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14.8: Diets around the World

Skills to Develop

  • Give examples of how local taste preferences and availability influence food choices in different regions of the globe.
  • Explain what is meant by Alice Waters’ statement: “Food is precious.”

In the past, people’s culture and location determined the foods they ate and the manner in which they prepared their meals. For example, in the Middle East, wheat was a staple grain and was used to make flatbread and porridge, while halfway around the world in Mesoamerica, maize was the staple crop and was used to make tortillas and tamales. Today, most people have access to a wide variety of food and can prepare them any way they choose. However, customs and traditions still strongly influence diet and cuisine in most areas of the world.

Comparing Diets

There are a multitude of diets across the globe, in all regions and cultures. Each is influenced by the traditions of the past, along with the produce and livestock available. Local tastes, agricultural economics, and incomes still have a profound effect on what many people eat around the world. In this section, you will read a few examples of cuisines in different countries and regions, demonstrating differences in preferences. We will also compare common dietary choices in each region for a key meal—breakfast.

North America

The people of the United States and Canada consume a wide variety of food. Throughout both countries, people enjoy eating all kinds of cuisine from barbecue, pizza, peanut butter sandwiches, and pie to sushi, tacos, chow mein, and roti (an Indian flatbread). This is partly due to the influence of immigration. As people emmigrated to North America, they brought their dietary differences with them. In the 1800s, for example, Italian immigrants continued to cook spaghetti, pesto, and other cultural dishes after arriving in the United States. Today, Italian cuisine is enjoyed by many Americans from all backgrounds.

The variety of North American cuisine has also been impacted by regional variations. For example, fried chicken, cornbread, and sweet tea are popular in the southern states, while clam chowder, lobster rolls, and apple cider are enjoyed in New England. Also, as more people seek to support sustainable agriculture, locally grown crops and whole-food cooking practices often factor into what Americans eat and how they eat it.

Breakfast in North America

Meals can vary widely from one region of the world to another. Therefore, it can be interesting and informative to compare the choices made for a particular meal around the globe. Throughout this section, we will explore the kinds of foods that people consume as they begin their day. Breakfast is a vital meal in any part of the world because it breaks the long overnight fast. An adequate breakfast also provides fuel for the first part of the day and helps improve concentration and energy levels.

Let’s begin with breakfast in North America. On weekdays, North Americans often eat breakfast in a hurry or on the go. Therefore, many people choose breakfast foods that are quick and easy to prepare or can be eaten during the trip to school or the office. As a result, breakfast cereals with milk are extremely popular, and also oatmeal, toast, or bagels. However, on the weekends, some people spend a longer time enjoying a hearty breakfast or going out for brunch. Typical choices emphasize hot foods and include egg dishes, such as omelettes and scrambled or fried eggs, along with pancakes, waffles, french toast, bacon or sausage, and orange juice, coffee, or tea to drink.

Central and South America

Both Central America and South America feature cuisines with rich Latin flavors. In addition, rice and corn are staples in both and form the basis for many dishes. Both regions are also affected by the mixture of influences from the native populations and the cultural traditions brought by Spanish and Portuguese immigrants during the 1600s and beyond.

South America has a diverse population, which is reflected in dietary choices across the continent. The northwestern region boasts some of the most exotic food in Latin America. In northeastern South America, many dishes feature a contrast of sweet and salty tastes, including raisins, prunes, capers, and olives. Also, rice grown in the area and seafood off the coast are key ingredients in South American-style paella. The north central part of the continent reflects a Spanish influence. Many of the dominant spices—cumin, oregano, cinnamon, and anise—came from Spain, along with orange and lime juices, wine, and olive oil. The south is cattle country and the locals enjoy grass-fed beef cooked in the form of asados, which are large cuts roasted in a campfire. Another popular meat dish is parrilladas, which are thick steaks grilled over oak.Cooking Light. “South American Cuisine.” © 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. http://www.cookinglight.com/food/world-cuisine/south-american-cuisine -00400000001391/.

From Mexico in the North to Panama in the South, Central American cuisine features some of the world’s favorite foods, including rice, beans, corn, peppers, and tropical fruits. This area combines a variety of culinary traditions derived from the native Maya and Aztec populations, arrivals from Spain, and African and Latin-influenced neighbors along the Caribbean. In this region of the world, tamales are common. Spicy seasonings, including hot chili peppers, are also very popular.

