Food: National Identity and Cultural Difference


There can be indeed on a few doubts that, by subjecting a particular food-item (considered ‘ethnic’) to an anthropological analysis, we can well obtain a number of insights, into how this food-item the national identity of the peoples, associated with it (Harris 1986). It could not be otherwise, because it is not only that the qualitative aspects of ethnic food appear to have been predetermined historically but also ‘psychologically’. That is, it can be well assumed that this food’s actual taste and ingredients provide us with a better understanding of the workings of the affiliated people’s mentality (Sutton 2010). In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, in regards to the Ukrainian food-item of a salt/garlic-cured salo (pork back lard) and the Japanese food-item of sushi.

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When faced with the prospect of having to eat even a few pieces of salo, many Westerners cannot help experiencing a strong desire to throw up. After all, it is not only that salo can hardly be considered a ‘healthy eating’, but it tastes awful, as well – the combination of the flavours of lard and garlic is definitely not for gourmands. One can well wonder whether Ukrainians, who seem to be in love with the mentioned ‘delicacy’, can be considered mentally adequate (Kollegaeva 2012). However, there is nothing too odd about salo’s popularity among the Ukrainians (especially the rurally based ones) – this phenomenon suggests that, while addressing life-challenges, these people cannot help remaining fully observant of their consciously suppressed ‘ancestral memories’. In their turn, these memories have to do with the fact that, throughout the course of the 17th – 18th centuries, Ukrainians used to suffer from being raided by the Turks.

During the mentioned raids, the Turks would take away from Ukrainians just about all of their material possessions – including horses, cattle and pigs. Even though Turks could not eat the latter (Quran explicitly forbids Muslims to eat pork), they could still make a profit from robbing Ukrainians of their pigs. After all, the Quran does not contain any provisions against taking away pigs from ‘infidels’ (such as Ukrainians) and reselling the commodity in question to some other ‘infidels’ (such as Venetians).

To address the situation, Ukrainians decided to put their pigs on the extremely fattening diet. While growing, the poor animals would accumulate the excessive amount of fat in their bodies – hence, becoming ‘non-transportable’ (the excessively fat pigs cannot walk very far). Nevertheless, even though that the mentioned trick did allow Ukrainians to prevent their pigs from being taken away by the raiding Turks, there was a downside to it – the fact that these people had to switch from eating meat to eating lard, which in turn: a) cannot be preserved/stored for any prolonged periods of time, b) tastes awful.

Taking care of first of the mentioned problems represented a certain problem because due to having lived in the steppes (where there is a scarcity of trees), Ukrainians were not in the position to rely on smoking, as the main method of food preservation. Therefore, they could not come up with anything better, but keeping pig-lard in barrels, filled with salt. The second problem was taken care of by the mean of curing the concerned food-item with garlic. After all, due to its sheer intensity, the taste of garlic is capable of ‘overwhelming’ the taste of just about anything food, in which this seasoning/spice is present in large quantities.

Thus, the fact that even today, many Ukrainians seem to like eating salo, can be seen as the proof that, throughout the course of their rise as a nation, they used to be primarily preoccupied with trying to ensure their physical survival. Partially, this explains why the Ukrainian culture can hardly be considered intellectually and aesthetically refined. The above-mentioned can also be used, as such, that explains why, ever since Ukraine attained independence in 1991, it never ceased being considered one of the world’s most corrupted countries. Apparently, the fact that Ukrainians are unconsciously tempted to preoccupy themselves with the thoughts of physical survival (due to the earlier mentioned ‘ancestral memories, on their part), naturally prompts them to experience the sensation of irrational greed, sublimated in these people’s emotional comfortableness with giving/accepting bribes.

The awful taste of salo, is the epitome of Ukraine’s ‘awfulness’, as a country that is being populated by people who do not have what it takes to be able to enjoy their own statehood, in the actual (not formal) sense of this word. Even though this suggestion is rather speculative, it does not make it less discursively legitimate. After all, there is indeed a certain link between salo, as the national food of Ukrainians, and the fact that these people have traditionally been ostracized on account of their less than admirable history.

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The validity of the suggestion that the qualitative essence of a particular person’s national identity is discursively consistent with what happened to be his or her food-related preferences can also be illustrated, in regards to the Japanese famous food sushi. The most memorable aspects of this particular food-item are as follows:

  1. The meat of fish (the main ingredient of sushi) is eaten raw.
  2. The process of serving sushi is highly ritualistic.
  3. There is a great variety of sushi.
  4. The food-item of sushi emanates a strongly defined aesthetic appeal.

