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Food Fights, Rotterdam’s food culture changes

Food Fights

How do food cultures change when colliding in Rotterdam?

Last year I moved from the country to the city, Rotterdam to be specific. Having attended a secondary school in Rotterdam, the energy and crowdedness of the city was no surprise. What is more interesting though, is the mix of all the different cultures. There is no such thing as ‘a’ citizen of Rotterdam. In roughly six months I have met so many different people that it leaves you with the question whether we still share the same Rotterdam culture. The aspect of this diversity that interested me most is the differences in food cultures. The centre of the city is packed with restaurants, bars, takeaways and all the different sorts of places where you can get some food or a drink. And the most interesting thing of all is that there is a broad array of foods that are available for purchase. It seems like there is a never ending stream of people who open up new restaurants with new menu’s based on cultures that were not represented yet.

What is interesting in this situation is the way that the foods have changed when co-existing, or even more, whether and how the values that people give the foods have changed. When visiting the Chinese restaurant just around the corner I once had a conversation with the owner about the cultural background of the food. She first told me that the plates they offer are all originating from Asia, which is not weird if you want to maintain a reputation of being a ‘true’ Chinese restaurant. However, after some time she admitted that she has seen a change in her menu in the 30 years since the opening of the restaurant which seems unrelated to her personal preferences. After opening her restaurant there has always been a struggle between serving a true Asian experience and the wishes of the customers.

It is no surprise that the menu changed, but the way in which it changed is interesting. In the first decade of the restaurant there was a preference for the menu’s with plain rice, a sweet sauce and either pork or beef. These years could be seen as the decade of simplicity. Customers did not want to eat things that they did not know yet in their own Dutch society. However, this slowly started changing when people from North-Africa and Middle-America moved to Rotterdam. Beans and fruits made their entry in the menu. The last years have been characterised, according to the owner of the restaurant, by a very diverse menu. Fish, chicken, spicy sauces, they are all rising in popularity creating a diverse and balanced menu. This surely is only one example, but Dr. Grivetti already shows in his article “Clash of Cuisines” that discovery and integration of new cultures leads to a profound change in food and food culture. He describes the changes in European food and food culture after the discovery of America. Dr. Grivetti uses the burger menu as an example. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes, these are all ingredients that were not combined before. The rise in popularity of what were unknown ingredients was accompanied by the fusion of food cultures.

The potato has become one of the ingredients that the citizens of the Netherlands regard as one of the most ‘Dutch’ ingredients. Complete Dutch meals revolve around it. This shows that the value connected to this ingredient have profoundly changed by the fusion of different cultures. But the recent rise in popularity of Sushi restaurants in Rotterdam is another example. Whereas eating with chop-sticks was regarded weird and hard not so long ago, it now is common behaviour at a large amount of restaurants that are mainly popular among the younger generations. In the article “The social construction of international food”, Arce and Marsden mention the importance of studying the culture connected to food when trying to understand the production and consumption of food. According to them, food is defined by the cultural values that the consumers have. They say that when different cultures meet it can be seen in the way that the food changes. Food creates a certain connection between cultures and transfers values connected to food. These are mostly related to social relationships. Food is something that people share, but the ways in which they share it differ most of the time. Who prepares the food, with who do you share the table when eating, do you even eat at a table? These are all questions that are answered differently in different cultures but when cultures meet it seems like the answers to these questions are changing.

The interaction of food cultures has influenced the time that we eat, the way that we eat but also the way that we cook. A shift can be seen in the Dutch culture of eating around six o’clock to 7 o’clock. This might be a result of the influence of the Mediterranean food culture that regards eating before half past 7 as weird. In the same way there is a change in the utensils used for eating, as mentioned above. Chopsticks have made their entry in Rotterdam and it seems like they are not likely to disappear soon. Lastly there has been a return of focus on slowly prepared food. The western world was adopting a culture of preparing food as quickly as possible, but due to globalisation it seems like the western world returns to recognizing the importance of slowly prepared food, inspired by Asian and African cultures.

The owner of the Chinese restaurant around my corner told me that through all the years there was a consistency to be seen. Rotterdam is characterised by its hands on and simplistic approach to pretty much everything in life. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, improve it. This is what in the end connects all the different food cultures in Rotterdam. There is a focus on simple food that will make you feel stuffed for the rest of your day. After all, Rotterdam remains a city that grew from the blood, sweat and tears of the workers in the harbour. This requires no-nonsense, good food. Rotterdam food.

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