Typical Southern and Central American Foods

Typical foods in South and Central America include quinoa, which is a grain-like crop that is cultivated for its edible seeds. Quinoa has a high protein and fiber content, is gluten-free, and is particulary tasty cooked in pilafs. Another popular grain product is the tortilla, which is a flatbread made from wheat or corn. Tortillas are used to make a number of dishes, including burritos, enchiladas, and tacos. Fruits and vegetables that are common in Mexico, Central America, and South America include corn, avocados, yucca, peppers, potatoes, mangoes, and papayas. Rice, beans, and a soft cheese known as queso fresco are common to the cuisine in this area of the world as well.

Tamales, which are popular in Mexico and parts of Central and South America, are made from a shell called a masa that is stuffed with meat or vegetables and steamed or boiled in a wrapper of dried corn leaves. The wrapping is discarded prior to eating. Salvadorean tamales shown above are made in banana or plantain leaves, and the masa (corn meal) is often seasoned with chicken stock. Image used with permission (Public Domain; Ll1324).

Breakfast in Central America

In this region, the first meal of the day commonly includes huevos rancheros (fried eggs served over a tortilla and topped with tomato sauce). Other popular breakfast dishes include pan dulce (a sweetened bread), along with fried plantains, and a spicy sausage called chorizo. The typical beverage is coffee, which is available in many forms, including café con leche (which is sweetened with lots of milk) and café de olla (with cinnamon and brown sugar). Hot chocolate is also popular and tends to be thick, rich, and flavored with spices such as cinnamon or achiote. In the Yucatan region, huevos motulenos are prepared by spreading refried beans onto fresh tortillas with fried eggs, peas, chopped ham, and cheese.

Europe

European cuisine is extremely diverse. The diet in Great Britain is different from what people typically consume in Germany, for example. However, across the continent, meat dishes are prominent, along with an emphasis on sauces. Potatoes, wheat, and dairy products are also staples of the European diet.

The nations along the Mediterranean Sea are particularly renowned for their flavorful food. This part of the world boasts a number of famous dishes associated with their countries of origin. They include Italy’s pasta, France’s coq au vin, and Spain’s paella.

Italy

Although Italy is a relatively small nation, the difference in cuisine from one region to another can be great. For example, the people of northern Italy tend to rely on dairy products such as butter, cream, and cheeses made from cow’s milk, because the land is flatter and better suited to raising cattle. In southern Italy, there is greater reliance on olive oil than butter, and cheeses are more likely to be made from sheep’s milk.Cooking Light. “Regional Italian Cuisine.” © 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. http://www.cookinglight.com/food/world-cuisine/regional-italian-cuisine -00400000001340/.

However, there are a number of common ingredients and dishes across the country. Italian cuisine includes a variety of pasta, such as spaghetti, linguine, penne, and ravioli. Other well-known dishes are pizza, risotto, and polenta. Italians are also known for cooking with certain spices, including garlic, oregano, and basil.

France

For centuries, the French have been famous for their rich, extravagant cuisine. Butter, olive oil, pork fat, goose fat, and duck fat are all key ingredients. Common French dishes include quiche, fondue, baguettes, and also creams and tarts. Frites, or French fries, are cut in different shapes and fried in different fats, depending on the region. Fresh-baked bread is also found across the nation from the skinny baguettes of Paris to the sourdough breads in other parts of the country.

Every region of France seems to have its version of coq au vin (braised chicken most often cooked with garlic, mushrooms, and pork fat in wine). For instance, in the northeast, the dish is prepared a la biere (in beer). In Normandy in the northwest, coq au vin is cooked au cidre (in apple cider).Cooking Light. “France’s Regional Cuisine.” © 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. http://www.cookinglight.com/food/world-cuisine/frances-regional-cuisine -00400000001365/.

Spain

One of the most popular Spanish dishes is paella, a gumbo of rice, seafood, green vegetables, beans, and various meats. The ingredients can vary wildly from one region to another, but rice is always the staple of the dish. Spain is also renowned for its tapas, which are appetizers or snacks. In restaurants that specialize in preparing and serving tapas, diners often order a number of different dishes from a lengthy menu and combine them to make a full meal.

Cooks in Spain rely on a variety of olive oils known for their flavors, ranging from smooth and subtle to fruity and robust. Spanish cuisine combines Roman, Moorish, and New World flavors. Key ingredients include rice, paprika, saffron, chorizo, and citrus fruits.Cooking Light. “Spanish Flavor.” © 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. http://www.cookinglight.com/food/world-cuisine/specialties-spanish -00400000001203/.

