Culinary Heritage and Rural Identities: Greece and Bangladesh

Theme: The Cultural Significance of Rural Identity to the Upcoming Generations

by Ms. Reema Islam
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in Heritage Management, Kent University (UK) and Athens University of Economics and Business

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Culinary heritage as a way to identify with rural heritage. The article presents a comparison between the importance of the younger generation and the sustainability of a cultural heritage product. The topic focuses on a case study of carob in Greece and Bangladesh.

The need for upcoming generations to value their rural identity is an issue gaining a strong voice now, given the rapid loss of indigenous cultural material and rural development (Reyes-Garcia, Gueze, & etc, 2013). It is the continuity of time which the current generation needs to value in order to understand where they are coming from and to appreciate the journey while learning to avoid mistakes made by their past generations. (Bessière, 1998). The idea of reconnecting with one’s roots might be a subjective issue but the broader aspects of an element like culinary heritage are common grounds, everyone can relate to. However, the terminology of rural life perhaps needs a bit of defining as well since the gap between urban life and rural, seems to be rather hazy. I will consider the fact that rural life relies (Strijker & Sijtsma, 1996) more upon agricultural activities, as opposed to commerce and industrial zones of urban living. This further matches the rural life I will mostly be talking about, i.e. life in Crete, where the rural set up is truly an agricultural one. The lines separating rural and urban areas are somewhat becoming blurred as people living in slightly less developed areas aspire to be more urban, while development brings in roads, electricity, internet and other facilities, connecting everyone. This also means that the image of rural life which I grew up within the 1990s, will differ from that of kids growing up today. It brings to light the need to preserve ruralness or heritage that connects people to their identities. I personally grew up in an urban environment and never even visited the village my father was born in. However non-existent this renders my rural identity, I still feel that cultural elements like local food, music, art or more tangible ones like archaeological structure, need to be preserved. I have had several interactions with youth while promoting the concept of heritage values and knowing one’s own archaeological and cultural heritage. In this paper, I would like to use some of this experience garnered, vis-à-vis some observations during my research in Crete, working with the bean pod carob, which is found all over the Mediterranean. Furthermore, I would like to specify youth as those individuals between the ages of 18-35 (Barua, 2016).

During my master’s dissertation, I mainly spoke to the elderly in Crete, to gauge the general impression towards carob. I also spoke to members of the youth, but they were mostly influenced by their elders and a sense of identity with carob was missing. They considered it local, but not something they could relate to. The challenge of my dissertation was to figure out whether they had the potential of recognizing carob’s heritage value. I observed the changing trends of children or young adults towards carob consumption. My dissertation looked at the possibilities of making it into a product of cultural significance, where children or younger people were an indirect target group. Carob is an endemic bean pod which is mainly a superfood but in Greece, especially in Crete, it is just one of the many things that people, as well as their livestock, consume! Now due to this humble image, carob is often overlooked as a product of culinary, cultural or any heritage significance. I looked into the reactions of its consumers, especially the youth, to get an idea of the value they were willing to give carob, as both older and upcoming generations were required to give it that status or significance. Shops all over Greece sell carob products and in Crete, it is always the job of the grandmothers or yiayia to make carob syrup, which is a painstaking task, requiring time. They make it for their grandchildren, as carob syrup (Islam, 2017) is known to be loaded with calcium and other nutrients. This cultural ritual is a very Cretan thing to do and it is a familiar scene to watch grandmothers serve their young. It also meant that food was being used as (Brulotte & Di Giovine, 2016) a form of continuing a tradition, that helped keep the heritage value of carob alive. The cultural festival organized by a local organization, in Elounda (Ekathimerini, 2018), was also meant to fulfil the same purpose, of familiarizing the younger generation with the many benefits of carob.

Figure 1 carobs from the farm

The syrup was made along with a number of other items and the entire youth populace of the neighbouring areas were invited to participate in celebrating carob and its significance to the Cretan culture. This festival was however, one of a kind as this particular organization always felt the need to popularize the local culture, especially culinary heritage. A few random instances also include school teachers trying to get their students to be more sentient about carob and Crete’s culinary heritage (Ekathimerini, 2018). Now on an average for most of these kids, their exposure towards carob had only been limited to consuming their grandmother’s carob syrup or paximadi, a local biscuit made at home or found in bakeries/supermarkets as well. Its significance as an endemic tree that contributes to the local environment as well as its beneficiary role for the soil and water, was not something they might have thought of. Crete comprises of four major cities and most kids live closer to the cities where their schools usually are (Crete). This deprives them somewhat of a deeper understanding or knowledge of rural life. However, in the mountains where a lot of the youth are now shepherds or have agricultural jobs, their view of carob is to consider its economic values instead. The challenge was thus to see the different awareness-raising could make to these two segments of the youth, where one group knew next to nothing about carob as the other group, based on the biases of their elders, viewed carob as either livestock feed or a tree that brought them some economic benefit.

