The Food That Binds Us: How What We Eat Shapes Our Cultural Identity

by Emily Adeyanju

The saying, “You are what you eat,” is generally equated with allowing food choices to shape physical fitness and overall health. However, for many, the meaning runs much deeper. For immigrants searching for connections to their native environments, food represents cultural expression and plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining ethnic identity.

Given the tragic effects of the coronavirus pandemic across the globe and the alarming fatalities in the United States, an overwhelming majority have been forced to remain at home for long periods, sustained by Zoom, selfies, and creature comforts. While those challenges have been tough on average Americans, they have proven even tougher for immigrants living in the U.S. Prior to the pandemic, the immigrant population was susceptible to feelings of homesickness and loneliness during and after the acclimation process. The pandemic and their positions as frontline workers have only amplified that isolation.

 

Many immigrants have turned to meals to assuage some aspects of culture shock and foster a connection with the homes they have left behind. Cooking and eating ethnic foods are some of the ways that they have cemented their cultural identity while living abroad. This is especially important for recent immigrants, whose sense of loss and longing for home may be that much greater.

 

Food is one of the most vibrant and soothing expressions of cultural identity. According to the blog post “Eating Yourself: We Consume Identity Through Food?  by Culture Decanted, “Ethnographically we find that ethnic identities are expressed and maintained through dietary choices. The food that we eat can strengthen ties to your ethnicity on a day-to-day basis and it can also reflexively reinforce a sense of identity when you are in another culture.”

 

Authors Wright et al. tackle the complex intersection of food and ethnic identity in “The impact that cultural food security has on identity and well-being in the second-generation U.S. American minority college students.” Published by Food Security, their 2020 study of first and second-generation college students highlights the cultural isolation and the identity issues faced by undergraduates attempting to connect with their cultures while studying in the United States. Among the students evaluated, an overwhelming 70% were black, Latino, and Asian.

 

Student interviews and assessment of their experiences revealed that “The preparation, sharing, and consumption of cultural foods are vital to prevent identity loss as it allows them to connect back to their culture and uphold cultural traditions.” Yet, for these students and for many other immigrants, the challenge of recreating home away from home is a daunting one. A number of them noted the limited availability of the essential ingredients that comprise ethnic meals. That lack of access compromised their ability to cook native cuisine and reinforce meaningful connections with their homelands. It also created a sense of cultural fragility and loss. As the authors note, “Inadequate access to cultural foods can create cultural stress and affect one’s identity and well-being.”

Even with age, the yearning to remain rooted in identity and to connect to one’s culture through food persists. Just ask Sisay Kassa, owner and chef of Lalibela, an Ethiopian restaurant in Harlem, New York. For Kassa, Ethiopian heritage is a huge part of his identity. It is the reason that he established Lalibela, whose historic namesake in northern Ethiopia remains one of the country’s holiest regions. “Ethiopia is a very nice, historical country. I myself opened the restaurant as a pride for my country, for myself. It’s a big advertisement,” Kassa said.

Long before he entered the restaurant industry, Kassa struggled with feelings of isolation when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1989. “Everywhere you go, the first time is very hard—the culture, the food, the communication,” he said.

However, Kassa views food as the ultimate unifier.  Through his culinary creations, he is able to reinforce his identity and share his culture with others.

“The Ethiopian food is ethnic food.  So, every time I go to the restaurant, I see a lot of mixing with people. That makes me very happy, and not specifically for the Ethiopians. You see the white people, you see the black people, you see the Indian. You see everyone.”

 

Ultimately, it is the coming together, the sharing of cultural connections and lived experience that increases awareness and understanding of other cultures. The recent increase in attacks on the Asian American Pacific Islander community illustrates that a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures is desperately needed.

The rise in AAPI hate crimes associated with the pandemic has been coupled with xenophobia, accelerating a steep decline in patronage of ethnic enclaves like Chinatown that offer native cuisine. San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest one in the nation, has experienced an estimated decline in revenue of up to 90% during the pandemic. New York has suffered a similar fate. A number of its Chinatown restaurants have recently closed, including Jing Fong, a local favorite with a 40-year-plus history.

For Erin Tam, a second-generation Asian American whose family business is located in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, the effects have been unsettling. Centre Seafood, Inc., a wholesale live seafood business that has sold to restaurants and supermarkets for more than 30 years, has witnessed an 80% decline in business since the pandemic. Restaurant closures, whether for financial reasons or safety concerns, have diminished the need for live seafood sales. Hate crimes have tugged at the core of ethnic identity, heightening the sense of isolation and vulnerability. The closures and the fear of violence have presented an obstacle to the community coming together. Many Asian Americans longing for the familiarity and comfort of native food are now unable to get that satisfaction through their former haunts. In the wake of shuttered restaurants, Tam sees grocery stores as the next step for locals seeking solace through cultural connections during these troubling times.

“There are so many Chinese groceries. People go there for anything that reminds them of love and creates a feeling of nostalgia that reminds them of home,” Tam said.

While disheartened by the racial targeting and AAPI violence, Tam takes comfort in the recent efforts to rally in support of the Asian community. She points to Send Chinatown Love as a catalyst for change. The organization was established in 2020 to help Chinatown restaurants disproportionately affected by the pandemic rebuild in the wake of racism and xenophobia.  It has brought back one critical ingredient to Chinatown: hope. Send Chinatown Love has been actively providing a digital presence for Chinatown restaurants, uniting the community, and linking community members to information, resources, and support.  Tam views this ongoing effort as a way of helping to restore a sense of community and reinforce ethnic identity in spite of recent attacks.

“It is comforting at the end of the day when you go home that there’s food from your own culture that provides a sense of normalcy. It de-stresses you and contributes to mental wellness,” she said.

Indeed, here and across the globe, food continues to be the ultimate unifier, reaching across time and space to restore communities, rebuild connections, and reaffirm identity. One can only hope that the sharing of food, culture, and traditions will lead to better sustenance—not only create a richer understanding of the vast experiences that shape our own ethnic identities, but also drive a deeper hunger to know and appreciate others.

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