Video 14.5: The Mediterranean Diet

This video shows the cultural history of the cuisine enjoyed by many people who live in the Mediterranean region of Europe.(click to see video)

Breakfast in Europe

In some countries, such as France, Italy, and Belgium, coffee and bread are common breakfast foods. However, the people of Great Britain and Ireland tend to enjoy a bigger breakfast with oatmeal or cold cereal, along with meats like bacon and sausage, plus eggs and toast. Tea is also popular in this area, not only for breakfast, but throughout the day. The continental-style breakfast is most commonly associated with France and includes fresh-baked croissants, toast, or a rich French pastry called brioche, along with a hot cup of tea, coffee, or café au lait.

Africa

The continent of Africa is home to many different countries and cultural groups. This diversity is reflected in the cuisine and dietary choices of the African people. Traditionally, various African cusines combine locally grown cereals and grains, with fruits and vegetables. In some regions, dairy products dominate, while in others meat and poultry form the basis of many dishes.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia, located along the Horn of Africa, is one of the few African countries never colonized by a foreign nation prior to the modern era. So, outside influences on the culture were limited. Religious influences from Jewish, Islamic, and Catholic traditions played a larger role on the shaping of Ethiopian cuisine, because of the need to adhere to different dietary restrictions. For example, approximately half of Ethiopians are Muslim and must abstain from eating pork or using spices and nuts to flavor dishes. Ethiopia is also known for dishes that use local herbs and spices, including fenugreek, cumin, cardamom, coriander, saffron, and mustard. Many dishes also reflect a history of vegetarian cooking since meat was not always readily available.Cooking Light. “Ethiopian Tastes.” © 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. http://www.cookinglight.com/food/vegetarian/ethiopian-tastes-00400000037116/.

In addition, Ethiopians use their hands to eat. First, diners tear off pieces of injera, a spongy, tangy flatbread made from teff flour. Then, they use the pieces as utensils to scoop up vegetables, legumes, and meats from a communal plate.Ethiopian Restaurant.com. “Injera.” © 2004–2012. http://www.ethiopianrestaurant.com/injera.html Teff is a grass that grows in the highlands of Ethiopia and is a staple of the diet.

Central and West Africa

Stretching from mountains in the north to the Congo River, Central Africa primarily features traditional cuisine. Meals are focused on certain staples, including cassava, which is a mashed root vegetable, and also plantains, peanuts, and chili peppers. In West Africa, which includes the Sahara Desert and Atlantic coast, the cuisine features dishes made from tomatoes, onions, chili peppers, and palm nut oil. Popular dishes in both regions include stews and porridges, such as ground nut stew made from peanuts, and also fufu, a paste made from cassava or maize.

Breakfast in Africa

African breakfast choices are strongly influenced by the colonial heritage of a region. The people of West Africa typically enjoy the French continental-style breakfast. However, in the eastern and southern parts of the continent, the traditional English breakfast is more common. In North Africa, breakfast is likely to include tea or coffee, with breads made from sorghum or millet. In East and West Africa, a common breakfast dish is uji, a thick porridge made from cassava, millet, rice, or corn. Kitoza is a delicacy made from dried strips of beef that are eaten with porridge in Madagascar. In Algeria, French bread, jam, and coffee is a typical breakfast. The people of Cameroon eat beignets, which is a doughnut eaten with beans or dipped in a sticky, sugary liquid called bouilli.

Asia

Asia is a massive continent that encompasses the countries of the Middle East, parts of Russia, and the island nations of the southeast. Due to this diversity, Asian cuisine can be broken down into several regional styles, including South Asia, which is represented for our purposes here by India, and East Asia which is represented for our purposes by China, Korea, and Japan. Even with this variety, the Asian nations have some dietary choices in common. For example, rice is a staple used in many dishes across the continent.

India

In India, there is much variety between the different provinces. The nation’s many kinds of regional cuisines can date back thousands of years and are influenced by geography, food availability, economics, and local customs. However, vegetarian diets are common across the nation for religious reasons, among others. As a result, Indian dishes are often based on rice, lentils, and vegetables, rather than meat or poultry. Indian cooking also features spicy seasonings, including curries, mustard oil, cumin, chili pepper, garlic, ginger, and garam masala, which is a blend of several spices.Curry Dishes.com. “Guide to Easy Indian Recipes, Curry Recipes and Curry Spices.” © 2009. http://www.currydishes.com/. India is also known for its breads, including the flatbreads roti and chapati. Dishes that are popular not only in India but around the world include samosa, a potato-stuffed pastry; shahi paneer, a creamy curry dish made out of soft cheese and tomato sauce; and chana masala, chickpeas in curry sauce.Food-India.com. “Your Guide to Indian Food.” © 2003–2011. http://www.food-india.com/.

