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Negotiating a new culture through food

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series on “nostalgia of the palate among foreigners.” The author holds a masters degree in visual anthropology from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede Ecuador and has focused her research on the food preferences of North American expats and immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela. To read part one and two, click here, and here.

By Liliana Rocío León Moreno

Incorporating oneself into a new culture is enhanced significantly when you include local cuisine into your daily life.

One of the earliest, and most significant challenges facing expats in their newly adopted country is the adaption to local cuisine. Nostalgia for “old country” food is to be expected, but assimilation to one’s new culinary environment is expected, as well. Cooking at home is a meaningful way to understand the concept and influences of new cuisine and is an adventure in itself that can be delicious for the palate while, at the same time, it stimulates the spirit of discovery.

Workshop on Ecuadorian food preparation at Warmikuna.

This is not to suggest that going to restaurants that prepare dishes similar to those in one’s home country is unproductive or interferes with assimilation. Traipsing down to a favorite BBQ joint is fine; it’s one way to quench your hunger, and is a good place to meet other expats. However, relying solely on familiar foods from home, and supporting only expat-centric restaurants encourages isolation and can inhibit interactions with locals, leaving one feeling unsettled and alienated.

Some people find this strategy a good compromise: cooking nostalgic meals using ingredients found only in Ecuador and adjusting the meal preparations accordingly.

This option is an excellent way to learn about the culture of your host country through food.

Catalina Abad, Ecuadorian chef

Experimenting with new foods and adopting local culinary techniques can open vistas of new flavors, and challenges​ one to embrace traditional ways of preparing food, that encourages assimilation. Food preparation practices are a key component of self-identification. Adding new adaptations of flavor is a symbolic appropriation that the immigrant can use in constructing a new identity as a citizen in their new home country.

Catalina Abad, a professional chef, and owner of the Cuencano restaurant, Warmikuna, studied gastronomy in Ecuador and Peru. In 2013 she began offering Ecuadorian cuisine workshops​ designed for foreigners. The objective is to teach the country’s gastronomy and bring foreigners closer to Ecuadorian culture. Her restaurant is located at Hermano Miguel 5-42, between Juan Jaramillo and Honorato Vásquez.

A favorite dish, mote pata, is a combination of mote, pork, and zambo seeds. When Abad first introduced this stew-like offering to her guests, she was concerned the​y may not like it. However, it was very well received. Independent of consideration of “ethnicity” the dish was roundly applauded for its intriguing flavor and nutritional value.

Warmikuna is not just a restaurant but is a place to make cultural discoveries through food.

When expats embrace new flavors for their desirability and reproduce it in their kitchens, it means that the immigrants have already built a new habitus.

The incorporation of new soups and fruits in the expat diet, allows them to recognize other flavors, adopt them into everyday life and identify more closely with their origin. One may not consciously think that they have become more Ecuadorian but it allows them to lower the tension they feel in their new country.

It should be noted, as well,  that the transformation of food habits can also reflect a change of attitude towards the host country. When the immigrant feels more comfortable with their new environment and enjoys it, it is easy for them to negotiate new flavors and other cultural variations.

The practice of importing food from the United States will always be common and will always be very expensive. While this may be another way to support nostalgia of the palate, care should be given to not interfere with the opportunity to experience and learn new styles of cooking.

It is not obligatory for an expat to learn the culture of the host country. Some choose to remain within the “gringo bubble” or “gringo cluster”​ of others like themselves, who became expats for reasons having little to do with adventure, culture, or learning. The decision to relocate to the new country was purely economical. They were discharged from their home country because they could no longer support themselves in a country that had lost ​the desire to keep them (or its​ promises). For these poor souls, food denial is the last vestige to a past deeply attached to their prior ​identity, and upon which they will forever​ measure their self-worth.

We never stop feeling the nostalgia of the palate. Nevertheless, as we slowly navigate our new homelands, and negotiate with the new flavors it contains, we become more comfortable.

Although we are required to consume in order to live, we are granted the great gift of appetite. That nourishing ourselves appeals to all the senses and offers an immediate reward. Embracing new foods turns a key, unlocking access to understanding the culture of the host country, the history of its agriculture, and the appreciation of its aesthetics.

How wonderful that we have the opportunity to fully realize the adventure every day.