October 08, 2015

feeding foreign friends

When I was a child, my family and I ate in many different homes, especially during our visits to North America. We were fed many foods we didn't eat in South America, and this was generally an enjoyable experience. Hosts provided strawberries with whipped cream, toasted English muffins with creamed honey and peanut butter, and a delightful variety of sugary breakfast cereals to tickle our tropical tastebuds.

The breakfasts, lunches and dinners we were served blur together in my memory, except for one. Much to my dismay, on that too-memorable day I watched our elderly hosts-du-jour place a glass of reddish-orange juice at each place before our shared meal. I immediately recognized this hated foreign drink called "tomato juice". I knew the horror that lay before me: unless I managed to get clearance from Mom, I would have to drink it, and being forced to drink tomato juice felt like certain death to ten-year-old me.

I don't think of myself as a picky eater, but drinks must be a trouble spot for me. A few years ago in Asia a neighbour generously invited me over for breakfast after an early-morning outing. The meal itself was tasty, but unfortunately the fruity buttermilk drink she put in my cup almost made me gag right then and there. Thankfully, I was with another friend who could tolerate the beverage, so she guzzled hers while I left most of mine in the cup, hoping the hostess wouldn't really notice. Choosing not to drink it was the lesser of two evils, I hoped; coughing buttermilk onto the tablecloth probably would have been worse.



Have you ever had a similar experience of being invited to someone's house for a meal, only to be fed something that you virtually could not swallow? Food you can't enjoy (but feel forced to eat) makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, food that you can enjoy not only makes your visit pleasant, but it usually makes you want to visit again!

Since moving away from North America, and especially since being in Europe, I have been learning about hosting guests of cultures different than my own. Here, we rarely have North American guests, so we are always wondering what others will like and feeding people who grew up eating differently than we did. I've been convicted that I should try harder to make our guests feel comfortable with the foods I choose to serve. Sure, we have the freedom to feed our guests anything we want, but it serves them and builds our friendship when we feed them things they can enjoy.

The biggest lesson I've learned about feeding guests of a different culture (you can stop reading after this paragraph if you want) is to use ingredients which are somewhat familiar to them. Usually you don't want to make something that is extremely different than what they are accustomed to eating or drinking, because they may not like it. But you also don't want to exactly imitate something that they had back home, because you probably won't make it as well as Mom did. If you're not very familiar with what people from particular parts of the world eat, Google is your friend. Ask it, "What do Arabs eat?" or look up "typical foods in Tunisia" and get an idea of what they are accustomed to, so that you can make something with a few familiar ingredients. I realized this when both our Indian and Syrian friends enjoyed this bulgar salad. I think that this is because it has ingredients that are familiar to them (bulgar, chick peas, cucumber, bell pepper), but perhaps they have never eaten those ingredients in a salad format before, so it is a different twist on flavours they can enjoy.

But maybe you don't know where to find bulgar or don't have a clue how to make chick peas. You can learn, or you can read on....


Another possibility is to feed international guests a meal or snack from your home country, adjusted to their cultural tastes as needed. Wouldn't you be excited if your Italian friend had you over for pasta, or your Middle Eastern friend brought you homemade baklava? As North Americans we don't have so many traditional foods as some countries, but burgers and fries, "meat and three", homemade loaf bread, chocolate chip cookies, pie or cupcakes are things your guests may feel privileged to eat in a North American's home. TexMex can be interesting to people of other cultures, because it is a twist on some ingredients they may have eaten before (like cilantro, beans, tomatoes, beef) mixed with other not-too-scary ingredients (cheese, avocado, tortilla chips). Some flavours or cuisines seems to be universally enjoyable, such as pizza, pasta, or chocolate.

If some of the ingredients in the meal you want to serve are a bit unusual, allowing people to pick their own toppings or mix and match ingredients on their own plates works well. I saw my friends in Asia serve meals like this successfully many times. I sometimes serve a salad as a meal, but have five or more bowls on the table with different options of toppings and dressings, which lets everyone pick something that suits him or her.




