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Nov 29, 2010 04:28 PM

How Does Your Ancestry/Background and Home Country's Background Affect Your Cooking/Eating?

So I am currently wrapping up a course that I am taking that is all about Food and Culture. For my final paper, I have chosen to discuss how the ancestry/background/ethnicity of Americans affects their modern day cooking. We hear so much about how people's cooking isn't what it used to be, and everyone just eats hamburgers and fries; but I have some serious doubts about that. Maybe it's just how I was raised?

But, it got me to wondering what Chowhounders are like...I regularly read about the amazing food that you all put out, and am wondering how your past (and your family's past) affects your present day cooking/eating?

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  1. Absolutely...I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, university in England and lived in Asia (Thailand, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia) for nearly 7 years and i can say that what we eat definitely reflects both my ethnicity and my travels.For example, last night we had a chicken curry, based on the curries of Kwa-Zulu Natal, tonight it's bangers (sausages..) and mash potatoes, very English....tomorrow it's prawn laksa, my favourite from my days in Singapore.

    For an article that discusses how the foods of SE Asia have influenced the food of Southern Africa, please take a look at our website ( If you wish to discuss, please feel free to leave your contact details on the site and I'll contact you.

    1 Reply
    1. re: miami_african

      Thank you so much for your response! I will definitely be taking a look at the article :)

    2. Especially during Fall and Winter, my food choices are heavily identified with Russian/Eastern European. We like noodles, all root vegetables, dumplings, sour cream, beer-and-wine-braises;kraut, cucumbers, vinegar,'s probably a heavier style of eating than many of my other fellow CH-ers.

      1 Reply
      1. re: mamachef

        Mine is very similar. I am a mutt of all types, but focusing in Western and Northern Europe. I've found that noodles, braises, and LOTS of potatoes factor into my cooking in the winter (and even in the summer). My cooking is heavy usually.

      2. I am of Cuban ancestry so there are a lot of influences in the food I like. I think it probably influences me in being more adventurous than most Americans when I go out to eat, I always want to have the food that I have never had before. When I lived up north for a few years I noticed that many people were worried about eating a strange dish, but to me it has always been the stranger the better.

        As far as cooking goes, for a lousy cook I have a remarkable spice cabinet and I am very garlic-friendly. I'm not afraid to go wild with the cumin.

        1 Reply
        1. re: redfish62

          When you do cook, are your dishes more Cuban influenced?

        2. I am of Irish ancestry, raised in DC. And I have turned away from the foods with which I was raised. I do not boil meat. Nor do I boil most vegetables. And I eat lots of ethnic foods that still scare my parents. I was raised on salt and dried parsley but now use fresh herbs, lots of chilies, and enjoy well-spiced foods. I do, however, still use real butter and milk.

          27 Replies
          1. re: mojoeater

            Also of Irish descent, but raised in Philly. Never heard of boiled meat: meat was roasted, broiled or fried (then again, the last descendant with a brogue was early 1800s). Veggies were fresh or, if not in season, frozen; and yes, sometimes boiled. But never canned.

            I have always said for an Irish woman, mom was a hell of a good Italian cook (lasagna, stuffed shells, baked ziti). But we didn't have a lot of money growing up, and these were probably cheap ways to provide good, nutritious food to a family of six. And since we were in a city with a good number of Italians, the accompanying bread was always good (and cheap) too. Mom has often mentioned, though, that for her parents even spaghetti was a foreign experience and she never had pizza until she was an adult.

            Never had corned beef and cabbage served at home; though New Years day was always a pork roast and potatoes with sauerkraut.

            Lots of fish--Ireland is an island after all. And lots of potatoes--baked, mashed, left over mashed fried as potato cakes with onions.

            Mom was always a gardener, so in season always fresh mint, basil, rosemary, oregano, jalapenos, bell peppers, tomatoes, etc. Who knew that, in a protected side yard in Philly, rosemary will live year round?

            Actually my 82 year old mom now eats a lot of ethnic food I find scary. She has discovered a love for very spicy Thai, Korean, Vietnamese.

            1. re: gaffk

              My grandmother was born in Ireland and taught her daughters how to cook - how to put a hunk of meat in water with salt and boil it. Potatoes were served with butter and dried parsley, whether mashed or served in chunks. Once in a while that hunk of meat would be thrown in the oven - on top of potatoes with butter and parsley. They never ate fish. I do believe grandma discover frozen veggies (she never had a garden) which explains the grey peas and beans. Everything was mushy. Only things served fresh were iceburg lettuce and carrots, which constituted a salad.

              1. re: mojoeater

                Sounds awful. I'm glad I am two centuries removed ;) And really, how do you "boil meat"?

                And how does a person grow up on an island in the North Atlantic and NOT eat fresh fish?

