I remember my dad pulling me aside at a family gathering to a plethora of Jordanian food including mansaf, kanafeh and tabbouleh. As every other one of my 40 cousins piled food onto their plates, I stuck with the chicken tenders placed on the table almost entirely because of me. I had recently arrived in Jordan from America and definitely wasn’t used to the local cuisine. Instead, I was content with playing on my Grandpa’s swing with the soda I had snuck from the kitchen.
I have always been the stubborn kid at the dinner table. I was a messy eater growing up and my mother even took me to etiquette classes. Along with this, I was a picky eater. I spent my adolescence being often told to eat my chicken or reminded not to play with my food. At an early age my family started flying me to Jordan to spend summers with my grandparents. Though I was in a different country, I was still constantly told at the dinner table not to eat with my hands or to try some of the local cuisine. Like most kids, I rebelled and often tried to sleep through breakfast. At dinnertime, I would sit by and fill up on tea and salad before running off to play soccer with my cousins in the local streets. To this day, I still do not like most Arabic food. However, just as most kids are taught to eat their vegetables, I was taught to begrudgingly eat the food my grandparents made.
My dad, who was not having my whitewashed taste buds, picked me up from the swing at that family gathering and dragged me over to the mansaf. Mansaf is usually rice and lamb served with fermented dried yogurt as a type of sauce. As I whined on the way to the meal, I noticed everyone for some reason was walking up to the huge piping hot plate of mansaf had just been placed on the kitchen counter. I was even more surprised when every single person began picking up balls of rice and lamb and eating it with their bare hands. As we approached the plate, I was sure there was no way my civilized father would do the same, but he did! All of the Arab men who had nagged me for being a messy child were now eating rice with their bare hands. Of course, I immediately began to eat the mysterious food. And though I hated every single bite, I had a great time. Eating mansaf that day was just fun. It was the first time I really remember connecting with my culture because it was as childish as I was.
This past summer, I did a study-abroad trip in China and had my first swing at chopsticks. Needless to say it was a mess and I probably looked pretty dumb to the locals sitting at the table next to me. However, once again, it was a time of enjoyment because I was trying to acclimate to this new cultural norm. Meanwhile, a lot of people on my trip asked the waiter for forks. The issue with asking for a fork in a Chinese restaurant for me is it showed a clear disingenuous connection to the process of eating. We went to China to eat an authentic Chinese meal, yet we were still trying to have little bits of America infiltrate our meal. Though I may have looked dumb while I learned to use chopsticks, it was all part of the fun of traveling to this country.
A country’s food is so much more to me than just something to fill your daily intake of calories. Every authentic meal is placed on that menu because it holds some type of significance to that country. That day, my dad really taught me to enjoy food for more than just the flavor. Food is a piece of a country’s past and a telling trait of its people. Of course, nobody can like every single food out there. However, I implore everyone to let yourself taste something awful — because while the aftertaste may not be the best, you’re sure to feel better later.