Every time I interview someone for a documentary I start with the same question: "What did you eat for breakfast?" Whether they say eggs or Fruit Loops or leftover pizza is generally of little importance to me. Inquiring about breakfast is a common practice among filmmakers; it's just a simple way to get someone to talk so that the sound recordist can make any necessary adjustments to the audio levels. But when filming around the world, the answer to this question actually becomes a rather fascinating survey of how different our morning meals can be.
As someone who tends to start their day with a bowl of Quaker Oats and berries, I'll admit that it's hard for me to imagine a bowl of boiled mutton for breakfast, but if I was in Mongolia, this would be a fairly typical way to rise and shine.
On a recent Korean airlines flight my husband woke up to a plate of kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables), a bowl of congee (rice porridge) and vegetable soup.
While on a film shoot in Botswana a few years ago I discovered that the answer to "what's for breakfast?" was ting
- fermented sorghum porridge mixed with milk and sugar, which made for an interesting substitute for my usual gruel.
Wherever you are and whatever you are eating, taking a moment to consider why people eat certain things for breakfast can be revelatory - an opportunity to learn something new about the culture or history of a particular place. Of course, most meals are shaped out of foods that are - or were once - regionally harvested and abundant. It's why Brazilians often start their day with fruit, Chinese breakfasts tend to include rice, and Jamaican breakfasts often include callaloo (a spinach-like vegetable). And lest you thought that the classic American pancakes and orange juice combo was an IHOP invention, these morning staples probably took root in mid-western wheat fields and Florida orange groves (the maple syrup, courtesy of Vermont).
Dig a little deeper and you'll also discover that perceptions surrounding the purpose of breakfast are often as different as the foods themselves. In some places, breakfast is a grab-and-go mini meal (Pop Tarts anyone?). For others, it's a time for more substantial nourishment. It can be a time for social or family gathering, a meal to awaken the taste buds, or just some food geared towards refueling after the long night.
Pick any place on the map and you'll uncover multiple reasons that certain foods have become morning staples. Stop and think about the origins of your own breakfast for a moment, and you will realize that even a bowl of Frosted Flakes can be a tool for gaining some cultural insights.
Here are a few traditional breakfast offerings you might encounter around the world:
- labneh, hummous and falafel are all popular choices, often served alongside lamb sausage or beef mortadella
- steamed rice, miso soup (a clear broth made from fermented soybeans and seaweed), and a side of broiled or steamed fish
- halim halim: a mixture of wheat, cinnamon, butter and sugar cooked with shredded meat - can be eaten hot or cold
- waakye: which consists of rice cooked with beans
- nasi lemak: a popular, portable breakfast consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves with fried anchovies, sliced cucumber, hard boiled egg and a slightly sweet spicy sauce called sambal
- pannkakor: a thin flat cake made from batter and fried on both sides - much like a crepe. It's usually served with a sweet, fruity filling.
- johk: a thick rice soup with pork
- halva puri cholay consists of two separate dishes: halva - a sweet cake made from semolina and aloo cholay - a spicy chick pea and potato curry eaten with a small deep fried flat bread called puri. It's often accompanied by a lassi, which is yogurt based drink.
- a cup of coffee and a tartine (sliced/toasted baguette) with jam or a pastry like a croissant or pain au chocolat.
Does Your Dog Say Gong-Gong?
When you ask an American kid what a dog sounds like, you'll probably get woof-woof or bow-wow. Ask a Japanese kid and he will probably say wan-wan. In Iran you might hear hauv-hauv, in Laos voon-voon, and in Indonesia, gong-gong. A pig says hoo-loo in Chinese, nuff-nuff in Norwegian, and jwee-jwee in Spanish (a far cry from oink-oink). French ducks say coin-coin and Italian roosters don't cock-a-doodle-doo. They say chicchirichi. And apparently Russian horses forgo the extended neighhhhh for a rhythmic ee-go-go.
Although most people around the world agree that cats say something resembling meow, when it comes to imitating other animals we seem to perceive the sounds they make quite differently. After thirty something years of hearing nothing but woof it's hard for me to accept that my dog could be saying mung-mung
(Korean). We probably heard these animal noises more similarly as newborns-before our ability to perceive sound was hijacked by cultural conditioning.
When any sound enters our ears, our brains interpret it based on the tones and vocabulary used in our native languages. Children across cultures are trained to perceive animal noises-and other things-in different ways. We grow up accepting sound interpretations that may reflect cultural nuances more than they reflect the reality of what we are hearing. I can't say that a frog's croak truly sounds like ribbit ribbit
to me, but this is the best imitation I know-and it's how I taught my daughter to mimic a frog when she was less than a year old.
I've been culturally conditioned to perceive and reproduce these animal sounds just the same way I've been programmed to think of insects as pests as opposed to a snack (I had trouble stomaching the fried crickets in Thailand), to believe that marriages should be a union of choice (although I hear the arranged ones work out much better) and to write someone off as sketchy if they don't make direct eye contact with me (when it may actually be a show of respect).
Although I would probably just laugh if someone told me their dog said "mung mung" (Korea), I might get a bit more frazzled by other cultural customs or ideas that startle my sensibilities. My mind has been known to go haywire for a few moments (me, eat bugs? Blech!). Stifling my kneejerk reactions and opening my mind to the unexpected is no small feat. I often have to remind myself that a frog says gua-gua
in Chinese, a purring cat says ronron
in French-and that this just makes the world a more interesting place.
To hear some of the ways that people imitate animal sounds around the globe check out this fun Web site: http://www.bzzzpeek.com/