The International Language of Food

Posted: 02 June 2021

One of the best recipes for a great conversation, between strangers from different countries and cultures, starts with a common ingredient… Food.  

Whoever you are, whatever your background, wherever in the world you are, when it comes to food, everyone has an experience; each of us has a personal understanding from which to explore the food of other countries and its significance in different cultures. It’s an accessible topic, and it doesn’t require sophisticated language or complex explanations before joining in.   

For this reason, it’s a great foundation for a collaborative learning programme between Round Square schools in different parts of the world, or a broader conversation between many schools.   

When Lindisfarne Anglican Grammar School hosted a Round Square Zoom Postcard on the theme of “Food Culture and Diversity”, they sent out an invitation to their peers across the world, advertising a lesson in making burgers with an ‘Aussie twist’ (Kangaroo, anyone?). Participants sent in photographs of themselves making their favourite foods and these were shared  and discussed on the call. Anvesha from Sunbeam School Lahartara sent in her own ‘burger with a twist’ from India, Analí from Fountain Valley School of Colorado shared a photo of the enchiladas she made with her Dad, and Reya from Dhirubhai Ambani International School told us she loves making Shankar Parya because it reminds her of the time spent cooking with her grandmother before lockdown.   

We learnt about spicy, rich, flavourful and diverse Curries and Puris from across India and discussed how regional differences in taste and traditions could be understood through food. Students from India asked everyone to share their favourite curry dishes from their part of the world, and this led to a discussion on how fusion cooking had blended different cultural influences to create new and hybrid dishes.  

We considered whether a borrowing flavours from dishes from a culture other than your own (but not following the recipe) should be considered cultural appropriation. Participants shared their different takes on Chocolate Brownie recipes, Pasta and Pizza, before concluding that fusion food is a form of cultural appreciation – a positive, rather than a negative.  

Understanding that one of the strongest immediate expressions of culture comes from the food that we eat and the ways in which it is prepared and shared, we included an examination of ‘food culture’  in the RS Spirit of Internationalism IDEALS Challenge 

Students are asked to choose one type of food they feel is the best expression of their own culture, and share the recipe, a brief explanation of its cultural context, or its meaning to them, and a photograph of them cooking the dish.   

In the explanations sent in along with the recipes, students are sharing insights into the ways in which even a national dish will have variation and adaptation, perhaps in different regions of a country or through different families putting their own spin on it.  

Juan from Belgrano Day School in Argentina shared a recipe for a beef and lentil stew called guiso “This recipe is one of my favourites” he says “Every region from the north to the south has its own variation. The Spanish name for this dish is ‘guiso de lentejas”. Samantha from St Mildred’s–Lightbourne School in Canada shared her recipe for Butter tarts, a family take on a traditional Canadian recipe handed down by her Grandmother, who used to make them for her father.   

Satoshi from Okinawa Amicus International School in Japan shared the recipe for Goya Chanpuru a traditional Okinawan food whose main ingredients are goya, tofu, eggs, pork, katsubushi and ginger. “It has been eaten since long ago” Satoshi says. “It is unique to Okinawa and the recipe is different in each family. This is our family’s recipe.”   

Whilst creating the Round Square Recipe book, along the way students have demonstrated the wide variety of cultural influences that make us who we are. In the same way that no two recipes for Satoshi will be quite the same, and no one’s recipe for Butter tarts will be quite the same as Samantha’s Grandma’s, they learn that no two people should be assumed to be the same based on their nationality – we are all fusion food.  

The resulting recipe book can be found by logging in to Round Square’s Student Insights website.  

Of course, the universal nature of food as a basis for exploring differences in culture and relative equity around the world isn’t just for older students. For example the “Food all over the world” lesson plan, shared in the Round Square Resource Library by Julia Callo, a Kindergarten teacher at Park City Day School, sees early years pupils compare Peter Menzel’s Hungry Planet photographs, as a basis for exploring whether children across the world eat the same type of food or have the same access to food.    

Nor is cultural difference the only lesson to be drawn from a discussion about food between students from different countries and contexts.   

When Hyderabad Public School Begumpet hosted a Round Square Zoom Postcard on the theme “Let food be thy medicine” they asked participating students to share tips for healthy eating. During the call participants discussed shared secret superfoods, and the advantages of “clean” eating over processed food. Hyderabad Public School’s nutritionist – known by her students as “The Food Doctor” – provided expert guidance during discussions, answering questions and guiding conversations on more challenging issues such as eating disorders and child obesity.    

Food also lends itself to learning about issues relating to the environment and sustainability. Through a collaborative project between The Shri Ram School in India, and Buckingham Browne and Nichols in the USA, younger students explored sustainability through food.   

With a focus on carrots, the collaboration explored the process of growing, harvesting, and cooking recipes involving carrots. Families shared traditional recipes to inspire students with new dishes. The students all read stories about carrots and wrote stories with carrots as characters.  

Taking a holistic approach to this project, the schools incorporated activities in Maths, Art and Craft, and shared their pupils’ work. Pupils developed skills such as collaboration and questioning, problem-solving and teamwork, building their appreciation of diversity and commitment to sustainability along the way.  

In true Round Square style, this was a learning-by-doing project with a trip to an organic farm to see the theory in practice. There was even a ‘Carrot Fest’ where every teacher and child tried a special carrot recipe each week.  The learning was not only at school but at home too, where parents helped children in making a variety of carrot recipes specific to their region which then was brought to school and shared with others.   

The students, teachers and parents at both schools felt that this collaborative project created empathy and understanding of the importance of building sustainable systems and the need for protecting the environment for a safer and healthier future. 

Whether through a simple conversation, or through sharing recipes, or through learning together about where it comes from, as these examples demonstrate, food can be the basis for building international and intercultural understanding. It can give rise to a conversation about wellness and wellbeing, build awareness of environmental issues, and create a safe space for challenging conversations about diversity and equity, or its absence in the world. It can spark and impromptu practical cookery class across thousands of miles, or provide an opportunity to celebrate the people you care about through the food you prepare and eat. 

As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”   

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