Ritual Eating: food culture from around the world

Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

Across the world, food has contributed to and affected different cultures in a startling number of ways. Every nation has a particular relationship with their cuisine. For some, meals are the glue that binds families and friendships together. For others, eating is an integral rite of passage. Our enjoyment and obsession with food beyond the need to eat for survival is one of the things that makes us unique as a species. In the modern world, this special relationship has morphed many times over, manifesting itself in infinitely particular dining rules and rituals that are unique both individually and culturally. These rituals affect every aspect of our lives and form perhaps the most significant part of our relationship with food.

One area of society that has always been closely linked with food is religion. Sacrifices and feasts were part and parcel of life in the ancient world. In the Greek city of Olympia, the start of the Olympic festival was ushered in with a sacrifice of 100 oxen before the Temple of Zeus, which were roasted on an altar before being eaten in a huge feast. Today, food still plays a significant role in religious ritual. In Catholicism, for example, the sacrament of Communion features a wafer of bread and a glass of wine, which Catholics believe both symbolises and ultimately becomes Christ’s body and blood. Conversely, religion is also closely associated with food deprivation: the Islamic festival of Ramadan demands that, for 29 to 30 days during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims do not eat or drink while the sun is up. The dedication with which both these customs are observed across the world highlights how closely ritual and food are still interlinked in modern society.

In many cultures, some of the more extraordinary food-based customs are associated with rites of passage and coming-of-age rituals. Some of these can involve truly extreme practises. The Mardudjara Aborigines of Australia require that boys, as part of the transition into manhood, undergo forced circumcision before cooking and consuming their own foreskins. In Papua New Guinea, the Sambia tribe require that boys as young as seven consume sugar cane to stimulate defecation and vomiting as part of a full-body cleanse, before being fed semen – seen as essential in catalysing growth of virility and masculinity. Again, these ancient rituals highlight the esteem in which the act of eating continues to be held in different cultures across the globe.

The communal aspect of food ritual is not unique to religious ceremony. All over the world, incredible food events are a crucial part of communal celebration. A great example is the Thorrablot of Iceland, a feast during which locals recreate a banquet from the ancient Orkneyinga Icelandic saga. The festivities involve poetry reading, speech giving and, of course, the consumption of local delicacies. These delicacies include singed lambs’ heads and cured rams’ testicles, as well as the potent traditional Brennivin schnapps – Iceland’s national drink. Other famous festivals may not involve eating, but nevertheless have food at their core. Gloucestershire’s notorious cheese rolling festival is a prime example, where men and women from around the world pursue wheels of local produce down a very steep hill. Clearly, for many people, food is as much about celebration and leisure time as a community as it is about the more “serious” customs.

It is not just communities who engage in sometimes bizarre dining customs. Around the world, there are many private, familial rituals that can be just as interesting. This can lead to social misunderstandings in certain situations when cultures clash. For instance, while in Japan and India it may be considered polite to finish all the food on a plate, in China, the reverse is true and is seen as an implication that a host was not generous enough with their portions. In some countries, it is also considered the height of rudeness to ask for additional salt and pepper for your plate – the ultimate insult to the chef responsible. That such varied customs exist highlights how food permeates and differs in every society around the world.  

As we have seen, food greatly affects our personal and public interactions. It is essential in building relationships within communities and family units. But it is also true to say that food has always played a crucial role in people’s professional lives. The ritual of using food as a medium through which to build vocational relationships is as ancient as religion. Be it in a medieval court, using feasts to build favour with royalty and other powerful figures, or the modern business lunch, over which deals and careers are often made, food continues to be the unifying factor that brings us together professionally as well as personally.

Food’s place at the heart of society has been a constant throughout societal development. While the specifics of our ritual eating may have changed in some cultures, food continues to define how we interact with one another. As we have seen, this has resulted in some extraordinary and extreme food-focused practises around the world, but crucially great variety. That we can enjoy and interact with food in so many different ways is one of the things that continues to make it so important for so many of us.