28/Aug/2014 - Last News Update: 13:02

Food symbolism: Why do we give food meaning?

Category: Scotland

Published: 23rd Jan 2012 10:32:10

Dishes eaten at Chinese New Year carry great significance, as does the way a Burns Night supper is presented. But these are not the only meals which represent something to diners and the reasons we attach meaning are as myriad as the food itself.

It seems odd that a small parcel of tasty filling encased in a light dough wrapper can represent so much.

But the jiaozi dumpling symbolises prosperity to diners, who traditionally sit down for a family feast on the eve of Chinese New Year. It also means wealth when the dumpling is crescent shaped, like the gold ingot once used in ancient China as money.

Chinese chef Ching-He Huang says the centuries-old "lucky" food traditions come from superstitions about feeding the spiritual world, legends and history.

"For example, the bamboo glutinous rice, zongzi, was eaten to commemorate a famed poet. These rice dumplings were thrown in a river so the fish would feed on the rice instead of his corpse, because he threw himself into the river and he was a well-loved poet and patriot of the people," she says.

Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.

Auspicious dishes such as whole steamed fish are stalwarts in my family of Cantonese eaters, but we also adore the northern Chinese tradition of eating dumplings (called jiaozi in Mandarin) to ensure a plentiful and prosperous year ahead.

In a time of austerity, I can't think of anything better - or more economical - to eat and make than dumplings.

Read more from Charmaine Mok

BBC Food: Chinese NY recipes

"In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it is ripe for word play. For instance nian gao - which is a new year's cake - also means tall or high, so it is eaten to represent doing better or reaching higher every year," she says.

Oranges or tangerines are eaten to promote wealth, as the Mandarin word for them sounds similar to gold. Fish, which is a staple of many suppers, is known as nian nian you yu, which is a homophone of "surplus". It symbolises abundance and it must be whole to symbolise completeness and good fortune. Noodles represent a long life and autumn moon cakes are eaten to celebrate the roundness of the moon.

"The lunar new year is the biggest festival of the year in China," says Dunlop. "An important element of it is for the whole family to be together, with people coming back to the provinces to share in the holiday."

It is this togetherness that has perpetuated the popularity of the meal, says Huang.

"It's a celebration of past, present and future. A big family gathering and a great excuse to eat great food. Eating is a social occasion in China because Chinese food is cooked in a way that is specifically for sharing, with lots of dishes at the dinner table."

So a chicken must be served whole to symbolise family unity and togetherness, and whole roasted animals symbolise fidelity. Sweet, steamed cakes are also eaten as the sweetness symbolises a rich, sweet life and the round shape signifies family reunion.

Prof Michael Owen Jones wrote in a research paper for the American Folklore Society that people "define events through food". He says individuals may also define themselves by the food they prepare, serve and consume, while symbols can evoke emotions.

If people do associate food with feelings and identity, celebratory meals will always remain part of human culture.

But history and custom also play a large part. Food historian Annie Gray says food symbolism has a lot to do with religion and eating "celebration" food at the end of periods of fasting.

This is how pancakes started to be eaten on Shrove Tuesday - to use up rich foodstuffs before the Christian period of fasting known as Lent. Easter food also developed this way.

"Easter fell at the end of what was known as 'the hungry month' in Medieval England - a period of fasting," says Gray. "People were able to get lamb, symbolising the lamb of God. Hens also began laying eggs, which symbolise rebirth and immortality again after winter."

After Henry VIII came to power and separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church, fasting became more about promoting trade with "fish days". But she says that in England, "even after the Reformation we kept hold of these traditions".

"Chocolate eggs didn't come in until the 1870s. It was in the 18th and 19th Century that a lot of religious 'giving up' ended. Christmas became about using up things people couldn't preserve over new year."

She says many people now "have very little religious motivation" when eating certain food, often what is eaten now "is about supermarkets and shops pushing certain products".

"Not many people have original Easter foods anymore, like the traditional lamb on a Sunday. Turkey only became traditional (at Christmas) in the 1960s."

The ritual during festivals can also give the dishes meaning, such as on Burns Night in Scotland.

Burns Night suppers began in 1801, when friends of the late Scottish poet Robert Burns gathered together to celebrate his life and his poetry. They recited his Address to a Haggis and feasted on the offal, oatmeal and spices wrapped in a sheep's stomach. It started what has since become a national tradition, although there are some variations to how the supper is celebrated.

Prof Gerard Carruthers, Glasgow University's co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, says haggis was actually invented by the Chinese, but took on its "power" after Burns died.

Traditional to serve:

What happens on Burns Night?

Burns Night recipes

"Burns's poem to the haggis - it's comical, but also serious. In the 18th Century, he felt people were too luxurious and eating too many luxuries, so his message was 'keep it simple'."

Scottish chef Shirley Spear says haggis is a very rustic Scottish dish.

"Burns was a farmer's son and the haggis and vegetables served with it have strong association with the land. It's a symbol of a humble life. Burns became a world renowned poet but had humble beginnings. It also symbolises his approach to life, meaning every person is worth his own salt. It's about the simple man."

The ritual of piping in the haggis, reciting the poem and plunging the knife in to the dish before serving it out stems back to peasant one-pot dishes which are shared, she says.

The stabbing of the haggis also mimics the idea of Scottish aggression and military power, says Prof Carruthers.

"The early Burns suppers were at a time when Britain was at war with France, so the idea was: 'Let's have a bit of fun in gloomy times.' Burns's poem is about celebrating the haggis, but this stabbing also had Masonic undertones. All these things are in the mix."

But over the course of time, symbolism can change and food myths can spring up, says Gray. Many of which need "debunking". Take simnel cake, which is usually baked and eaten during the Easter period.

"People associate with it servants having a day off, also that it was made for Mothering Sunday and had balls on the top to represent Jesus and his disciples. None of it is true."

So where do such myths come from? They can usually be traced back to one era - the Victorians, she says. They were "very good at telling tall stories".

BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2012. Food symbolism: Why do we give food meaning? [Online] (Updated 23rd Jan 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/219956/Food-symbolism-Why-do-we-give-food-meaning [Accessed 28th Aug 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
  • Samsung and LG launch new watches while Apple waits

    South Korean tech firms LG and Samsung have announced more smartwatches, ahead of a widely anticipated entry to the sector from Apple.
  • Malaysia Airlines warns of further losses

    Malaysia Airlines has warned of further losses in the second half of the year because of the two tragedies to hit the airline in recent months.
  • Scottish independence: Tories cancel No vote 'champagne celebration'

    A champagne celebration organised by a Conservative association in anticipation of Scots rejecting independence has been cancelled.
  • Ebola vaccine to be trialled on UK volunteers

    A trial vaccine against Ebola could be given to healthy volunteers in the UK in September, according to an international health consortium.
  • David Payne: Gloucestershire seamer signs new three-year deal

    Gloucestershire seamer David Payne has signed a new three-year contract with the club until the end of 2017.