Theme: Rural Cultural Food Tourism
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
This paper will peruse the issue of food as tourism, looking at difference between Greece and Bangladesh. The word gastronomy itself comes from the Greek word, meaning “right way of eating” and aptly said, the Greeks have a huge culture of eating a good, hearty meal. Through personal experience, I have observed how urban life differs from the rural one in the context of the food consumed. In urban set ups, food is a hasty affair and often times, breakfast consists of a cup of coffee. In the rural areas however meal times have certain timings and decorum to them. This could of course be said about most rural and urban environments but in countries like Bangladesh for instance, the concept of processed food is still not as deeply infiltrated into the urban lifestyle as it is in Greece perhaps. This could be an indication on purchasing power of the people but more so, a question of access. In Bangladeshi cities, people hire house help to do daily chores and they provide assistance in cooking and cleaning up which allows for their employers to avoid processed food and eat something prepared from scratch. Hand rolled bread, boiled rice, meat or vegetable curries and pulses are consumed on a regular basis and processed foods like butter, cheese, breads etc. are rather avoided if the house help is available. This basic difference in food cultures, is itself an interesting insight into the lifestyles of the people and for a tourist, an experience in itself.
Greece takes prides in its gastronomical heritage and this is a huge part of any form of tourism. Restaurants and cafes are never empty and come summers, they are over flowing with tourists. This trend has also travelled into rural tourism where eco-tourism or agro-tourism are beginning to take shape in Greece (team et al., 2019).
Food has always been a good marker of a certain region, (Timothy and Ron, 2013) where its consumption is mostly associated with certain rituals, traditions but most importantly, as an insight into the lifestyles of the people. From the desert roaming nomads to ancient civilizations living close to a river, the diets have given away much about the local culture and way of life. Therefore, when UNESCO prepared a list of intangible cultural heritage, the enlisting of food as cultural heritage however, took a few years. The food itself looks at the tangible, (with its ingredients) and intangible aspects (associated with the smells, sights and feel of food). (Timothy & Ron, 2013). This gave way to a number of foods or diets to be inscribed, bringing certain countries or regions into the limelight through their cuisines. Some of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list’s inclusion of the “gastronomic meal of the French”, the “traditional Mexican cuisine”, “know-how of cultivating mastic on the island of Chios” in Greece and the “Mediterranean diet”, along with the promotion of “routes” of gastronomic heritage, are clear evidence of these trends.
Food is used as an attraction for tourism, also inspiring people to showcase it within museums. The museum Der brotkulturem in Germany (Museumbrotundkunst.de, 2019) exhibits bread and the Chinese museum in Hangzhou allows locals to view cuisine from the Hangzhou region in China (BBC News, 2019), where the museum displays plastic models of food from the region. A chef spent two years researching the food to be displayed and draws in crowds of people who get a glimpse into their past and their heritage, as mentioned by. This gives visitors an opportunity to relive a recent past while marveling over the more ancient past. One of the most popular haunts for serious food enthusiasts is the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in New York, which houses a display of not just food but has tastings and regular theme based exhibitions. The museum does not only showcase food with a history but the idea is to inform consumers about the kind of food available and alternate options. (Museum of Food and Drink [MOFAD], 2017) Food fairs and festivals also come into this broader categorization of tourism as internal and external tourists flock to fairs like the Elounda festival in Eastern Crete, celebrating the carob (Allaboutcarob.com, 2019). The fair draws in largely locals, while a huge variety of food containing carob is served and a presentation on its benefits follows. Bangladeshis celebrates the on-come of winters with a kind of small pie called Pitha and the annual Pitha Utshab in Bangladesh is frequented by thousands (Bssnews.net, 2019)
Although cultural tourism has been deemed very hard to define, or more like “the number of definitions for cultural tourism almost matches the number of cultural tourists” (Defining Cultural Tourism, 2016) adding the element of food makes it easier to define. This is however also due to the fact that food is one of the major aspects considered by tourists while picking a destination. The prospect of trying out something different or famous in an interesting environment is one of the major criteria before choosing a vacation spot (Moira, Mylonopoulos and Kontoudaki, 2015). In Bangladesh’s context, this paper will consider the example of eco-tourism that has been carried out by international development organizations in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Sundarbans mangrove forest. These projects are trying to promote alternate income generating activities through these ventures and food naturally, plays an important role, in this immersive form of tourism. I would not like to go into definitions but rural food in the Sundarbans, (Ri.org, 2019) is in its purest form as the remote setting makes it hard for locals to provide conventional, city forms of processed food and not just serve food from scratch but also one, that has a distinct flavor. A further fact of food availability in this area prone to climate change, leads to a further, if slightly grim look into the hardships of living in this region. Food is readily available for the visitor, but the process of acquiring some of the products is very strenuous, especially the honey collecting. A group of honey collectors (Risteski, 2016) venture to the interiors of the forest and risk their lives to gather honey amidst the threat of the deadly predator: the Bengal Tiger (Dinda, 2006). A lot of the conventional fruits and vegetables are also not available here as the saline environment deters their growth. However aquatic products are plenty and this is one of the best regions to try out different shrimps, crabs and other saline environment fish. The eco-tourism project drew in visitors that experienced the taste of organic shrimp and also, the fact that
