The role of food in breaking down cultural barriers

The shootings in Christchurch shocked our nation and opened up some much-needed discussions on just how much we really understand religions, races and communities different to ours. Nicola Martin has investigated cultural diversity through food in a book she co-authored and believes we, as food writers, are in a unique position to open up conversations that celebrate all the wonderful nationalities that make up modern New Zealand.

On Friday, March 15, 2019, New Zealand changed forever. 50 men, women and children were gunned down in one of New Zealand’s darkest days, shot as they answered the call to prayer at two Christchurch mosques.

The hours and days that followed gave rise to the hashtag, “this is not who we are”, and what has followed is a long overdue national conversation about who we should be.

New Zealand is made up of more ethnic groups than countries listed on the world map. We’re a multinational, diverse country and have been for many years, but our communities are disconnected; and many of us still choose to focus on our differences.

We’ve all heard the overriding discourse. Immigrants are invading our nation. It’s been normalised for some time now, as confronting as that may be. I’ve often wondered how much of that is caused by a decline in our ability, or desire, to get to know our neighbours. There is no time in our busy lives to get to acquaint ourselves with the people that make up our communities, no matter where in the world they come from.

It was on this premise we wrote a cookbook called; World Table, food from around the world made in New Zealand. It introduces 24 immigrants and refugees from 22 countries around the world who now call Waikato home. You see, everyone has a story to tell and we all have a different view on the world and how we live our lives – but there is one thing we all share: food.

While it’s not always easy to ask someone about their cultural practices, their values or beliefs, it is easy to ask someone “Where in the world is your family originally from?” “What’s the most traditional food you cook for a family dinner?” or, “What food do you miss most from home?”

They are simple questions, but ones which will lead you to the essence of a person, because food is easy to talk about. Through questions about food you will be led into family homes where gnocchi is forked in a grandmother’s kitchen and baking bread sustained families through unimaginable hardship. To places where food for cooking is very hard to find, and others where cooking helped others find their true calling.

Whether celebrations happen in a temple, church, synagogue or mosque, food is always the centrepiece. From Christmas to New Year, Ramadan, Lent, or celebrations observing a coming of age, or a day to celebrate those who have passed, these practices and are all centred around food.

It’s an alternative route to talking about and sharing our diverse cultures. To starting the conversation about who we really are.

As food writers we are uniquely positioned to celebrate New Zealand’s diversity, to help share the stories of the people and cultures that make up who we are. I urge you to keep exploring your local ethnic markets, produce shops and small eateries. Take the time to chat to your neighbours. Start the conversation, you will often be delighted where it leads. Sometimes all we need to do is take the time to ask.

There are important conversations to be had, and stories to be told, and what better place to share them than at our kitchen tables.

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