China

China has the world’s most sizable population. As a result, there are many different culinary traditions across this vast country, which is usually divided into eight distinct cuisine regions. For example, Cantonese cuisine, which is also known as Guangdong, features light, mellow dishes that are often made with sauces, including sweet-and-sour sauce and oyster sauce. Cantonese-style cuisine has been popularized in Chinese restaurants around the world. Another cuisine is known as Zhejiang, which is often shortened to Zhe, and originates from a province in southern China. It features dishes made from seafood, freshwater fish, and bamboo shoots.eChinacities.com. “China’s Eight Cuisines Revealed and How to Identify Them.” ©2008–2011 http://www.echinacities.com/expat-corner/china-s-8-cuisines-revealed -and-how-to-indentify-them.html Key ingredients that are used in several, but not all, of the different regions include rice, tofu, ginger, and garlic. Tea is also a popular choice in most parts of the country.

Chinese use chopsticks as utensils. These small tapered sticks can be made from a variety of materials, including wood, plastic, bamboo, metal, bone, and ivory. Both chopsticks are held in one hand, between the thumb and fingers, and are used to pick up food.

Korea

Korean cuisine is primarily centered around rice, vegetables, and meat. Commonly-used ingredients include sesame oil, soy sauce, bean paste, garlic, ginger, and red pepper. Most meals feature a number of side dishes, along with a bowl of steam-cooked, short grain rice. Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, is the most common side dish served in Korea and is consumed at almost every meal. Another signature dish, bibimbap, is a bowl of white rice topped with sautéed vegetables and chili pepper paste and can include egg or sliced meat. Bulgogi consists of marinated, barbecued beef.Korea Tourism Organization. “Food in Korea.” Accessed October 10, 2011. http://visitkorea.or.kr/enu/1051_Food.jsp.

Japan

As in other parts of Asia, rice is a staple in Japan, along with seafood, which is plentiful on this island nation. Other commonly-used ingredients include noodles, teriyaki sauce, dried seaweed, mushrooms and other vegetables, meat, and miso, which is soybean paste. Some favorite foods include the raw fish dishes sashimi and sushi, which are not only popular in Japan, but are also around the world. Typical beverages include green tea and also sake, which is a wine made of fermented rice.Web MD. “Diets of the World: The Japanese Diet.” © 2005–2011. http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/diets-of-world-japanese-diet.

The traditional table setting in Japan includes placing a bowl of rice on the left and a bowl of miso soup on the right side. Behind the rice and the soup are three flat plates which hold the accompanying side dishes. Similar to China, chopsticks are used in Japan and are generally placed at the front of the table setting. At school or work, many Japanese people eat out of a bento lunch box, which is a single-portion takeout or home-cooked meal. Bento boxes typically include rice, fish or meat, and cooked or pickled vegetables.

The Middle East

Middle Eastern cuisine encompasses a number of different cooking styles from Asian countries along the Mediterranean, as well as from North African nations, such as Egypt and Libya. In this part of the world, lamb is the most commonly consumed meat and is prepared in a number of ways, including as a shish kebab, in a stew, or spit-roasted. However, kosher beef, kosher poultry, and fish are eaten as well. Other staples include the fruits and vegetables that grow in the hills of many Middle Eastern countries, such as dates, olives, figs, apricots, cucumber, cabbage, potatoes, and eggplant. Common grains include couscous, millet, rice, and bulghur. Popular dishes include Syrian baba ganoush, which is pureed eggplant, and kibbeh, or lamb with bulghur wheat, from Lebanon.Saveur. “Middle Eastern Recipes.” Accessed December 5, 2011. http://www.saveur.com/solrSearchResults.jsp?fq=Cuisine:Middle\%20Eastern& sitesection=recipes. A flatbread called pita served with hummus, or pureed chickpeas, is another popular dish in this region of the world.

Most people who reside in the Arab countries of the Middle East are Muslim, which can affect their diet. Many Muslims do not consume alcohol or pork. They also observe certain diet-related religious traditions, such as a daytime fast during the month of Ramadan. Other residents of the Middle East include Jews and Christians, and their traditions also affect what foods they eat and how they prepare it. For example, many Jews in Israel keep kosher and follow a set of dietary laws that impact food choices, storage, and preparation.