                1. re: gaffk

                  She might have had fish in Ireland, but never served it to her 9 kids in the US. Thus, I grew up with fish sticks as the closest thing. My least favorite meal as a kid was frozen then baked fish sticks and boiled peas. Of course, my older sister always asked for it when she wanted to torture me.

                  1. re: mojoeater

                    Sorry for you. I am now pushing 50 and have never yet tasted a frozen fish stick. Then again, we were only 4 kids on a very limited budget--9 may have pushed the limit (especially since all 4 were girls) to frozen fish sticks.

                    But I think more than the food, the 6 of us around the dinner table at 6 o'clock sharp is what I'll really remember, regardless of the food serverd.

                    1. re: mojoeater

                      Fresh fish for a family of nine kids could get pretty expensive, unless you happen to be living close enough to the water to buy at the docks, or go fishing yourself.

                    2. re: gaffk

                      I grew up in Northern Ireland, and my mum's parents - farmers in Fermanagh- would have been aghast at eating fish. Bearing in mind that they had an abundance from Lough Erne and my grandad was a very handy fisherman, so supply certainly wasn't an issue - you just did not eat fish.

                      However, my dad's family who came from a rather more well off and cosmopolitan background, would see fish as normal and edible, but fish was certainly not a common foodstuff for the majority of the population.

                      My greatest culinary influence has been my mum, who was an absolute Elizabeth David devotee and devoured the food articles from the London papers. She was 20 years ahead of her time and served us great food. We also spent a lot of time in France which helped.

                      So, for my mum, French and European cuisine was where the excitement lay. For me, that's not so exotic, but I've travelled to the US and the Far East, and lived in London where you can find pretty much every cuisine.

                      1. re: serah

                        Wow, that's surprising. Guess maybe the fish was more a product of being close to the Atlantic coast here in the US?

                        1. re: gaffk

                          Might I offer the theory that the objection to fish in Northern Ireland was more based upon politics and religion than deliciousness or availability. Fish being an essential part of the Catholic diet on fridays throughout the year, as well as several other holy days.

                            1. re: MGZ

                              So they would've rather starved than eat fish? Ah, sweet religion.

                              1. re: MGZ

                                My mother and husband are both Irish and Catholic. Neither grew up eating much seafood at all.

                                1. re: southernitalian

                                  I have no intention of derailing this topic more, so I will simply note that prior to Vatican II (c 1965) abstaining from eating meat on fridays was considered a penetence by devout Catholics. Thus, for centuries the practice of eating fish on that day was de rigeur on that island, much like it was along the coasts of every other Catholic nation in Europe.

                                  1. re: MGZ

                                    Except when the English wouldn't allow it. And that went on for centuries so it may have just fallen out of favor. My in-laws talk about catching and eating eels and mussels but they both said their mothers never served fish and they didn't know anyone else who ate it. They said they ate cheese sandwiches on Fridays growing up and they still don't eat meat on Fridays to this day. A fried egg sandwich, grilled cheese, etc.

                                    1. re: MGZ

                                      Fish frys every Friday night at all the bars in Sayreville/South River, NJ, going into the 3rd generation. I' a "recovering catholic", but sill gotta have my weekly dose of fish.
                                      The kolbasi our church members would make and sell as a fund raiser, blini breakfasts and stuffed cabbage suppers.
                                      I'm a kapusta junkie to this day.

                                      1. re: Passadumkeg

                                        My Catholic-born mother loves to say that the best thing she ever did for me was *lapse*. Her family had 'spaghetti' on Fridays (noodles and jarred sauce, an odd choice for a family so proud of its French-American Detroit farmer roots: my mother's people settled there when it was still a trading post).

                                        But I do remember the Friday fish frys that were prominent in our town, and what a treat it was to be able to go to some lodge, or church basement, with the smiling ladies serving out of aluminum trays, under the echoing din of voices, my parents watching my behavior as we took our square of space amid the communal seating.

                                        That was a nice, and unexpected, memory.

                                        1. re: onceadaylily

                                          Resurrecting fish Fridays has been a joy for me. We didn't observe the Friday penance growing up and continued our full fare of meat-heavy straight from Sunday to Sunday. If I didn't have this small penance, I likely wouldn't have learned to make wonderful fare like cha ca thanh long, sambal steamed fish, Tamil fish curry, shrimp pad thai and som tum, roasted tahini fish, and the soup that sustains me through most of Lent: oden. Being a temporary pescetarian while dining out has made recognizes the luxuries of our diet more, but find great surprises in new ways of eating.

                                          1. re: onceadaylily

                                            Oadl, you wouldn't happen to be from Milwaukee, would you? I had the best fish fries of my life when I was in college in MN and we'd drive over the border to pig out in Wisconsin.

                                            1. re: mamachef

                                              Michigan, mama, just south of Detroit, known for Catholics, cars and cherries. ;) But when I left home, I was asked numerous times if I was from Wisconsin. Aside from speech patterns, we have a very similar culture, I think. I always bug the boyfriend to do a long weekend in Wisconsin in a small cabin somewhere, but the boy does hate to be unplugged. Maybe the prospect of a really good fish fry will help my cause.