The realization which stemmed from this set up was of the cultural influences and modernism that had seeped into the culinary picture of Crete and larger Greece. Although removed from the mainland, Crete remains a tourist destination and the need to uplift its standards and facilities has also given rise to availability of foreign cuisine and cultural influences. Where the Greek cuisine is a large part of showcasing the country’s heritage, popular perceptions of food and its presentation, are still ruling the way things are presented to tourists (Terzić, Bjeljac & Ćurčić, 2015). This could have been one of the many reasons that a product as seeped into the Cretan culture as carob, has been slightly ignored or has not gained as much popularity as the local wines or cheeses. It is more a matter of misrepresentation and this perhaps was one of the reasons why even the youth were unable to see its true value. A foreigner like myself was part of a minority group of Cretans who value carob and realize how it represented the local identity; an identity that dates back to the essence of rural life where this tree has multiple benefits. Carobs grow in the city too but are more a feature of the rural scenario. School kids in the urban set up had to be told of its benefits and presence in culture and history like a story to pique their interests, while the youth in the rural areas had more practical requirements, wanting to know more about the economic incentives of carob as an agricultural product. This, of course, gives rise to the manifold aspects a simple product can have which can easily link one back to their rural identities and a way of life that their forefathers had leaded, which is lost in the modernity of today.

A similar workshop was conducted in Ioannina, Greece on “Food as Cultural Heritage” (Youth Center of Epirus, 2018). The idea was to familiarize the members of the youth club on how food is a part of our living heritage and the terminology of heritage foods. The participants were then asked to justify their list of heritage foods, according to why they thought these dishes represented the Greek culture, their history, heritage or, social practices. Some of the names that came up were, Zimaropita (a flour pie with cheese from Epirus) and Bobota (a cornbread), which was a dish none of the participants had ever tried but was a dish a lot of the older generation had consumed as kids.

Figure 2 List of some of the heritage foods

These dishes were prepared, and old recipes procured from grandparents were used. Once again food was used as a means to help the urban youth to reconnect with a past they could still connect with, through their grandparents or other older members of their society. The city of Ioannina is not far from a more rustic locale of the larger Epirus region; yet, these participants were enjoying the modern life the city offered and lived on the fringes of their traditional and cultural heritage. The task of jogging their memories to come up with a list of heritage food was a collaborative one but it also helped them research and learn from each other.

Figure 3 participants in Epirus listing heritage foods

The idea of rural now gives one an image of an idyllic setup and although this might be true for a country like Greece, bestowed with a lot of natural beauty, for countries like Bangladesh, the presence of a large section of ethnic minorities adds more layers to the rural identity (Murmu, 2019). Nonetheless, it can still be assumed that the rural populace consumes a different type of meal than the conventional urban dwellers. The youth in cities have parents who were possibly born in their villages so their connection to a rural lifestyle is just one generation away. A workshop was conducted back in 2014, held at a school here in Dhaka, where students from grade 7-9 were given a session on archaeology, philately and cultural heritage, as an introduction to the cultural heritage of Bangladesh (Siddique, 2014). The kids resided throughout their short lives in Dhaka and had little interaction with rural life. Their knowledge regarding any heritage sites was limited and derived from textbooks as was that of cultural intangible heritage. Most of what they knew regarding culinary heritage was passed on from family or popular media. Nonetheless, the session opened them up progressively, as they wanted to know more about archaeological and cultural heritage. The overall response saw some of them making first-ever trips back to their villages to reconnect with their roots and learn a bit about their identities.

In conclusion to my observations, whether the overarching term of identity helps one reconnect with their roots or learn more about cuisine or archaeology – intangible/tangible heritage was the key to piquing interest amongst the youth. Whether they reconnected with their rural identities as an aftermath or simply went on with their daily lives, this tiny interaction was a glimpse at how to begin something which could lead to a more concrete change in the way younger people view their cultural identity.

Bibliography

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