Breakfast in Asia

To continue the comparison of breakfast around the world, let’s examine the first meal of the day in many parts of Asia. In India, the first meal of the day commonly includes eggs scrambled with spices, potatoes, and onions, as well as fresh fruit and yogurt. Breakfast in China often consists of rice complemented by vegetables, meat, or fish. In Korea, a traditional breakfast would include soup made of either beef ribs or pork intestines, a selection of bread and pastries, rice, and kimchi, which is believed to promote intestinal health. Breakfast in Japan does not greatly differ from any other meal. It typically consists of a bowl of steamed white rice, a small piece of fish, a bowl of miso soup with tofu, vegetables, green tea, and occasionally pickled plums called umeboshi. Hot bowls of noodles in broth topped with pork slices, scallions, and bamboo shoots are also common.

In the different regions of China, congee is prepared with various types of rice, which results in different consistencies. In Japan, Nanakusa-gayu (七草粥), seven-herb porridge. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; Blue Lotus).

Congee is a common breakfast food across Asia. This dish is a porridge made of rice that is consumed in a number of Asian countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and Bangladesh. Congee can be prepared both savory and sweet and contain a variety of ingredients, usually meats, vegetables, and herbs. It can be eaten alone or served as a side dish.

The Diversity of Palates and Habits

Around the globe, people enjoy different foods and different flavors. In some cultures, the main dishes are meat-based, while others focus on plant-based meals. You can also find different staples in different regions of the world, including rice, potatoes, pasta, corn, beans, root vegetables, and many kinds of grains. Different flavors are also popular on different parts of the planet, from sweet to salty to sour to spicy.

Food Availability

People tend to eat what grows or lives nearby. For example, people in coastal areas tend to consume more seafood, while those in inland areas tend to structure their diet around locally-grown crops, such as potatoes or wheat. In many developing countries, a large part of the diet is composed of cereal grains, starchy roots, and legumes. However, a number of common staples are consumed worldwide, including rice, corn, wheat, potatoes, cassava, and beans.

Income and Consumption

In addition to regional dissimilarities in diets, income also plays a major role in what foods people eat and how they prepare them. The average global calorie consumption has increased to record levels in recent years. This is a consequence of rising incomes, which have allowed consumers in many regions to expand both the variety and the quantity of food they eat. Among developing countries, the daily intake of calories per person rose by nearly 25 percent from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s.US Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. “Diets Around the World: How the Menu Varies.” Last modified October 14, 2004. http://www.fas.usda.gov/info/agexporter/2000/Apr/diets.htm., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Caloric Consumption on the Rise in the United States, Particularly Among Women.” NCHS Press Room, February 5, 2004. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/04news/calorie.htm. People in the western world were able to increase their consumption of meat and poultry, fruits and vegetables, and fats and oils. However, those gains were minimal in the poorest countries, where many continue to struggle with hunger and a limited diet.US Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. “Diets Around the World: How the Menu Varies.” Last modified October 14, 2004. http://www.fas.usda.gov/info/agexporter/2000/Apr/diets.htm.

Different Ways of Eating

People from different parts of the world consume their food in different ways and what is common in one country may be considered impolite in another. For example, in some areas people eat with their fingers, while in others using a fork is much more acceptable. In some regions of the world, people slurp their soup, while in others they quietly sip it. In some places, diners eat off of individual plates, while in others people sit at a table with a large communal plate from which everyone eats.

No matter where you travel, you will find that food production, purchase, and preparation affect all facets of life, from health and economics to religion and culture. Therefore, it is vital for people from all walks of life to consider the choices they make regarding food, and how those decisions affect not only their bodies, but also their world. Alice Waters, an influential chef and founder of the nonprofit program Edible Schoolyard, as well as an advocate for sustainable production and consumption, has said, “Remember food is precious. Good food can only come from good ingredients. Its proper price includes the cost of preserving the environment and paying fairly for the labor of the people who produce it. Food should never be taken for granted.”Waters, A. “The Art of Eating.” PlanetGreen.com. March 31, 2009. http://planetgreen.discovery.com/feature/earth-day/alice-waters-eat-green.html.

Video 14.6: Alice Waters: Edible Education

In this video, Edible Schoolyard founder Alice Waters talks about the value of growing a garden and learning about food.(click to see video)

Key Takeaways

Many people around the world have access to a wide variety of food and can prepare it any way they choose. However, cuisine remains strongly influenced by location, culture, tradition, and economics. People from all cultures and all walks of life should consider the choices they make regarding food, and how those decisions affect not only their bodies, but also the world.

Discussion Starter

  1. Compare and contrast breakfast in different parts of the world. What are common attitudes about the first meal of the day? How are the choices that people make the same? How are they different? Are there any breakfast dishes in common?