Cultural differences at meal time

12:37 PM

Back in 2011, I wrote 2 blog posts about the cultural differences around dinner time, one about dinner parties at home and in restaurants which I kept published as it was (just added pictures) and this one which I decided to rewrite entirely and republish today.
Mostly because it was poorly written and editing the whole thing would be as time consuming as writing it from scratch.

Having been living in India for 15 years, and often reflecting on my journey, I can say that the BIGGEST cultural differences I encountered (and culture shocks) were all centered around food.

If you never lived outside your home country, or lived in a different culture for any length of time, chances are you have no idea how deeply rooted in culture food habits are, and I am not talking about the cuisine.
The cuisine is an obvious difference, something that really doesn't take much apart from adventurous taste buds to get used to.

What is more challenging is HOW meal time is approached and what constitute a meal for different culture.

I'm Swiss, and the way we approach meal time at home is drastically different from how it is done in India.

Let's start with the breakfast

Breakfast in Switzerland is the meal you consume first thing in the morning, at the jump of bed. It's usually quick but nutritious. Most people will eat a fruit, a slice or 2 of toasted bread and down a cup of coffee before heading to work. 
A more "elaborate" breakfast would be preparing a typical Swiss style muesli which is a hand full or two of uncooked oats, a few almonds, a freshly cut fruit and a cup of yogurt. 

This breakfast is usually light because it is ALWAYS followed by a syndical coffee break a few hours later, break during which people will eat a croissant, that break usually come around 10am (office starts between 7.30 and 8am). 

In India, people usually go to office a bit later, but even then a lot do wake up very early, yet breakfast is never the first thing you eat in the morning. People start with a cup of masala chai, then take a shower, then do puja, and only then will eat. 
An Indian breakfast is always cooked, and by European standards, on the heavy side. Depending where in India you are, you could be served things like Dosa, Idlies, Upma, Poha, or a bread omelette. In my in-laws family, things like bread pakoda (deep fried bread coated in chickpea flour batter), or even maggi noodles all make for an acceptable breakfast. 

Lunch time differences

In Switzerland the lunch break starts at noon, and people usually have between 1.5 and 2 hours as a lunch break. Many do come home for lunch, or go to a cafe and order the "Plat du jour" aka "Today's special".  The long break is due to the fact that people clock in for work around 7.30 and usually clock out at 6pm. 
A typical lunch meal, wether served in a cafe or prepared at home is very similar. It always include a grilled protein (with gravy or without) and a side of vegetables (steamed or sautéed) and a small serving of carbs. Very often a side salad is served as well. The ratio on your plate is roughly one 3rd of each protein, carbs, and vegetable fiber. 
This meal is ALWAYS topped with a small cup of coffee (typically and espresso) to aid digestion. 

In India, lunch breaks in the corporate world and in school happen around 1pm and in homes even later. 
What is eaten at lunch time is usually heavier than what is eaten in Switzerland. A proper Indian lunch meal  include a cup of dal (lentils), a vegetable curry or two, a cup plain of yogurt, 2-3 roti (flat bread) and 2 cups of rice. A side salad of sliced cucumber and tomatoes is often added, and in some cases the meal ends with something sweet.
No warm beverage is consumed post meal and usually people have about 30 minutes to 1 hour max to consume their lunch. 
Nobody really has time to come home for lunch in cities, and people usually pack their lunch early in the morning. 

The afternoon snack deal

In Switzerland, it is called "gouter" in French and is a kids after school snack and rarely a thing adults do. It happens right after school ends at 4pm, and is either served to kids in school if they are part of the after school programme or at home before kids head for an after school activity class or go play in the playground. 

A typical snack is a fruit and a slice of bread, or a few cookies and a glass of juice. Sometimes it can be a small slice of tea cake, which is a sponge cake without any icing or frills. That "meal" is really just a way to tide over until dinner which usually happens very early (more on that later). 

In India, tea time is something both adults and kids enjoy around 5-6pm and is pretty much a full fledged meal rather than a snack (at least by my European standards). 
Tea is usually served at that time with a selection of fried salty munchies called "Namkeens" and small sandwiches. Sometimes things like fried veg or chicken nuggets and French fries also are part of the meal. 

If you roam around outside at that time of the day you are likely to see people stand at chaat  corners (snack eateries) for a more substantial eat like samosa, kachore, vada pav, pav baji and other deep fried items. The more trendy and affluent lot is likely to be found in places like Starbucks, and any other international fast food joints. Chicken McNuggets and burgers are often considered a snack rather than a meal. 
Like in Switzerland, this tea time snack or evening snack is meant to tide one over until dinner whcih happens very late in the day. 

