With the growing phenomenon of globalisation and the development of transport and communication, travelling to the four corners of the world has never been easier or faster. London, Barcelona, Rome, Dubai, New York or Sydney have never been so accessible and popular for people travelling for business or pleasure.
According to one of the latest reports on mobility, transnational travel is booming. More and more people have left their home countries to settle abroad, whether for personal, professional or economic reasons. More than 214 million people have set off on the adventure of being an expatriate – a figure that has tripled in recent decades while the world’s population only doubled in the same period.
Expatriation and food culture
Leaving one’s home country, friends and family is never easy! When people from different cultures come into direct and continuous contact, different changes occur at the individual and behavioural level, leading to a phenomenon known as “psychological acculturation” or “individual acculturation”.
This refers both to the process of adaptation of migrants to a new cultural environment, but also to the set of changes on an individual level (behaviour, values, attitudes, etc) that result from prolonged cultural contact with members of the host society.
These changes can affect all aspects of life. Among them, and not negligible, are those related to food – the phenomenon known as “food acculturation”.
This can be defined as the changes in eating behaviours that result from being in contact with a different culture. Moreover, food acculturation encompasses the process of learning behaviours, norms, values, knowledge and skills related to food consumption in other cultures.
Specialists in food anthropology and sociology have shown that the choice of food products and ways of cooking are closely linked to “culture”. They play a particularly important role in a context of acculturation: they are the mirror of cultural identity.
Specifically, food consumption is an “identifying tool” that allows people to recreate individual identity within the context of migration.
According to food anthropologist Annie Hubert (2000), “Eating habits are the last to disappear and food preferences are preserved even longer than one’s mother tongue.”
Moreover, experts in the field note that food and identity are closely linked, emphasising in particular their persistence over time.
In the field of marketing, studies in consumer behaviour have focused on the food-based acculturation. These studies considered food preferences and the resulting purchasing and consumption behaviours as either the desire to maintain one’s original identity, and/or the desire to adapt to the host culture.
Food consumption therefore represents a powerful and fertile indicator for understanding expats’ identity strategies in the context of migration.
Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are…
In 2018 we conducted a study with 16 households of highly skilled American, British and German expats who had temporarily settled in France. We identified four different identity positions through the analysis of their eating habits.
This led to the development of different categories of expat consumers:
1. The traditionalists
Expats who are still very attached to their cultural identity, which they perpetuate by maintaining a large part of their original culture’s eating habits during their time abroad. Nevertheless, the opening towards the host culture’s new food practices is very present and takes place gradually over time.
Pete, a British expat who has been living in France for the past 15 years, is still very attached to his “English breakfast”, just like his wife Diana is not ready to trade her English tea for French coffee!
2. Expats who live in a bubble
These people have a very cliquey social network (expat associations) and enjoy meeting with fellow expats over a drink or a table with typical dishes from their country of origin. They also tend to eat traditional dishes from their culture of origin during cultural or religious holidays. When the occasion arises, some even put on their best traditional outfits to ostentatiously display their cultural identity!
For example, on the 4th of July, American expats wear the colours of the American national flag. They gather with their fellow citizens to share a good time over traditional BBQ and cakes.
3. The integrated travellers
During their stay in France, these expats quickly adopt French eating habits.
Moreover, they are very fond of ethnic cuisines that reflect their cosmopolitan profile. These people do not define themselves on the basis of their original cultural identity, but through the one that has been shaped during their travels and intercultural encounters.
“My travels to Italy, Spain and Greece have greatly influenced my eating habits, which have diversified over time. I love to cook all kinds of Mediterranean dishes.” (Margaret, British expat)
4. The integrated nostalgics
Though they have largely adopted French eating habits and are fully integrated into the host society, this type of expats sometimes feel a strong sense of nostalgia and triggers the consumption of comfort foods from their home country, like Proust’s famous madeleine: “In winter, I often feel like eating English sausages that my mum used to make for me, but which are impossible to find here in France, so I cook them myself…” (William, British expat in France for 20 years)
Furthermore, the results of our research show a desire of expat parents to convey to their children a part of their cultural identity through cooking.
This translates into the preparation of typical dishes from their home country and the perpetuation of traditional family recipes transmitted orally from generation to generation: “I like to prepare dishes that my grandmother used to make in Germany with my children on Wednesdays. It reminds me of my childhood, the delicious smell in the kitchen…The children cook with me and they love it!”
Moreover, while the public sphere is more fit for eating food from the host country, the private sphere is marked by a desire to maintain eating habits from the country of origin: “In the evening, at home, my wife and I continue to make our children typical English dinners. It’s important to maintain that here for our children…”
Other parents go beyond that and feel the desire to open their children up to the cuisines of the world in the image of their cosmopolitan identity: “It’s part of my role as a parent to open my children to new things whether it’s through travel, learning new languages, or introducing them to new cuisines…”
Health crisis, closed borders and what about me…?
A study we conducted in the first quarter of 2021 based on a netnography and a questionnaire with a hundred expatriates reveals that the current health context has an impact on expats’ food acculturation process.
The repeated lockdowns over the past year, border closures and the feeling of uncertainty have redrawn the global dynamics of expats’ food acculturation.
The distance from the country of origin, accentuated by restricted travel and the inability to see friends and relatives has exacerbated the feeling of cultural belonging among some of the expats we interviewed – and this was reflected in their food consumption.
Expat forums filled with questions about certain products from the country of origin, notably condiments and sauces that American and British expatriates are very fond of, such as the mythical Hellmann’s sauces, the famous Frank’s red hot sauce, or the unavoidable French’s yellow mustard…
“We’re almost out of it! No imminent chance to restock from UK. Has anyone seen it sold in the area ? Thanks !”
Some groups even organised masterclasses or online social events around the preparation of typical dishes, sometimes made with whatever is at hand.
These events are also an opportunity for expats here and abroad to get together and create links by sharing the same concerns and needs. When it’s not from groups, it’s from family members and friends back home who take over to organise “happy hours” or “tea time” online to spend some time together.
Various different ways of one’s cultural belonging and the sense of “homeliness” by cooking across borders and despite constraints.
Raficka Hellal-Guendouzi is a lecturer and researcher in Marketing and Management at EM Strasbourg Business School. This article first appeared on The Conversation.