The Greeks on the other hand coined the term gastronomy and tourism in Greece, definitely includes food as a major part of it. Not only do they have an active culture of eating out and welcoming guests with their terminology of Philoxenia (which roughly translates into eagerness to show hospitality), they simply love feeding their guests. Portion sizes are huge but also, literally everyone will offer tourists food. This is often touted in their tourism advertisements, focusing on the tradition of feeding guests with an open heart. (Crete Incredible Hospitality, 2013). Through personal experience of living in the mountains of Crete, I got an insight into the night life of the local youth who would regularly hold bonfires and cook goat meat, accompanied by musicians and a night long session of drinking with the food. These rural parts of Greece depend mainly on agriculture but as opposed to popular concepts of eating seafood like octopus on the islands, the mountains of Crete mainly offered meat and fish is hardly ever served in the homes. Restaurants and cafes procure them but travelling through most mountain villages of Crete, seafood is only sold packaged in supermarkets, which could be from anywhere! This interesting aspect of mountain life can be quite a shock for many but Greece in the Northern parts also, away from the seas, offers similar cuisine. Most visitors are surprised to note this change in the menu and unless they have been focusing on the capital Athens, they would never realize how much culinary diversity exists.
Bangladesh on the other hand is a geographically smaller country, despite the slight change and difference in its cuisine. The largest delta in the world, fish is available almost all over, though it might not be the central dish in the south-eastern belt of the Hill Tracts (bordering Myanmar). Yet, the cuisine in different parts differs, but at least, Bangladesh does not have to meet any pre-conceived ideas of a tourist, except for maybe offering spicy food.
In a country like Greece, with its culinary tourism streamlined, (Bjork & Raisanen, 2014) it is easier to set up a proper chain of activities that focus around food. From the opportunity to go fishing or sheep shearing in the Cretan mountains, to picking wild herbs with locals or learning to cook Mediterranean meals, Greece has a lot to offer for the culinary tourist. It also has a product (Mastiha from Island of Chios) (Ich.unesco.org, 2019) which is officially considered a UNESCO product of Intangible Cultural Heritage (Ich.unesco.org, 2019). These further highlights the prospect of bolstering food in the tourism realm, showcasing it in all its finer details. From wine tourism (Alebaki, 2017), to participating in the harvesting of different products like olives, Greece has explored its worth in presenting its culinary heritage. As part of my Master’s dissertation on trying to promote carob as a product of cultural intangible heritage, I came across a lot of recipes and methods used for making different products out of carob. Some were sold in bakeries while others were homemade. This just contributed to the huge diversity of each product as locals have experimented with their food and not only can they draw from a Mediterranean heritage, but also a mountain dwelling and cross cultural influenced cuisine (Turkey and Armenia or some North African countries also influence the overall flavors).
Bangladesh on the other hand might possess an immense diversity of fish, (Worldfishcenter.org, 2019) its culinary tourism is however not on par with other countries in the region, like India. Being a flat land delta with only a small portion of hilly areas, the diversity is perhaps not as varied as that of India. This however, lends it the advantage of being a less discovered country and can also offer the visitor some surprises. The Hill tract region is trying to bolster its culinary heritage with a new project that has arranged for training locals to cook local, serving it in an authentic way. (The Daily Observer, 2019) This does add to the factor that local cuisine is being promoted though not at the level where a visitor can come and know exactly what to expect, as in the case of Greece. Although in the latter’s case, the concept of “sun and sand” has been sold to an extent where some tourists might be expecting just that and could be put off by the other levels of diversity Greece has. It is tantamount to when visitors on the plane with me to Crete in 2017, towards the end of May were scantily clad despite the rain and chilly weather. They were not expecting Greece to be so cold that time of year and I feel that similarly, food can also be a slight source of disappointment. There is a limit to how much Greece can sell its beaches and the seafood paired with local alcohol and pure olive oil. Here, Bangladesh has an advantage as its cuisine is relatively unknown to people arriving, except for the fact that it would be similar in flavors and ingredients to India. For instance, a certain woody stem called Chuijha or Piper Chaba, that is only found near Sundarbans region, is unknown to most Bangladeshis also.
The opportunity of promoting food as part of cultural tourism is therefore at a nascent stage in Bangladesh where save some food festivals, the arriving tourist has little knowledge of what to expect. Greece is at an advanced stage, can ensure sustainability, where the tourist season might put an added pressure on availability of products and farming practices.
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