Dinner time

In Switzerland, it happens VERY early, usually as soon as people come home from work. The evening routine is to usually drop the bags, and head straight in the shower to wash away the dust, grime and sweat of a day's work and change into comfy indoor clothes. 
Dinner is still for many very German influenced and is called "Abendsbrot" which translates as evening bread. It's a no frill dinner of whole wheat bread, cold cuts of meats like ham and salami and traditional slowly aged cheese (not the processed crap type). 
Dinner is usually served around 6.30 or 7pm and ends in 30 minutes, it's usually served with herbal tea or fruit infusions to aid digestion and ease the body into sleep mode. 

Most people in Switzerland will then spend 2-3 hours reading, watching TV and relaxing after dinner and before going to bed which usually happens by 8-8.30 pm for kids and 10-11pm for grown ups. 

In India dinner usually happens VERY late, usually by 10 pm and is always the activity that comes right before bedtime. People spend the time between the evening snack and dinner watching TV, reading and socialising, then wrap it up with dinner and hit the bed right away. No warm beverage is usually taken then. A typical Indian dinner is a repeat of the lunch fare, often it includes some of the lunch leftovers. The only difference between the lunch and dinner is in the quantity, the servings are usually smaller for dinner. 

My take on all of this

Quite obviously, being in an Intercultural relationship, hubby and I have our differences, and in the early days it was sometimes a bit rough. After over a decade of married life and a more fast paced Mumbai life,  we have each fallen into a routine that is nice mix of our respective cultures. 

Breakfast still happens at the jump of bed for me, I usually pour myself a bowl of whole grain cerals and make myself a cup of black tea and eat it in bed (because I love looking out my bedroom balcony).
Ishita usually makes her own breakfast in true Swiss fashion (it's the independent meal in Switzerland), and it's usually a bowl of cereals, or a yogurt and fruit.
Hubby wakes up later than us because he goes to office later and usually starts his day with just tea and packs a fruit salad of apple, melon and papaya for breakfast which he'll eat on his way to office. 

For lunch both hubby and Ishita eat at work/school and while Ishita takes the school meal, hubby packs his own (we have a cook coming each morning to cook it). 
I usually either eat a salad with a grilled protein for lunch, or some of the Indian food cooked by the cook. 
Being insulin resistant on the verge of diabetes, I limit my carbs, so I rarely do roti, and prefer to serve a bigger portion of lentils which despite being protein rich is still a carb rich food as well, and double the veggies portion, then add a cup of yogurt to my meal. 
I eat lunch around 1 if I had a mid-morning snack, or at noon if I didn't. 

The after school snack is Swiss style for Ishita and I, and right after that we either go to the park or go  swimming. Hubby usually skip that meal even in office, or do a quick tea break. 

Since hubby is rarely home before 8.30pm, he doesn't do dinner until later. Ishita and I have it as soon as we are back from the park at 7.30 pm. I usually make sure it's a protein rich dinner, and it's almost always a continental meal, sometimes the typical Swiss Abendsbrot, sometimes a more continental cooked meal.
I then top it with a cup of fruit infusion tea and settle in a quiet post bedtime routine, Ishita is in bed by 8.30. 

Hubby took on eating Swiss muesli for dinner rather than a typical Indian meal over the years, and we only really do the Indian dinner when we have relatives over or head to visit the family up North.
I usually sleep very poorly if I have dinner too close to bedtime, so I really try to avoid it as much as possible. 

The way I approach dinner is probably closer to the way Indians approach the evening snack time, the only difference being that for me, it is the last meal of the day, regardless of what I am having. 

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  1. Very interesting write-up capturing the differences. You would have noticed that within in India itself cultural variations affect the approach to meals. The variety brings in the essential richness to the table.

    1. Definitely, and this regional aspect is also present on a smaller scale in Switzerland, the "Abendsbrot" is far more prevalent in the German speaking part of the country than it is in the French part, though I grew up in Geneva and we did eat that way for dinner. Though even in the more French influenced families who have a more "continental" dinner, we still are in the habit of eating said meal no later than 8 which even for some of the neighbouring country is still considered early.

      We also have quite a few variant on the Swiss Fondue, despite it being a dish that originated in the Alpine region (a tiny region).


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