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Opening and Expanding Your Cultural Horizons Through Food

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I was born in Houston, but I grew up in the ‘ol Midwest living “the good life” (the official state slogan) in Nebraska. I give credit to my childhood for my general laid-back temperament and appreciation for the little things. I enjoy a slow-paced lifestyle, being content with a deck of cards and a strong cup of coffee to entertain a lazy afternoon. In my town, there were no suburbs or subdivisions – my house was just a three block walk away from my school and church, the public pool, smokey bowling alley, and the movie theater. The activities I did for fun growing up were playing in the river, camping at state parks, having “mud” fights with friends in the cow ponds (ok yeah, this one was a little gross, but still fun!), and sledding down steep snowy slopes in a rickety metal toboggan in the winter. There are so many fantastic memories and moments I cherish and appreciate about my upbringing.

However, let me tell you what my little town didn’t have: diversity. There was a decent mix of races and ethnicities due to the large manufacturing plant we had in town that drew in lots of job opportunities, however, there were very few ways to experience other cultures in my town. Whether that be through festivals and events, restaurants, shops at the farmers market, clothing stores in the mall, or different foods stocked at the grocery store – we really didn’t have any of that growing up that I can recall.

So when I moved back to Houston, I was amazed at the endless opportunities to experience other cultures! I remember going to the Market Street H-E-B in The Woodlands for the first time and seeing rows upon rows of produce that I had never seen before – multiple varieties of fresh cherries, fresh pineapple (all I had known were canned pineapple rings and tidbits), mangos, guava, jackfruit… then there was an entire sushi department; I had never even seen sushi before. International aisles with imported goods from India, Great Britain, Australia, Thailand… I had no idea what any of those foods were!

In Houston, there are festivals and rallies year round celebrating people’s cultures, dance studios to learn cultural dances, like Rhythm India that teaches Bollywood dance and traditional Bhangra, restaurants celebrating all cultures: Cajun, soul food, true Mexican cuisine (not talking Tex-Mex), regional Asian and Indian cuisines, South African, Brazillian… you can find just about anything in Houston. There are even specialty grocers and ethnic shops so that you can get the full experience seeing and touching the foods to make your own cultural meals at home.

I write this blog today to highlight one arena we can use to observe, learn about, and show our support to other cultures and lives.

In our current political and social climate, the fight for social justice and equality can also be fought with our dollars by supporting local businesses, restaurants, and speciality shops. Now more than ever small, locally owned businesses need support through patronage due to the economic downturn from COVID-19. As awareness for the injustices the black community has faced and are fighting against is spreading, we can specifically show our support and love by venturing out (or delivering in!) for delicious foods from restaurants that are black-owned and operated. This is an exceptional list of restaurants and shops all over Houston so you can find places right in your area to support.

Being able to connect with others through food is one of the purests gifts we can give to each other. Food is SO much more than just fuel- it’s an experience, it’s love, it’s moments to savor.

However, even though this is true, sometimes trying new foods can be an intimidating experience – unsure of how it will taste or if you’ll like it, how or what to order when you’re at a restaurant, or trying to read labels at a specialty shop where the packaging is in a different language. So I thought I would share with you the steps I took to expose myself to other cultural foods in an approachable way that’s helped expand my palate, confidence, and curiosity in trying new cuisines:

Step 1: Frozen and Pre-Prepared Meals at the grocery store.

H-E-B, Kroger, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, even Wal-Mart all have excellent variety of cuisines now in their freezer section and international aisles. Recently at my H-E-B I’ve even seen family-sized portions of gumbo and other cajun meals in the freezer section which look really interesting to try! Frozen and pre-packaged foods are relatively cheap compared to restaurant food, so this is a great, low-risk option when trying new foods and discovering the different flavors of other cultures!

Step 2: Venturing out to restaurants.

Once you’ve discovered some new tastes that you like, you’re going to be able to find out what quality tastes like by getting it freshly prepared at a restaurant. Even if you live in the suburbs of Houston, a simple Google search of the cuisine you’re in the mood for should find an authentic spot within 30 minutes of you! Invite some friends to go with you to experience it together and make it less intimidating.

Step 3: Being adventurous at home.

Once you fall in love with some new cuisines, I would encourage you to take it to the next level by trying your hand at preparing the foods yourself. Do some research on the origins of the food, buy cookbooks, and explore specialty shops that offer items you can’t find in your local major grocer. When you’re at the specialty shop, talk to the store owners and workers if you’re having trouble finding something (especially if the packaging is in a different language!) – they might even be able to offer some golden nuggets of advice on how to really make the dish sing! You might even try adding new foods to regularly prepared dishes- like seaweed to a salad or tzatziki to grilled chicken breast.

Expanding your knowledge and awareness of other communities and cultures can be a really fun and rewarding experience, and using food as an outlet is a really simple and approachable way to do so. Food brings us together, which is one of the reasons I love being a dietitian in such a diverse city where experiences and opportunities to try new things and meet and learn from others will never end.

Stay well,

Sarah Roth, RDN, LD