Cultural Cravings

Story by Ali Brown

The U.S. does things differently.  That’s why it is not surprising that students from different countries miss traditions from home.  Traditions that include the intake of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

For people like Morten Aagesen, who is a foreign exchange student at Baylor University this fall, the lack of foreign foods means no meal is like his mother makes him at home in Aarhus, Denmark.  The lack of variety also serves as a reminder of everything from when a meal is eaten to what foods are served at breakfast.

Americans know no boundaries when it comes to breakfast.  They have made breakfast a sport and we are good at it.  They will have anything from coffee to extravagant buffets with eggs, bacon, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, gravy, sausage, fruit, yogurt, cereal, and pastries of every shape and size.

However, other countries do not participate in this sport as the U.S. does.  According to Lucie Dott, a native of Strasbourg, France, located in the Alsace teapotregion, the French keep it simple with a cup of coffee and something light.

“I just eat cereal or I drink juice,” she said. “We don’t really eat salty things like bacon or eggs.”

“It’s really different,” Aagesen said. “We have something sort of like cereal but it’s really healthy.  Some people eat cereal.  Older people will have a bun maybe, but we don’t have a lot of scrambled eggs and bacon.  Some people even skip breakfast.”

He chooses to forgo coffee and just eat something small. 

“Everybody drinks coffee except for me,” Aegesen said.

Despite his aversion to coffee, he doesn’t think much of the coffee here and said Danish coffee is stronger.

Although eating small breakfasts is common in Europe, this trend does not extend to the Middle East.  Shirin Soleimani spent much of her childhood in Iran but now lives in Houston and attends Baylor University.

“We have huge breakfasts: eggs, cheese, tea and everything,” Soleimani said.

Lunch is lunch. It may be a little bit later during the day in some places or a little bit heavier in others, but the meal generally falls in the middle of the day and is comprised of nutritious meals that have meat as the main ingredient whether it’s by itself, on a sandwich or mixed into something.

“You have to actually get lunch.  Lunch is really weird here.  You just have sandwiches,” Aagesen said.  “My favorite food for lunch is leverpostej that you put on bread.”

Leverpostej is a Danish liver pate often placed on top of Danish rye bread, another favorite of Aagesens.  “I don’t like that much greasy food coming from Europe.  My parents make really traditional foods so I tend to like those.”

“Usually you have four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and then afternoon tea, which you usually get a cake or something from the bakery especially if you’re off of school or work, and then of course you have dinner,” he said.

Afternoon tea is not limited to hot beverages.  Aagesen’s favorite part of afternoon tea is the food.

“We don’t have brunch but we do have something similar, but it is between lunch and dinner,” Soleimani said. “We serve tea and crackers and cheese.”

Afternoon tea is an everyday occurrence in Persian culture as well.  Historically, this isn’t much of a surprise considering that tea is one of the main staples in the Middle East.

“We drink a lot of tea.  We have special teapots and glasses and trays. My mom will drink tea when she wakes up, with her lunch, after lunch, all the time.  Instead of water she drinks tea.”

Although lunch is a larger part of the day in some cultures, typically dinner is the main meal of the day in Iran.

“It takes a lot of preparation,” Soleimani said. “My mom starts the day before to marinate the meat and let the rice soak in water.  I never have time. All of our dishes are very time consuming and I don’t have all the stuff for it.”

Soleimani attributes the importance of dinner to the importance of family in Persian culture.

Aagesen also said dinner was the most important meal with his family.  He said dinner was fairly similar every night in that it was typical Danish food made by his mother, yet “the young people in Denmark make a lot of international food.”

Just as meals share common similarities and differences between countries and cultures, staple foods change from region to region.

In Denmark, potatoes are eaten with almost every meal and are typically eaten with pork, Aegesen said.

“There are 30 million pigs and a population of five million people,” Aegesen said. “That’s six pigs for every person. Denmark is famous for bacon, really all kinds of meat.”

In addition to the large amount of tea that is consumed in Iran, Soleimani said rice is a large component to meals.

Dott said she attributes Strasbourg’s large amount of sauerkraut and sausage among other meats to the German influence.  Her favorite food is a specialty of Alsace called tarte flambée. 

“It is like a pizza but it is not the same because the crust is thinner and we put sour cream, onions, and bacon on it,” she said. “ A lot of restaurants only do that.  They put it on the table and we share it with everyone.”

On the fancier side, Dott likes a dish that many Americans think of as a common French food.

“Foie gras is eaten for Christmas and only around Christmas because it’s really expensive,” Dott said.

Holiday meals are found across cultures and are specific to the region and typically the season.

“We don’t use religion that much so we don’t have holidays all the time,” Aagesen said.  “My favorite dish is a rice stew, we call it risgørd.  It’s made during Christmas time to keep the elves from teasing you.”

Although this special meal is made during the holidays, Aagesen has his mother make it for him year round.

“We have roasted pork with the skin still on it and you roast it so the skin gets really crispy,” he said. “At Christmas we also have caramelized potatoes.  Danish food is not that healthy, especially on holidays.”

Danish birthdays are celebrated with special cakes called lagekage that is a layered cake with cream and berries in between each layer.

Iranians also celebrate holidays with special foods.

“We have this type of rice that’s called dill rice,” Soleimani said. “It looks green but has vegetables in it and it’s served with salmon. That’s for our New Year’s because we have our own New Year’s.”

On the longest night of the year, Yalda, Iranians celebrate by staying up late, drinking tea and eating watermelon.

  “We usually eat watermelon in the winter,” Soleimani said.  “It’s tradition to eat watermelon.”

Every culture has different traditions and many of them happen to involve foods.  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are just a few ways each person identifies with his or her culture.