Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cultural Gastronomy

A distinct characteristic of many cultures, are the types of food and drinks that are associated with them. In this advanced age of globalisation many of these are now well traveled, and emigration is largely responsible for the spread of food and drinks beyond their traditional cultural borders, which is why: Mexican and Italian food are extremely popular in the USA; Indian food is popular in the UK; Japanese and Thai food is popular in Australia; and Chinese food is popular globally. In addition to this, tourists experiencing foreign holidays often partake in new gastronomic experiences, which they may subsequently want to take home, or try again when they return home.

Global gastronomic spread has also been assisted by major corporations with international reach, brands such as Heinz, Pataks, and Old El Paso have helped to raise awareness of food types in countries foreign to their origins, whilst Smirnoff, Bells, and Moet et Chandon are now globally recognised alcoholic drink brands. Also, television exposes potential audiences to a variety of types of food and drinks through cookery and travel shows, as well as films and dramas that are created in different countries from where they are being broadcast.

Demand for gastronomically exotic cultural experiences has fuelled a global rise in themed outlets, particularly restaurants and bars, which are themed around a specific culture. Globally the largest spread of culturally themed restaurants are American, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese, although these are now being challenged by relative ‘newcomers’ such as Australian, Cuban, Lebanese, Polish, Turkish and Moroccan restaurants.

Many urban centres have significant established Chinese populations that occupy a specific area which may become known as a ‘China Town’, examples of cities that have a ‘China Town’ include Manchester (UK), Nagasaki (Japan) and San Francisco (USA). In China Towns, Chinese restaurants provide a culturally authentic experience to diners, by not only providing Chinese food, but also a suitable ambience that includes elements of d├ęcor, smells, textiles, utensils, language and music.

Participation in cultural gastronomy is about more than satisfying physiological needs through consumption. This is potentially a very rich and immersive entertainment experience as those in the audience can be stimulated in all five senses, which can trigger emotive responses amongst them. It is also very sociable, and commonly participated in by groups of individuals, who themselves become part of the ‘cast’ by partaking in such an entertainment / dining experience. The shared interaction of diners with their surroundings and food often provides entertainment for other members of the dining party.

In the UK, Indian restaurants have grown in popularity since an initial wave of immigration from Commonwealth countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in the 1950s. At the turn of the Millennium it was widely reported in the British media that the nation’s favourite dish was Chicken Tikka Masala, which is a mild curried chicken dish in a creamy tomato sauce. Since then, a growing number of Asian entrepreneurs have transformed the Indian dining experience, and are now creating a contemporary ambience with enlarged menus based around traditional recipes, but surroundings that are very different from the Indian restaurants of previous decades. Gone are patterned wallpaper and carpets, in favour of Wooden floors and more neutral colour schemes, also gone is ‘piped in’ Indian music in favour of flat screen TVs playing the latest Indian music videos featuring well known ‘Bollywood’ stars. This helps to maintain interest in the Indian dining experience amongst younger diners, who may feel more comfortable in surroundings that they perceive to be ‘cool’, but at the same time, this is a step away from the authenticity of the cultural experience. In terms of growth, culturally themed restaurants in the UK have suffered ‘from a certain amount of stagnation thanks largely to a distinct lack of innovation in the sector’ (Mintel, 2008), this new generation of Asian entrepreneurs are at least making steps to combat this.

Culture is also utilised in order to theme pubs and bars around a particular national identity, common global examples include American, British, Irish and Australian themed pubs and bars. In such establishments the surroundings are very often more authentic than the beverages being sold (most of these bars sell brands that are internationally recognisable and therefore less authentic culturally), although some specific brands are heavily promoted in these types of establishments. Common examples of draught products promoted in themed pubs and bars include: Budweiser (American); Fosters (Australian); Guinness (Irish); and John Smiths (British).

Finally gastronomic markets and festivals are also popular attractions that allow visitors to them, to become immersed in a specific culture. In Germany, beer festivals are extremely popular amongst residents and tourists alike. Most notable on the cultural calendar is the Munich based Oktoberfest, which is the world’s largest event of its kind attracting six million visitors annually. Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day festival that begins in September and finishes in October. At Oktoberfest the main attraction is the beer on offer, all of which is supplied by German breweries, but traditional German dress, music, tankards (steins), and food – particularly meat, potato and bread products all count towards creating a uniquely German, culturally gastronomic experience.

Despite its current popularity, the short to mid term future growth, for cultural gastronomy is largely going to be dictated by wider economic factors. Forecast rises in the prices of food, fuel, gas and electricity do not bode well, and may ultimately lead to many in this sector struggling to maintain profitability, particularly in the face of falling tourist revenues, and supermarkets being able to provide a similar or the same product, albeit without the full cultural experience. The question from a consumer’s perspective could be, ‘what am I interested in, the food / drink, or the experience?’ If the answer to this question is ‘the food / drink’ expect: competitive price cuts; and special offers; in restaurants and bars, as well as a reduction in menu size, in restaurants, as businesses themselves begin to tighten their belts.

Ref: MINTEL. (2008) Ethnic restaurants and takeaways – UK. London, MINTEL International Group.


Wilky said...

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Prac said...

Great blog and insights . I am an urban traveller for a long time now and your observations are really true.