Food Lessons from Other Cultures

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

  • Genesis 11:1-9

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
“Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

  • Acts 11:1-18

Our pastor melded the two Scriptures above into a very interesting sermon a few weeks ago.

In the children’s sermon, he asked the children if anyone knew a foreign language.  One boy quickly raised his hand to say that he knew gibberish.  The pastor said that he often spoke gibberish from right over there and pointed to the pulpit.

But in his message, he started with the story of the tower of Babel and morphed to food.  If we did not speak any language other than English, we could definitely relate to different cultures in food.  After all, the people were spread across the globe and the dietary changes became a matter of what food was available.  The cuisine had to adapt to the availability of the crops and animals of that area.

The pastor talked about the growth in the availability of foreign foods in the grocery store aisles.  Those choices were limited only a few decades ago.

My mind wandered, drifting in and out of his sermon.  I first thought of my trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.  We stopped in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and we were instructed to not leave the bus.  Some of the guys left the bus anyway when they saw a taco stand.  None of us had ever eaten a taco.  We were all 15-18 years old.  Since it was food gathered by breaking the rules, I did not try a taco.  It would be 5-6 years before I ever ate my first taco, when I moved to SE Texas and there was a taco restaurant near my apartment.  Of course, it was the same time when I had my first Cajun food.  My first pizza was in high school when the church youth group went to a pizza place in the neighboring town.  The first Chinese food was made by exchange students who opened the first Chinese Restaurant near the university, a limited menu based on what they could obtain to mimic the spices.

But then, the pastor blended in culture with the cuisine.  That got my mind wandering to my first trip to India.  The first day that we were supposed to teach was a nearly wasted day.  We went to where they wanted us to set up our classroom.  We rejected it.  It was too hot (middle of winter).  It was too dusty.  And it was too noisy, in that the windows had not been installed and heavy construction work was progressing right outside the openings where the windows might one day be.  We settled on a large conference room in the executive building – air conditioning and closer to such things as restrooms, none available where they wanted us to teach.  But the top brass of the corporation greeted us late that morning at the first location, realizing for themselves how bad that choice would have been.  The big brass was there for only the first of two visits.

After the big brass left on this occasion, we were invited for a meal at the steel mill’s cafeteria.  The greeter mumbled something to our company’s Indian employee, only one at the time.  He said “Non!”  They gathered us in a 2-3 table area and servants came in with folding screens and boxed us into a corner of the cafeteria.  Our food was delivered through a small opening in the temporary wall.  We had been consigned to the non-veg (non-vegetarian) area.  To see us eating “non-veg” would offend the other diners, so we had to be shoved into the corner and hidden.  Odd, they called it “non-veg.”  They could not even say “meat eater” without offending themselves and others.  I learned quickly what it felt like to be an unwanted minority.  After about three meals there, I brought a pack of crackers from the hotel’s refrigerator in my room, billed to the room as I took from the fridge.  A few crackers was better than being hidden in the corner like I was diseased.

Then came the day that the Indian among our team, originally from Pune which was not terribly far from the steel mill, pulled me aside to say that he and I were meeting the top brass, just two members, the mill manager and his boss from the main office.  We would go to a restaurant in Pen, Maharashtra, India, not far from the steel mill.  My food choice was already settled; thus I had no choice.  It was a cheese dish in that my Indian friend knew I loved cheese.  Okay, I found no “cheese” in the dish, at least what I considered cheese, but paneer is close to what an America might call cottage cheese and the veggie sauce covering a couple of chunks of tofu was creamy.  There would be no non-veg eating that day.  We had to fully get into the culture, at least for one meal.  We could not offend the people who were signing the checks.

Why was I invited to that meal?  I was not an instructor, although I instructed.  I was the training manager.  The people at the plant may have gotten away from the caste system years before, but I was the boss of the other instructors.  Back home, that simply meant I got blamed for mistakes made by anyone, but the customer, from the operator to the steel mill manager’s boss, honored me, and I had to live up to that honor.

But a year before this first trip to India happened, we had engineers from the Indian customer’s steel mill visit us.  I took them to a restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh, PA.  The greeter asked each of us the measure of the hotness.  I would have said “one,” but I thought the class would lose their respect for me, so I said, “four.”  The scale went to a “ten,” but when the waiter heard that they were from India, the scale was off the table.  There were two scales.  One to ten for the Americans.  And even hotter for those who lived in India.  The one Muslim in their group sat next to me and he offered me a piece of his chicken.  I told him that it was not that hot, but I had no idea that a spice seed had wedged between my teeth.  About five minutes later, the seed slipped into where I bit into it.  Those around the table saw my distress.  They called the waiter and asked for a mango lassi.  When the waiter asked whether they wanted a small, medium, or large, my Indian friends said, “Make it a pitcher and we can figure it out later.”  For those who have never had very hot spicey food, water just spreads the fire.  A mango lassi is made of yogurt, mango, milk, and a little cardamom for sweetness.

Those same engineers were sent to Mexico for a week to an operating steel mill similar to theirs.  When they returned, they spoke glowingly about their hosts in Mexico (and since I had been there, I agreed).  The Indians said that they even got to visit a Roti manufacturing facility in Mexico.  Roti is a flat bread in India, similar in size with tortillas.  While I was having culture shock with the Indians, they had a double culture shock with Americans and Mexicans.

The pastor’s sermon concluded with the shock from the leaders of the Way in Jerusalem discovering that the uncircumcised could be saved and become spirit filled.  It was the idea of the sheet with unclean animals offered to Peter before he went to the home of Cornelius, the Centurion.  With the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for all who would believe and trust in Him, all could be saved.  And that salvation is for us.

God needs us to listen and learn.  God needs us to shed our agendas and worship Him.  The pastor’s sermon title was “To whom we are being sent?”  Some may find that their destination is next door, but to some of us, we may have a few culture shocks in our future.

We had rotisserie chicken the other day that was dry, tasteless, and unappealing.  My wife, who was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, told me to not throw it out.  In a couple of days, we would be having Indonesian fried rice, Nasi Goreng.  I can’t wait.

To echo the pastor, “To whom are you being sent?”

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

2 Comments

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  1. Excellent post! Man your post on cultural awareness is always amazing! Those Indians must have really been mind blown with Hispanics in US!

    Liked by 1 person

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