                                2. re: serah

                                  What is a traditional meal for your family? Is there anything in particular that you would say you ate more than anything else? That is an interesting background for sure, and I am going to look around and learn more about Elizabeth David. I did a quick google, and she looks absolutely fascinating!

                              2. re: mojoeater

                                It all sounds very familiar. I still love parsley and butter in my boiled potatoes - good! The only meat I boil (more at simmer) is corned beef, but that isn't an Irish dish it's American-Irish.

                                In the history of Ireland, the Irish were never big on fish. The English yes, the Irish no.
                                The famine would not have been so terrible if they had been accoustomed to eating more fish.
                                Back in the 80's I spent 2 weeks traveling around Ireland, let me tell you I never saw a salad. Most fruits and vegetables are imported and so the cost is higher and Ireland having been a poor country people eat a lot of meat, bread, and root vegetables. They excel when it comes to pastries, scones, and breads...delicious!

                                1. re: dartanian

                                  Again, if one was caught trying to fish during the famine, the punishment could range from imprisonment to death. They had no boats, no nets.

                                  My in-laws both grew up very poor but said they both ate a lot of lamb, turnips, potatoes, good bread with fresh butter. That's still what they like to eat. One is from the northern part of the country (still in the Republic) and one is from the south.

                                  Now they're discovering (or hearing from home about) the incredible cheeses coming out of Ireland and proudly serve them to guests.

                                  My mother (whose parents were from Cork) never ate fish growing up. Her first Christmas Eve with my father's Italian family was a pleasant surprise.

                                  1. re: dartanian

                                    Heh, the only veg I really, really miss from Belfast is something called "soup vegetables" No idea what exactly it its - basically a mix of chopped up green leafy vegetables that goes into making soup, along with some pearl barley. You can get soup mixes in England but nothing comes close to soup veg soup.

                                2. re: gaffk

                                  I think I had potatoes with almost every single meal growing up. I would *beg* my mother for rice instead of the mashed/baked/boiled/etc potatoes. It's interesting that your mom has a very spicy preference now, as I find the same with my family. We grew up on a blander diet with more traditional foods, but now it is a case of more spice, more heat, more burn.

                                  1. re: milkyway4679

                                    I guess she always had a taste for spicy (hence the home-grown jalapenos); but definitely more pronounced as she grows older. We had some people over for a football game a few weeks ago and she made wings that practically burned everybody else's lips off--she thought they were good ;)

                                3. re: mojoeater

                                  I grew up on boiled potatoes and vegetables, but no boiled meat usually.

                                  1. re: milkyway4679

                                    Irish American/All grandparents hail from the Republic. Irish are not known for their fine cooking. Grandmother boiled meat until it looked like a shoe. Potatos EVERY NIGHT! I kid you not. Grandmothers' mashed potatos were lumpy and dry. I will say, though, that my grandmother brewed the best tea. I dunno what it was, but she took such care and having tea was a daily ritual when we were kids. She would put the tea in a teaball, steep it for a bit and cover the tea kettle with a cozy. I really miss her tea.
                                    Now..on the other my mother was a step up on the Irish Cook thing. Her "spice" cabinet literally consisted of salt, pepper, and onion salt. Once again, we would have potatos every night. She would go through a 5 pound bag of spuds a day--I had two brothers and my dad loved his spuds as well--there was usually a little left for me and my two sisters. Spaghetti was served with Ragu from a jar. Broccolli as other green veggies were cooked to the point of being olive green. The only fish we ate was Mrs. Paul's fish sticks and they were consumed on Fridays--even after the Vatican said we could eat meat, Friday evenings were always fish sticks and spaghetti. One thing my mother was genius with was with a roast. My god, she perfected Roast Beef--actually rare and beautiful..her leg of lamb was to die for as was her Fresh ham. I am an excellent cook, but I've never seemed to measure up to my mom's ability to cook a roast. On the other hand my fiance is French..and you know what THAT means! I've learned to become a great cook with help from his family!

                                4. I'm comfortable with vinegar, sauerkraut, bread and lard for frying. (German background).

                                  Have gotten more comfortable w/ chilis, tortillas, chorizo and lard for frying. He He. . . (Living in USA SW region).

                                  To this day DS hates vinegar, sauerkraut and eschews lards cuz' of fitness plan.

                                  I've never gotten used to onions ( raw or cooked ) w/ either cuisine.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: JerryMe

                                    I am a terrible German, as I cannot stand sauerkraut. I do love sausage though, and there is a local German butcher in my area that sells handmade sausage. I love their products.

                                    So the region you're from has definitely affected your you ever mix your German heritage with the SW region cuisine? Sausage tacos? Sauerkraut burritos? :)

                                    I love onions personally, and it shows in my cooking. I always put way more in than asked for because I know I love more!