When assessed within the methodological framework of anthropology, the mentioned aspects of sushi can be well deemed as yet another proof to the validity of the assumption that the Japanese are endowed with the so-called ‘holistic’ mentality. Such their endowment extrapolates these people’s tendency to objectify themselves within the surrounding social/natural environment while trying to attain the state of ‘oneness’ with this reality’s physically experienced manifestations. As Bower noted, “In a variety of reasoning tasks, East Asians take a ‘holistic’ approach. They make little use of the categories of formal logic and instead focus on relations among objects and the context in which they interact” (2000, p. 57).

As opposed to what it happened to be the case with Westerners, the Japanese profess the values of a communal living, which in turn can be partially explained by the cultural legacy of Shintoism. This is the reason why the Japanese have been traditionally known for their tendency to exist in an essentially ‘networking’ manner when the principle of interpersonal solidarity defines the way in which they tackle life’s challenges (Flowers & Swan 2012). This course naturally prompts them to pay utter attention to the specifically contextual subtleties of the psychically observed reality.

Therefore, the fact that in the dishes of sushi, fish is served raw, can be well interpreted as the indication of the Japanese people’s ‘culinary holism’. Unlike what it happened to be the case with Westerners, the food-consuming Japanese do not focus on the most distinguishable aspect of this food’s taste, but on the whole bouquet of tastes, which the concerned food-item presumably contains. In this respect, it represents the matter of crucial importance to ensure that neither of the sushi’s ingredients has a strongly defined flavour of its own. Hence, the choice of specifically raw fish – its actual flavour is both: unique and somewhat indistinct. The same can be said about the flavour of the supplementary ingredients of a typical sushi-roll, such as avocado and cucumber.

The legitimacy of the suggestion that sushi is an unmistakably Japanese food (in the sense of how it reflects the Japanese national identity) can also be shown, in regards to the Japanese chefs’ insistence, that in order to taste good, sushi must look good. After all, the workings of one’s ‘holistic’ mentality presuppose that there is a unity between a material object’s physically felt emanations, on the one hand, and its metaphysical significance, on the other. In this respect, the Japanese differ from Westerners rather substantially. Whereas, Westerners tend to think of a particular dish in terms of a ‘thing in itself’, the Japanese would regard the same dish in terms of a ‘thing in making’.

What it means is that, as opposed to what it happened to be the case with Westerners, the Japanese do think of the act of consuming a particular food item, as such that is meant to relieve the eater’s sense of hunger alone. Instead, they believe that, while eating, people do not only take care of their physiological but also individuation-related needs. This also explains why sushi comes in small portions – this is the necessary precondition for people to be able to appreciate (aesthetically) what they have been served fully. Moreover, the above-mentioned naturally prompts people to take long pauses, between the points of placing sushi into their mouths, which in turn provides the concerned gorgers with enough time to reflect on the spiritual (‘holistic’) significance of their gastronomical experiences. Therefore, the invention of sushi could not take place anywhere else, but in Japan, the citizens of which are naturally driven to think of food in terms of art. It is understood, of course, that in this respect, the Japanese differ from Ukrainians rather dramatically.


I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defence of the idea that the notions of ‘food’ and ‘identity’ indeed interact, it fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, what people eat and how they do it, never ceases being reflective of their identity-induced stance in life. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, as it was illustrated in the paper’s analytical part, people’s eating habits cannot be discussed outside of what these people are, in the historical and psychological sense of this word. Therefore, the practice of discussing the qualitative aspects of one’s national identity, in regards to the concerned person’s eating habits, cannot be referred to as anything but thoroughly appropriate. This simply could not be otherwise, because just about any food-item is, in fact, reflective of what happened to the existential predispositions, on the part of its affiliates.

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Bower, B 2000, ‘Cultures of reason’, Science News, vol. 157. No. 4, pp. 56-58. Web.

Flowers, R & Swan, E 2012, ‘Eating the Asian other? Pedagogies of food multiculturalism in Australia’, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 1-30. Web.

Harris, M 1986, Good to eat: riddles of food and culture, Waveland Press, Illinois. Web.

Kollegaeva, K 2012, ‘Eating Ukraine and tis lard(er)’, Gastronomica, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 52-58. Web.

Sutton, D 2010, ‘Food and the senses’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 39, pp. 209-223. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Food: National Identity and Cultural Difference." November 2, 2020.


StudyCorgi. 2020. "Food: National Identity and Cultural Difference." November 2, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Food: National Identity and Cultural Difference'. 2 November.

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