The last Tuesday before Lent falls 40 days before Easter and has many names around the world. Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Brazil, or Fettisdagen (Fat Tuesday) in Sweden, when the traditional food is a Fettisdag buller, a bun, hollowed out, filled with marzipan and whipped cream and then, with the top back on, sprinkled with sugar. In Britain, it’s Shrove Tuesday, commonly known as Pancake Day, when pancakes are fried, flipped and served with lemon juice and sugar. But why pancakes? Like all international food rituals, they have great symbolism: eggs for creation; flour, the staff of life; milk, for purity; and salt for wholesomeness. More practically, in the Middle Ages, making pancakes was a useful way of using up leftover eggs and fats before a fast.
A little knowledge of culinary traditions around the world can go a long way. For a start, your overseas counterparts will be impressed that you have bothered to learn something about their culture. And even the most basic knowledge of seasonal specialities could help you avoid a foodie faux pas, like trying to order white asparagus in Germany in November when every self-respecting German knows the season is early summer.
Overview of food rituals across cultures
In Muslim countries, the period of Ramadan comes with many food rituals, not least fasting from sunset to sunrise, and it is good etiquette to support your business counterparts in this process. Not surprisingly, food plays a big role once the sun has set. Traditional dishes have a practical application: sauces to rehydrate the body, sugars to get flagging blood sugar levels up. You’ll see stalls selling milk, water and dates coming to life after sunset; these are what the Prophet Mohammed consumed to break his own fast. In the Gulf, harees makes a seasonal appearance; cracked wheat soaked, simmered with ground meet and sheep tail fat, beaten and seasoned. You’ll see luquaimat everywhere, too – puffy dumplings deep fried and dipped in honey or sugar syrup.
Day of the Dead
Mexicans celebrate November 1 and 2, the Dias de los Muertos (days of the dead), with a number of food rituals, one of which is Pan de Muerto, or bread of the dead. You’ll see bakeries selling this egg-based bread in shapes of skulls or bones around this time. It’s sweetened with sugar and eaten at the graveside of deceased relatives, along with the favourite foods of the dead.
In China, mooncakes are associated with the mid-Autumn festival, a time for moon worship. They’re round, with a lardy crust stamped with a design, and a rich filling of lotus seed or red bean paste, and sometimes the yolk of a duck egg, with salt. They are usually served with tea. Not a dish for anybody watching their cholesterol, but mooncakes are often exchanged as business gifts around the time of the festival.
Fish-lovers in Beijing go wild in spring for daoyu, or knife fish, which is harvested from the Yangtze in March and April and eaten only in the two weeks before the Qingming Festival, as its bones are soft then. Such is the demand for knife fish, which have been over-fished almost to the point of extinction, that a single specimen can fetch hundreds of dollars. Consider it an honour if you are offered daoyu at a business lunch, albeit a dubious choice ethically. Demand is higher than ever nowadays as the Chinese authorities are considering a ban on fishing daoyu.
If you’re dining out in Germany between April and June 24, you’ll see all kinds of menus celebrating Spargelzeit, or asparagus season. Not green asparagus, but the tender, white version. Germans queue in shops and markets to buy good specimens – and in a restaurant, it’s possible to construct an entire menu themed around asparagus, right down to dessert. You’ll fit in with your German counterparts if you embrace this seasonal delicacy.
Every Italian from Naples swears by their grandmother’s recipe for pizza chiena, or pizza rustica, not a typical pizza at all, but a robust pie served on Easter day, filled with cured meat, cheese and eggs. In Genoa, the thing to eat is Torta Pasqualina, Easter tart, a puff pastry base filled with chard, or spinach, or artichokes, mixed with ricotta, Parmesan cheese and egg. In theory, the dough should have 33 layers, one for each year of Christ’s life, although nowadays a lot of people cheat and buy the pastry from the supermarket.