Ping-Yuan Wang
Author Ping-Yuan Wang

Food Connects Us All

February 18 2020 | Localization

As linguists and translators, we are inevitably storytellers, not only with the written word, but also through our daily discussions of terms, expressions, and concepts, as well as the monthly culinary exercises.

Make no mistake, the localization specialists at Blueprint adore food. Some of the pleasant surprises that welcomed me to this multilingual team were the ubiquity of food and the apparent love for it. As a food enthusiast, I am deeply convinced of the power of food to not only nourish our bodies and souls but also connect people across cultural and linguistic divides. In the early history of modern humans, the invention of cooking with fire—and therefore the consumption of cooked food—propelled our species’ physical, mental, and social development. The preparation and sharing of food around the campfire afforded our ancestors the occasion to bond with one another. As the clan or the band gathered around the fire to eat, feed, and rest, they also passed on valuable skills, knowledge, and memories. Culture was thus created and perpetuated. 

Indeed, food connects people. On the Localization team, its binding power is best manifested in the legendary international potluck. Once a month, the whole team comes together to share a meal, to which team members contribute dishes, typically those that represent specific cultural and national characteristics. With over 20 languages and cultures represented, one can imagine the diversity of flavors, ingredients, and culinary talents that each potluck showcases month after month. Equally noteworthy are the commonalities that these potlucks reveal among different culinary traditions, as well as the often-understated threads that connect all of us.

A dessert that I have made a couple of times for the potluck is a sweet red bean soup with sticky rice balls. Many East Asian societies have a version of the sweet red bean soup—it can be served warm or cold, sweetened with brown sugar or thickened with coconut milk, and consumed by itself or along with chewy additions like sticky rice balls or crunchy additions like boiled peanuts. A pairing of beans and rice that is so natural to me was a bit mind-boggling to some of my team members from Latin America. A sweet preparation of rice and beans seemed utterly foreign and yet uncannily familiar to cultures that live on rice and beans. Over the foreignness of the familiar, we connected, while sharing stories of things delectable in our respective cultures.

In January 2020, half a millennium since coffee as a beverage was invented in Yemen, two centuries since a Dutch merchant transformed cacao beans into chocolate powder, and nearly four decades since teahouse owners in Taiwan thought to add tapioca pearls to black milk tea, the Blueprint Localization team gathered for yet another potluck.

Beans and rice figured large: “Feijão Tropeiro,” a Brazilian dish featuring pinto beans, sausage, eggs, bacon, and a bunch of aromatics; sweet rice with caramelized apple pieces cooked with butter and lemon from southern Ukraine; Chinese-style fried rice featuring peas and corn; Finnish meat pies (shaped like empanadas) stuffed with alternative meat and rice. Another East Asian pairing of red beans and rice took the form of “ohagi,” or Japanese glutenous rice balls filled with red bean paste coated with black sesame or soybean powder.

Potatoes made an impressive showing. We sampled Austrian potato salad, beef pot-roast with potatoes, and Finnish “Rieska” potato flatbread. The Thai team brought us Massaman curry with chicken and potatoes, seasoned with peanuts and tamarind and served over saffron rice. German potato pancakes were presented in two ways, both served with apple sauce—one was vegan and savory, and the other featured quark cheese and cinnamon. The Chinese team showcased sautéed spicy-and-sour julienned potatoes and bell peppers, as well as a savory medley of potatoes, string beans, spiced tofu, and soy sauce.

Stories about food culture and history were shared. I learned, for instance, about the “Karelian pies” from eastern Finland, home to one of our Finnish linguists. Hand-made for this potluck with rye crust and mashed potato filling, these mini pies seem to me like flattened pot-stickers. They started out as a staple at major family events and holidays and are now mass-produced to be sold in stores throughout Finland. One of the most interesting tidbits about the Karelian pies is that the typical filling is rice porridge. I did not expect rice porridge from a traditional Finnish dish.

I also tried a typical Christmas dessert in Portugal, “Aletria.” A close relative of sweet rice (“Arroz Doce,” sweet egg-based rice pudding), Alteria is made of capellini (sweet angel hair), milk, eggs, and a pinch of salt, with lemon slices and cinnamon for garnish. Depending on the region, the texture may be creamy or solid. It is said that the Moors from northwestern Africa brought this pasta to the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th or 9th century, perhaps along with certain varieties of rice as well. Today, we can find the rice version of Aletria in Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico.

Much of this crisscrossing of dishes and ingredients has to do with Europe’s encounter with the Americas. Christopher Columbus’ maritime expeditions initiated a chain reaction which historians would later refer to as the Columbian Exchange. It describes a series of biological exchanges that transfer plants, animals, humans, and microbes across the world. “New World” crops such as maize (corn), tomatoes, cacao, and potatoes traveled across the Atlantic, and through the hands and ships of Europeans, reached the rest of the world. “Old World” animals and crops like horses, pigs, coffee beans, and rice found new homes in the Americas.

Europeans first learned of the potato, a plant originated in the Andes, in the 1530s. In the course of the next century, the potato evolved from a feed for animals to a prized resource at times of war and famine. By 1700, potatoes had become a mainstay of the European diet as Europeans realized that these tubers would grow in harsh climates and practically any soil. They mature two to three times faster than most cereal grains and are easy to harvest and store. By 1800, the Irish diet featured an average of 10 potatoes per person per day, which amounted to 80% of an individual’s caloric intake. When the late blight caused potatoes in Ireland to suffer successive crop failures in 1845–49, the Great Famine propelled one of the most significant waves of emigration to the United States. The Portuguese introduced potatoes to the west coast of India in the early decades of the 17th century. Later in the century, British traders introduced the root crop into Bengal, which quickly spread throughout the northern hills of the sub-continent. Today, along with two other American crops, tomatoes and chilis, the potato is an indispensable ingredient in the vastly diverse culinary tradition of India.

A variety of potatoes, the sweet potato, took root in East Asia in a similar fashion. Taiwan, the beautiful island from where I hail, has a special relationship with sweet potatoes. The island itself is shaped like a sweet potato. In Taiwan, sweet potatoes are fan shu (番薯) or di gua (地瓜) in Mandarin Chinese; the same characters 番薯 are pronounced han ji in the Taiwanese dialect. The Chinese character 番, literally “savage” or “barbarian,” is a permanent reminder of the foreign origin of a plant that has less than four centuries of history in this part of the world. Yet, the people of Taiwan liken themselves to the sweet potato as it used to be an indispensable foodstuff at hard times. You can dig a hole in the ground and bake sweet potatoes in it; you supplement a watery pot of rice porridge with chunks of the starchy tubers. Shaved, steamed, and blended with tapioca flour, you can turn sweet potatoes into little balls of chewy delight and add them to, say, your sweet red bean soup. Because sweet potatoes can grow in poor soil, withstand poor climate, and are associated with the humble masses, they have come to symbolize tenacity and perseverance in the face of adversity for the Taiwanese.

Our food carries our cultures and memories, and we tell one another stories as we share food—as did our remote ancestors. The potlucks, as I think back to them hungrily, have never failed to embody the commonalities we share with one another. As linguists and translators, we are inevitably storytellers, not only with the written word, but also through our daily discussions of terms, expressions, and concepts, as well as the monthly culinary exercises. The Localization team at Blueprint is dedicated to helping end users enjoy products in their own languages and cultural contexts while engaging with the specific features of the products we localize. To do so, every linguist channels the spirit of sharing as well as the distinctiveness of the 20+ languages we support. The sharing of food may be the perfect symbolism of our work and our professional identity.

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