If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to everyone’s cultural intelligence is down the same route.
The process of globalisation, rapid travel, and 24/7 connectivity has brought the different cuisines of the world, and the cultures that created them, much closer to our everyday life.
When I was a young man in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the national cuisine was a mono-cultural, ‘meat and veg’ sort of thing.
I remember my excitement to be taken to a Bengali restaurant in central London from my suburban south London town and finding the whole experience (mixed with a visit to the theatre to see The Merchant of Venice) incredibly exotic.
Even when studying at Cambridge, the only foreign food available was in a curry house at the back of my college and a Greek moussaka place in nearby Green Street.
It was a big effort to find an espresso bar in London, and the bewildering range of coffee choices (pistachio and rose mocha, anyone?) now available in every coffee bar would have been unimaginable.
EMPIRE OF THE CUISINES
Nowadays, when I watch UK MasterChef on television, I find myself struggling to recognise some of the ingredients from cuisines all over the world, often fused together artfully on one plate for a particular course: Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Caribbean, Polish, Italian, French, and many more.
The confidence with which the competing amateur chefs handle Japanese fish roe, or Indian sambal, or Malaysian coconut and lime leaves makes my eyes—and especially my mouth—water.
No longer do you have to take yourself to Paris for fine dining. The cuisines of the world are available in cities from Singapore and Tokyo to London, from Buenos Aires to New York and Los Angeles.
And it’s not only fine dining.
Street versions and family versions (the Italian cucina della mamma) are available too. As our cities become more and more of a multicultural hot pot, we are learning more about different cultures of the world through what the people of those cultures eat, where they find it, how they prepare it, how they eat it, and how they reflect on it.
If we are what we eat, it’s pretty clear we are becoming ever more multi- cultural.
FLEXING OUR CULTURAL MUSCLES
This has big implications for developing our cultural intelligence – whether to work more successfully in global teams, develop closer relationships with local partners and customers, align cultures following corporate mergers, or simply perform better in the new global economy.
Indeed, the first benefit for our cultural intelligence is that when we try out a new cuisine, or new dishes within that cuisine, we are in effect flexing a cultural ‘muscle of the mind’.
We are asking ourselves to step over into some other taste region—maybe unfeasibly spicy, maybe cooked in a strange wine or paste, maybe featuring meats, or fish, or vegetables that we have never tried before.
The point is that we are experimenting, taking a bold leap of faith (can you tolerate a red Thai curry?), and some part of us is probably also wondering how the inhabitants of this country— Slovenia, the Maldives, Peru—came up with this dish.
That’s because cuisine is in many ways culture.
A couple of decades ago, I published a book on Korean cuisine together with the chefs of the Shilla Hotel in Seoul. They provided the recipes, the public relations department provided the fantastic photos of each dish, and I provided the essays on South Korea’s different regions, how the dishes developed, and their historical and cultural background.
What do you think when you hear the words ‘Korean food’? You probably go straight to the stereotype: meat barbecue. Koreans eat a lot of meat, so their main dish is spicy grilled beef, right?
It’s true that the Koreans are descended from Mongol horsemen who hunted animals on the steppes of Russia and in China. The Mongols sliced up their prey on concave metal shields, which they held over open wood fires.
And so to this day Koreans eat barbecued meat—but that is by no means all that they eat.
Much of their cuisine is vegetarian, consisting of fermented spicy cabbage (kimchi) and an array of small dishes containing varieties of mountain roots, grasses, herbs, and spices.
These dishes emerged as the staple of Korean cuisine when Chinese Confucian beliefs took over from Buddhism as the main influence on the royal court. The king banished the Buddhist monks to their mountain monasteries, and there they lived on a vegetarian diet of grasses, vegetables, and roots gathered in the nearby vicinity.
So if you really want to enjoy Korean cuisine, it pays to find out a little more about Korean culture. That will enable you to choose the authentic Korean dishes in a restaurant that may well offer barbecued beef (and little else) on a menu intended for Western eyes.
However, if you look around, you will see local Koreans being served numerous side dishes of vegetables, roots, and kimchi. Korean food would be much duller without them!
DEVELOPING A GLOBAL MINDSET
The same is true of every cuisine in the world. The more we enjoy them as passports to other cultures, the more we develop our readiness to enjoy new experiences and build new relationships.
If you want to succeed in business in many parts of the world, such as Asia, if you want to get on a better and more productive wavelength with diverse leaders or members of your team, you have to be ready to socialise over food.
In China, for example, there are elaborate traditions of banqueting (at least eight courses, eleven for a VIP). Business is not the main item on the menu, but food definitely is.
If you can try odd Chinese dishes as I have done—‘chrysalis of silkworm’ comes to mind (!)—and continue smiling as you discreetly place a morsel at the side of your rice bowl, you may well be accepted as a potential business partner or colleague, a sympathetic team member or leader, or a trusted intermediary.
The discussion and tasting of food in Asia, for example, is the single most important factor in building a long-term business relationship.
If you can talk food, and try a little of everything, you’re in. If you stick with knife and fork and ask for sausages, you’re out.
This is an extract from David’s latest book Bamboo Strong: Cultural Intelligence Secrets to Succeed in the New Global Economy
You can measure your own cultural intelligence by registering for David’s complimentary Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Planner at www.davidcliveprice.com/planner. You can also reach out to David on social media and read about his Bamboo Strong strategies and discoveries in the Bamboo Strong book and at www.davidcliveprice.com
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This post was first published as Empire of the cuisines; courage and global mindset at www.davidcliveprice.com
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photo credit: Pabo76 Veggie Jook via photopin (license)
photo credit: Dimitry B Muslim Market, Xi’an, China via photopin (license)
photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection Laos: Nutritious meals are bringing more children to school via photopin (license)