If someone were to take a snapshot of the ingredients in my kitchen cupboard every month since I arrived in this city more than a year ago, they would notice one thing – my curation has grown increasingly Chinese and increasingly traditional as I collected more and more rare ingredients that can only be bought from Asian grocery stores. Whereas I once kept only spaghetti and tomato sauce (among other ingredients that are easier to find in local supermarkets), I have now amassed a collection of different kinds of chilli sauces, soup bases, noodles made from different flours, and of course, white rice.
Food and its acquisition, preparation, and consumption are the exceptional set of practices that have universal and central importance to every individual member of every culture in the world. Its function stretches far beyond being a simple substance to quell hunger pangs and provide nutrition for us to function. The rich sensory experience of food consumption creates in us a huge variety of visceral reactions, ranging from disgust, pleasure, confusion, indifference, and craving.
The importance of food to our psychological sense of well-being and comfort is timeless, and without good food, we are starved both physically and spiritually. “Ubi panis ibi patria” – where there is bread, there is my country – perhaps captures this most succinctly; it is difficult to call a place without food “home”, and hunger has driven huge swathes of hungry populations in search for a new place to live. This is true whether it is in the most literal sense, as in the historical cases of poorer classes that left Europe in droves for America, or whether it applies to people who seek education abroad to give them career prospects that will pay better, and by extension, feed them better.
Discussions of food (or rather, lengthy and impassioned rants) have been the common ground for many conversations between newly-arrived students who exchange notes on restaurants they’ve found in Geneva that serve the cuisine of their home countries (albeit usually at 3-4 times the price). This was how I bonded with some of my earliest and closest friends here at the Institute – many of our roundtables revolved around comparing and contrasting the specificities of our respective national cuisines before descending into long, nostalgic spiels about food back home.
But while food is often at the forefront of students’ minds – who doesn’t occasionally let their minds wander towards their next meal in the middle of class? – there is a noticeable blind spot when it comes to a more introspective approach to thinking about cuisine, particularly in a school where the daily fodder of conversation is violence, security, environmental economics, and other more pressing issues. Food as a subject of study is, in comparison, too lowbrow and too quotidian. Yet it is precisely because it is so embedded in the lived realities of people regardless of their backgrounds that it deserves greater attention (perhaps even the thesis treatment) as an avenue for understanding everyday rituals that shape our unconscious habits and by extension, much of how we relate intimately to the people we surround ourselves with.
Why do we miss the taste of home when we live abroad? The continuation of religious, cultural and societal observances is, of course, one particular reason – food (or abstinence from it) is central to nearly every festival and celebration. Nevertheless, for many migrants, it is not that they do not want to adapt to local culture and local cuisine; it is even a refreshing change from the food that is eaten day in and day out at home (for those who migrate willingly, that is).
The foodways for cosmopolitan and elite-educated students are particularly diverse, and part of the excitement for this social class is the chance to explore a different culinary landscape. Having an interest in foreign food is practically a requirement for membership in this group, and in fact, the more of an interest in “exotic” and “authentic” food from distant countries we have, the more cultured and inquisitive we seem. Those who fail to try new foods are labeled as parochial and backwards.
However, once the novelty of trying new food has worn off – as it did when I had pasta, salads, and bread and cheese for dinner one too many times – the food we put in our mouths turns less tasteful, the flavor more jarring, and it becomes harder to swallow. What once seemed to be an exciting foray into unknown territory gradually becomes strange and alienating.
As time passes, the cravings for food from home hit you at your most vulnerable moments. There were days when all I wanted was a bowl of steaming white rice with a sunny side up egg with a side of choi sum and oyster sauce (nearly impossible to recreate with the variety of oyster sauce sold here), the meal I had whenever I couldn’t think of anything else to eat back in Hong Kong. The memory of weird herbal soups with alleged healing properties that you never learned to appreciate until you left home are suddenly seem so much more appealing.
In the midst of what is often a disorienting adaptation process for students who leave their countries, the best thing to provide a moment’s respite from the chaos can be a bowl or plate of something with the taste of food from home. Especially for people who have left their countries of origin for the very first time, the adjustment to foreign cuisine, foreign groceries, and foreign culture in general can sharpen the distinctions between the familiarity of home and the strangeness of abroad.
The very act of eating is a highly sensory experience, and the visceral reactions it provokes bring to the surface memories of the past, kindling homesickness even in those less prone to it (like myself). We are less conscious of our dependency on familiar tastes when we are at home, surrounded by familiar sounds and sights and smells. Deprived of familiar surroundings, however, the things that remind us of home stand out more strongly against the backdrop of a foreign city.
Not only does recreating meals from home lessen the weight of our feelings of alienation when moving to different countries; it is also an expression of national pride and cultural identification that earns less scorn than being openly patriotic. Particularly for students who come from countries with “problematic” governments, local cuisine is the one space where they can take pride in where they come from while being relatively detached from politics (although many squabbles over the origins of food, such as hummus or the invention of chopsticks, can hint at deeper political rifts and contests over nationhood and culture).
Foodways can be surprisingly contentious for migrants of all kinds, whether rich or poor. It is the one sacred aspect of many migrants’ identities, and for those who are particularly nationalistic about their cuisine, to threaten it is to threaten something more intrinsic to an individual’s identity. “The national cuisine emerges as a result of negotiation between the local and the foreign, through the interaction between practice and performance, domestic and public, high and low,” write Atsuko Ichijo and Ronald Ranta; in circumstances where the distinctions between who we are and who the locals are become greater, our own national cuisines become more clearly defined because of what they are not.
Ultimately, our longing for the taste of home is more than just nostalgia – the preparation and consumption of food from our origins are a way for us to express our national and cultural identities in a relatively harmless way. “We are what we eat” – this adage has been repeated often enough to become true. For migratory students, delineating our identities through food serves an important purpose – to assert our identities in a wider society that sees us as foreign faces but cannot pinpoint exactly where we are from. However, when all is said and done, it may simply be a way to bring back memories of a time when we ate better and drank better.
 Historian Hasia Diner has written a wonderful book on the changes and continuities (but mostly changes) of foodways of European immigrants to the United States in her book Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration.
 Another great read on food and memory is Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory by David Sutton, in which he details the way people of Kalymnos, a Greek island, think about and shape their communities around food.
 Really, Hungering for America is a great book.
 Food, National Identity and Nationalism: From Everyday to Global Politics by Atsuko Ichijo and Ronald Ranta is a fascinating study of how food is nationalized and given characteristics of nations.
 In case you wanted to sound
more pretentious smarter, the original quote is actually “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” written by early modern French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
Photo from Canva.