Here are a few commonalities I've noticed about guests from specific backgrounds:

For Hindu or Indian guests: Hindus range from vegetarian (some don't even eat eggs) to eating virtually any meat except beef. If I don't know them well yet, I usually try to feed them a vegetarian meal just to be on the safe side, because sometimes even the meat-eaters are not eating "non veg" due to a special fast or festival. Some might say they eat meat to seem more Western, but might be more comfortable eating a vegetarian meal. You can always ask ahead of time if they eat meat, or keep meat separate as an optional add-in. Also, south Indians are used to eating rice, and north Indians to flatbreads of various kinds. They virtually all like their food well-seasoned and spicy, and putting hot sauce on the table is a good idea, because you probably don't like it as spicy as they do. They are used to having their tea with lots of milk and sugar in it, and usually they like black tea—fruity or herbal teas are less known to them.

For Musl!m or Arabic-speaking guests: I have gathered that they are accustomed to eating meat, rice, kebab and flatbread. Probably most Arab men like some meat on their plate, though of course, not pork! The meat might need to be halal (such as from a Turkish grocery store). Anything that could possibly contain pork gelatin, like gummy bears, should be avoided if they're conservative. I've noticed that they like tea (green tea with honey and ginger seems to be a win) but only after the meal. If they're at your house around prayer time, you might want to make them comfortable to pray if needed. I've learned some of this also by visiting in our Syrian friends' home and seeing what is normal for them.

For Western European guests: Western Europeans use much less sugar than North Americans do. This has been a good thing for me to learn; lately I'm baking cake with half the sugar and hardly noticing the difference! They don't drink much pop and like their food fresh. Germans aren't guaranteed to be adventurous with spice or exotic ingredients, and using some of their sturdy staples like potatoes, meat, apples, bread, etc. is usually a recipe for success if you don't know your guests well. Good coffee is often appreciated by Europeans.

These are very general guidelines, but talk to your guests, and find out if they have any allergies, preferences or dietary restrictions. When feeding immigrants, their willingness to try new things might depend on their age (young people might be more flexible than older adults), personality (our easy-going Chinese friends enjoyed TexMex) and how long they've been out of their homeland (the longer they've lived outside their home country, the more they've likely adapted to local foods, especially if they came when they were quite young, or came alone, not with a wife or mother who has been cooking their traditional cuisine every day). The strictness of their diet or whether or not they drink alcohol might depend on how conservative they are. Of course, there are picky eaters or vegetable juice haters in almost any culture. Asking their preferences always communicates respect.




So, do you have to be super-hostess to invite a foreign friend over? I am living proof that you don't need to be. I've spoken a lot about food here, but I am not an excellent cook. The chicken tonight was dry; last week our Wednesday soup was too spicy and Germans were turning red eating it. My husband is too temperate to tell you of the the meals I've destroyed with too much garlic, too much salt, or too much time under the broiler. But the more meals I cook, the more I learn. The more international guests we host, the more trends and preferences I pick up on. Preparing and serving homemade meals is always quite a bit of work, but it does get easier and faster with practice.

Why does it matter what we serve our guests of other cultures? Isn't the heart behind hospitality much more important than the menu? Yes, but what better way to show guests what is in your heart than by putting care and thought into choosing a pleasing menu? Our friends who are far from their home cultures are probably extra-appreciative of love. Fine-tuning your hospitality to different types of guests serves to build bridges into their lives. If they are at ease (not nervously choking down buttermilk) and they see that you care about them, they're more to open their hearts. Rosaria Butterfield's words in this interview resounded with me:
"Hospitality is not about putting sprinkles on your [cupcakes]. It is a form of spiritual engagement, even perhaps a form of spiritual warfare….you want to always make sure the strength of your words matches the strength and integrity of your relationships. If you want to talk to your neighbours about sin you had better be friends first, you had better be able to be people who have shared a meal together..." 
A thoughtfully-prepared, prayed-over meal can be a bridge to deepen relationships and talk about what really matters. Serve food that makes your international friends feel comfortable. Prepare a meal or snack that makes them feel loved and looked after. And please, if you have learned anything from this post, don't force your guests' children to down tomato juice!

Note: If you liked this post and are thinking about hospitality, you might like to read other hospitality posts, especially this one that talks about why we prefer, when we can, to invite people in instead of taking them out. If you have experience hosting foreign friends and can contribute, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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