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A Journey of Flavor

by Eva Sarai

Eva Sarai is a current MAD intern in Copenhagen. She travelled to Denmark to study, and she will return to the US to finish her studies in Psychology and neuroscience at Grinnell College. 

Photos in this article were taken by Theis Bothmann. 

Frikadeller—tasty, uncomplicated Danish meatballs. This dish was among the first I tasted in Denmark during the blustery, dark months of winter. I had been told that frikadeller are typically Danish, as they’ve been a staple in the Danish kitchen for years. I knew they were traditionally eaten in Scandinavian countries, but I later learned that they have made journeys overseas, as far as South Africa and Sri Lanka. This prompted me to think about the food we eat so regularly whose origin we rarely pause to consider. How did it migrate to other corners of the world? Who took part in the process of movement?

My curiosity about food and migration began during my childhood. I have familial roots in India, Spain, and Germany. I have tasted and cooked Punjabi dishes such as saag, matar paneer, paratha, and butter chicken; and New Mexican dishes—with complex roots in Spanish migration—such as green and red chili enchiladas, pasole, and bizcochitos. What’s interesting, though, is that all of these culinary experiences coalesced in the United States, and they travelled to Washington D.C. and New Mexico with my grandparents, immigrants to these regions. Even after much consideration of my own cultural identity through family food traditions, the internal conversation about how food migrates has continued after many bites of frikadeller and rugbrød while living as an exchange student in Copenhagen for the first half of 2017.

Back in May, I was soon to join the MAD team in Copenhagen as an intern for the summer. My first experience with MAD was volunteering at the most recent MAD Monday on migration. I was impressed by the dynamic development of the evening, as the conversations that began on stage filled the entire room, and as food and stories were shared side by side. I didn’t necessarily expect to walk away from one MAD Monday event with a vastly different perspective, but I think something even more important resonated with me. The stories shared and the ensuing discussion reminded me of the value of listening and observing how people and conversation move, and also how individuals’ stories are expressed and shared around the world. For me, this explicates the value of not only trying to understand movement, but of being a part of it, too. I hope to share with you the way I perceived the development of the evening’s discussion, and how including others in the conversation can broaden and deepen the discourse around migration—a topic that affects all people.

When and where there is movement of people, culture is also in motion. All of the layers of culture, whether language, values, religion, or traditions, touch food in one way or another. Cooking techniques, specialty spices and dishes, and celebrations are embedded in food culture and are transferred through migration. For example, when I moved to Denmark, I adapted to the use of different ingredients and dishes that frequent my Danish family’s dinner table, such as frikadeller. I have also experienced how my Danish family celebrates birthdays and national holidays with several varieties of Danish kage, or cake, which are recipe specific depending on the occasion. Aside from typical Danish traditions, I have also tasted food that has more recently become part of Danish food culture, like shawarma.

We can’t discuss migration without understanding the reverberating influence it has, and always will have, on food cultures around the world, and the profound impact food has on humankind: relationships, emotions, identity, and even hostility. Particularly in new places, food traditions are the roots of culture that bind people together. But roots branch, and eventually people who are connected to a core group might stray or flee, while retaining some of their cultural traditions. Cuisine is not only an aspect of cultural tradition that migrates, it also provides a sense of comfort in an unfamiliar realm. Food mediates and fosters relationships and sets the tone for sharing personal accounts. This is exactly when traditions of one’s home cuisine take on a new meaning elsewhere.

Our conversation focused on the influence migration has on food cultures and the way in which food acts as a powerful marker of movement in a globalizing world. Movement offers valuable perspectives and enriches our lives, but only if we are open to transformation.

The connection between human migration and food was brought to light at the event, which featured several speakers who shared stories of how their home cuisine or newly adopted cuisine has influenced their identity and cultural representations. The event was moderated by Natasha Al-Hariri, a lawyer and community organizer of Palestinian background who opened the conversation by sharing childhood memories of eating home-cooked Middle Eastern food in a suburb of Copenhagen. Her mother’s delicious cooking drew many school friends and neighbors to their family home to share in meals. Beyond a good meal, though, it helped them to understand the depth of the culture and its many flavors. The genuine outside interest they experienced helped her family become more accepted and at ease in their new environment.

