The Universal Language of Food: Cooking for Intercultural Competence and Compassion
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Andrea Caluori-Rivera – While living in Italy in 2008, I stayed with an older couple in Cernusco sul Naviglio, a town along the outskirts of Milan in Northern Italy. The husband was from Morocco, and the wife was a native Italian. As a visitor from another country, making new friends wasn’t easy. Even though I spoke the language and understood the culture, I often found myself alone, reading a book in my room, or taking long walks to the center of town. The husband, Ahmed*, noticed my loneliness. He brought me to a nearby small city where his extended family lived one afternoon. It was one of the few times I ventured outside of Cernusco.
When I arrived, everyone was helping to prepare an early afternoon meal. Ahmed’s nephew (later to become one of my few friends in Italy) asked me: Vorresti una forchetta? (‘Would you like a fork?’) I thought, “A fork? Of course, I’d want a fork if I were to eat, wouldn’t I?” Before I could answer, Ahmed responded. To be sure I understood, he spoke in Italian rather than his native Moroccan dialect: No, lei mangerà come noi. (‘No, she will eat like we do’).
We all sat down at a small round table, a large plate in the center with couscous and lamb stew. Each person was given a large piece of bread, a small plate, and a napkin; I saw no silverware. Ahmed looked at me as I watched everyone else use the bread to scoop up delicious mouthfuls of the tender lamb, and I understood. So I picked up my bread and joined in the feast. It was the most memorable meal I had in Italy.
I share this story because it was one of the first few moments in my life where I understood what it meant to be culturally aware. Food became the door to not just being an outsider but rather a companion. When I came back to the United States, I took a basic course on intercultural competence, the ability to communicate with other cultures appropriately and – I would also say – compassionately. I realized that preparing a meal and gathering together in the spirit of community is a profound way to reach beyond the point of observation and build the foundation for empathy, awareness, and, most importantly – friendship.
Reflecting on my experiences, I knew food would be a great way to introduce young people, now citizens of a vast global society, to a more compassionate and open-minded perspective of our world’s people and cultures. During my AmeriCorps service at a local Pioneer Valley school last year, I planned and taught two mini-courses on cooking ethnic cuisines. My objective was to encourage young people to recognize cultural identities beyond their own by preparing and tasting different flavors as a small community. Food is social and combines many other aspects of culture: art, language, history, agriculture, and tradition. Food connects us from the land that grows our food to the hands that pick, prepare, and serve it. We gather together to share, eat, and enjoy the company – hence the potluck. My ultimate hope was to help build a stronger sense of compassion for others– a foundational piece for building intercultural competence.
When planning my two mini-courses, I chose Italian and Puerto Rican cuisine. I chose Italian because I spoke Italian and grew up in an Italian-American household. And I decided on Puerto Rican food because I grew up in the Bronx with many Puerto Rican friends, ate Puerto Rican food, and my husband was from Puerto Rico. Since teaching language was an important part of my lesson plans, my husband volunteered to help out. He would teach phrases in Spanish and explain aspects of Puerto Rican culture. Finally, I chose these two places because I knew that some of the ingredients in their cuisines could also be grown in the Pioneer Valley. It was important for me to demonstrate the artistic and cultural components and shed light on how the need for land connects us across cultures and builds a bridge between ourselves and a sense of place.
I chose one dish to create and one art project while we cooked the food for each session. I started each class with a map to show the region of our recipe and taught a few words in Italian and Spanish, including how to pronounce the dish we were making. I went through the different ingredients: flour, herbs, cheese, vegetables, spices, and talked about how different plant ingredients were cultivated. I showed pictures of gandules pods and images of the dairy farms in Alto Adige/Süd Tirol. I included photos of farmers harvesting the land. The human connection behind our food was crucial to my lessons.
We mixed, stirred, simmered, and gathered together to taste our creations as a group. We practiced saying our dishes’ names in Spanish and Italian and talked about what we liked and our favorite part of the process. We mentioned the foods we eat at home and the similar techniques used to prepare them. I asked about similar flavors, new flavors and offered known variations of the dishes we may already make at home. Canederli/Knödel are a type of dumpling and have things we recognize: cheese, bread, spices. Arroz con Leche is a pudding and contains rice, milk, and sugar. I emphasized the commonalities while encouraging an open-minded palette.
The result? Students learned to count in Spanish and that Puerto Rico is both an island and U.S. territory. They made vejigantes, Puerto Rican carnival masks, and pasta from scratch. We explored the origins of the first pizza margherita and discovered that pecorino cheese is from sheep, not cows. After the mini-courses ended, students asked for the recipes and made them at home with their families. I remember being approached by parents who commented on the dishes made at home. They pronounced the names correctly; their children must have taught them. I even saw other students in the afterschool program make vejigante masks. There it was: food as a gateway for new cultural experiences and new ways to share. I saw that, for my students, the world became that much bigger and that much more tangible. My husband still talks about how they made him feel a part of their community; they extended friendship towards him and even learned to pronounce his name correctly. Then made a connection.
I encourage you to try this at home with your family. Of course, I had the advantage of knowing both cultures in a more or less intimate way. But truthfully, it only takes a certain humility and curiosity to explore the cuisine of someone else. Start small; maybe ask a family friend if they can show you how to prepare one of their favorite recipes or retrace your ethnic heritage to discover a new flavor. Make it a family experience at home. Involve everyone and share the meal. Incorporate an art project, listen to the country’s music, immerse yourselves in the experience. You could even ask someone at one of your favorite ethnic restaurants like I did this past summer in Italy. While visiting the bicultural Alto Adige/Süd Tirol region of Italy, I asked my Tirolese waitress at a restaurant for her advice on how to make i canederli. Enthusiastically, she took the time to tell me in her own words. I was curious, open, and willing to listen. It’s important to remember that food is universal and speaks to us all.
[Photo credits: (c) Andrea Caluori-Rivera; Ángel Rivera]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Bronx, NY native, Andrea moved to New England in 2003 where she completed her A.B. in Art History at Mt. Holyoke College followed by a M.A. degree in Italian Literary & Cultural Studies at UConn Storrs where she taught Italian language.