farms. Ducks feed on insects and their excrement fertilizes the plants. Farmers' children are assigned the task of looking after these birds. They feed and treat them like pets throughout the farming season. In the fall, farmers harvest the rice and feathered friends simultaneously. These ducks and rice are consumed together as a meal at the great Harvest Festival, in which both adults and children in the village celebrate and show appreciation to their avian friends who have protected the rice paddies for the entire season. By doing this, children are able to learn respect for the food and animals that they slaughter and consume. It increases the awareness that their lives are sustained on the sacrifice of other life-forms.

Perhaps, Christian farmers can practice a similar method by having their children look after the food animals, until the grave and solemn moment of slaughter. It can give children a sense of awe and reverence to the Creator who gave us the Dominion Covenant over all creation on earth (Genesis 1:28), as well as the respect to the creatures that our God created to sustain our physical and spiritual lives.


Talking about what I was doing for the past few weeks, on Saturday, July 12th, I went to Vita's Bar and Grill, a fine Western restaurant in Crescent beach, White Rock, to celebrate my friend's birthday. I ordered pasta with smoked salmon - excellent taste, and paid only $13.64 without gratuity. After the party, a friend of mine gave me a ride to Langley where I live. On a way to Langley from White Rock, the young daughter of my friend (about grade six) asked me a question "Is it true that some people in China and Korea eat dogs?" The answer is absolutely "yes." However, in order not to cause potential misunderstandings of a young and tender mind, I said that these people do not eat the same kind of dogs as the West. They are "meat dogs" bred strictly for meat. I told her, "For instance, most chickens are bred for food in the West. But you also have some bred for pets.  People never eat these pet chickens." After that, I had a simple question "Why do we keep some animals as pets while consuming others as food?" (Food in the center of the picture underneath is oyster and chips I had for lunch by the beach. They were relatively small oysters and very tasty).

Crescentbch01The following week, I bought a Korean blood sausage called sunde in an Asian grocery store named H Mart and shared it with my students after  class. All of my students were Asians this time, so  they particularly like it. But I  wondered: if I had any Western students, would they enjoy food containing animal blood?

Throughout history, food has played a critical and defining part in individual cultures and the overall development of civilization. Cuisine and Culture present an engaging, informative, and amazing story of the interaction among history and culture.  Food  draws a connecting line between major historical events and has affected and defined the culinary traditions of different societies.

(The upper left section of the picture underneath is smoked salmon pasta I ate at the celebration, and the upper right section has a couple of people there. In the lower right section, Japanese suppon chef is cooking, and the lower middle section is marunabe or the end product. Finally, the lower right section is sunde or Korean blood sausage that I shared with my students).



Last updated Jul. 29th, 2008 at 12:02pm by Isao Ebihara