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Al-Hariri then introduced three women who came to Denmark as refugees and asylum seekers after transitioning in and out of refugee camps across Europe. Two of the women are sisters, Hana and Houda Hussein, from Palestine. The third woman, Zohra, is from Afghanistan. While living at the refugee camps, they witnessed women from different backgrounds venture into the kitchen and share recipes from their countries of origin. It’s disorienting to start cooking in a new kitchen, especially after being transplanted in an unfamiliar space like a refugee camp. But food is what ultimately bound the refugees together, and it was through food that they began to adjust to their new surroundings. Cooking collaboratively gave them a focus, such that when they left the camp they had new skills and a renewed sense of purpose. These three women, along with others, worked together to establish Sisters’ Cuisine, a catering service that demonstrates how the integration of their home cuisines can impact the local Copenhagen community. Their work was established within Trampoline House, a user-driven refugee community in Copenhagen that enables refugees and asylum seekers to participate in, and also develop their own projects.

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The narratives of Al-Hariri and the three women behind Sisters’ Cuisine communicate how food can instill pride, and can give a group something to share, to get excited about, to tell stories about, and to build new communities around. Food can also connect families, or keep them together even from miles apart.

The evening’s conversation shifted to Emma-Jayne Abbots, a cultural and social anthropologist of food at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Her research and experiences later prompted discussion about division, which is undoubtedly an important element of any discussion about migration. Abbots’ research specifically addresses the impact of outward migration of Ecuadorian men and their connection to their families and wives back home through food. In addition to remittance incomes that the women receive, they also exchange guinea pigs, which many in the audience found to be a surprising mainstay in Ecuadorian food culture. This exchange aids in the women’s re-empowerment and their ability to maintain connections by reminding the men of their family obligations in Ecuador.

But Abbots also brought to light the fact that food can divide as much as it can connect, especially when we don’t recognize the complex and branching roots of all cuisines. We start to see reappropriation of food as it is sold to an upper-middle class consumer sector or as it becomes expressed through cultural stereotypes. Food, cuisine, and authenticity can be markers of broader political controversy. Humans are protective and want to take ownership of what they believe represents their culture or their country, especially when geographic and cultural boundaries become blurred.

Trine Hahnemann, founder and owner of a local Copenhagen business, observes that migrants often take the low-skilled jobs that locals don’t want and are disproportionately represented in the industries that provide us with food and service. The positive impact of migrants on our society is emphasized in her business model. Trine Hahnemann is a chef, cookbook author, and founder of Hahnemanns Køkken. Hahnemanns is a catering company focused on building food business models that create opportunities for migrants. She expressed that her model brings to light the reality that the food industry—especially in Denmark—relies upon and cannot flourish without migrant labor. Hahnemann also acknowledged that she could not have grown a successful business without welcoming immigrants into the company and offering skills training so that they may progress, as well.

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Consideration of historical roots of the migration of flavor is on the minds of many chefs, as well. Danish chef, Thorsten Schmidt, of newly opened Restaurant Barr in Copenhagen reminded us that the history of trade goods, like spices, reveals unfamiliar flavors and traditions. As he explained, the spice trade between Sri Lanka and Denmark ultimately changed the utilization of flavor in regional Danish dishes like frikadeller. Schmidt suggested that we may begin to ask questions like, “Where did regional dishes come from? Why are Danish cookies full of spices when Denmark isn’t known for spices? Why isn’t there more room for spices in the Nordic kitchen?” He has devoted much of his energy in and out of the kitchen to researching the origin of spices and how to introduce and increase the presence of foreign flavors into Danish cuisine. Schmidt’s work reminds us that flavors and cuisines transcend time and place.

We might not consider our own food traditions to be special, but when food reaches a people or place externally, as through migration, it changes our perception of both native and foreign flavor or cuisine. Food culture is in a state of rapid dispersion. We see taco stands in Copenhagen; mezze platters in St. Louis; and chicken tikka masala in Kinshasa. Although food crosses boundaries, people don’t necessarily cross borders so easily. For this reason, food should be a starting point to create and foster spaces for further dialogue. What we have in common across all cultures and all traditions is that different foods make our lives more interesting because they bring flavor, but also provide so much background and history of a group of people or a place. Food is nourishment and “food is happiness,” as the two Hussein sisters remarked. Every day we open our palates to the delicious cuisines of the world, but we might also benefit from opening our hearts and minds to the people who bring these foods to new places.

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