When Food is More than Just Food

Joe Lowry savours the link between food and human relationships in light of IOM’s recently released cookbook.

Syrian children share a meal in their house in Turkey. Muse Mohammed/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Culture is food and food is culture. Food is ingrained in our myths, rituals and daily lives. When we break bread together we share an important moment of togetherness, whether it’s a family grabbing a cup of tea and a slice of toast before school, or a state banquet for 100 VIPs.

Food shows respect, deference, welcome. When I prepare a meal for you I give you my time, my skill, and my tradition. I want to show you where I come from, I want to convince you that my people are sophisticated, that we care, that we welcome you. I use the knowledge passed down the generations, learned from leaning against my grandmother’s elbow or (more likely in 2017) from a YouTube video.

Even if I cannot speak your language, food serves as a common tongue. A plate heaped high is a welcome for a weary traveler, an emissary from another state, a new neighbour. Food is integration, assimilation, adaptation.

I have many memories about sharing food in different cultures as a part of my work. Three of them have made a huge impression on me. The first was in Somalia in the early 1990s. One of our team was a wonderful doctor, who invited me back to her home to meet her family. They immediately produced a rice-based dish and all took a handful from the common pot.

She lived in an over-crowded, war-wracked slum in Mogadishu, with no public hygiene. Big fat bluebottles buzzed around us. The kids scrabbling around the pot were covered in scabies and, as I had only just recovered from a virulent bout of “runny tummy” I declined, even though I was famished and the grub smelt so good.

The look of utter dismay on the faces of my friend’s family made me resolve to always, always accept food, no matter what its condition. (OK, I drew the line at monkey meat, but apart from that I’ve eaten everything and have the amoeba to prove it. Including what I thought was a beautiful green salad on the Thai-Myanmar border. I complemented it, only to learn it was “mashed baby frogs”).

In the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, I made the local TV station in the shattered city of Tacloban my base, as they let me use their internet and they filmed and edited IOM operations for us. At the end of every long day, a banquet of fish, rice, and a simple cucumber and tomato salad appeared as if by magic. At this stage Jeff Manibay, the station director, and his team were literally sleeping in the office as their houses had been destroyed (and had lost many loved ones). Yet they still fed me, a stranger.

“It’s just who we are,” Jeff said.

And one evening, during Ramadan in rural Tajikistan, I waited for the sun to slide behind the Zarafshan mountains on our journey back to the regional capital before offering around a bar of chocolate.

A young man on our team smiled at me. “When you help me break my fast, it’s a brick in your house in heaven”.


This article was written by Joe Lowry, UN Migration Agency’s Senior Media and Communications Officer and Spokesperson in Vienna.