Rice is Power: culture and food perceptions

Having lunch prepared for me at school is absolutely fantastic. I don’t have to drag food to school, worry about heating it up, keeping it cool, or preventing nasty spills, and it gives me a chance to try way more local food. Its also super filling. For about ten minutes.

For a long time, I didn’t realize why I was feeling so full, and then immediately hungry after having my cafeteria lunch here in Korea. Okay, yes I’m a constantly ravenous beast any time of the day, but this was particularly annoying.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned eating large amounts of processed carbs, ahem, white rice, can make you end up feeling much hungrier in the long run. If you’re interested in knowing some of the (simplified) science behind why certain carbs cause an increase in hunger later on, check out this video.

But anyway, this isn’t about health, science, and carbs. It’s about culture!

I’m certainly not the first to feel that cutting out or significantly reducing the massive piles of rice from my plate has made a huge difference in how I feel. My Canadian co-worker has expressed that he feels less tired in the afternoon without it, and plenty of other foreign teachers have talked about how that pile of rice lead to unwanted weight gain.

Yet my Korean co-teacher told us she simply couldn’t cut rice out–she would feel hungry no matter how much she ate without the addition of rice. She referred to a Korean saying that translates to “Rice is power!”

It reminded me of an article I read back in my second year of university in a book called The Globalization Reader. It talks about how the ways that foods from McDonald’s are perceived by residents of Hong Kong, home of 7/10 of the busiest McDonald’s restaurants in the world.

The foods on the menu were actually referred to as snacks. Foods like burgers and fries lacked what was perceived as proper components of a meal, and therefore could not be filling. The author talks about how students would grab McD’s on their way home, but since it was viewed as a snack, would eat an entire “proper” meal at home that contained the proper, “filling” ingredients such as… you guessed it, rice. The multinational eventually modified it’s menu to contain rice, and thus started to create it’s image as a perfect stop for a full meal.

Suffice to say, rice is not an essential part of a meal for me. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like rice. Especially wild or brown rice cooked with the right herbs and spices. But reflecting on this idea of particular “food = power” made me think about the ways in which I view “proper” meals, and how this might be impacting nutrition.

Bread would be the main culprit for me. Its hard to imagine a day without bread. A warm baguette drenched in garlic butter, a fresh piece of toast with peanut butter, or a nice croissant sound like the perfect way to fill an empty tummy. If I can’t get my hands on a piece of bread, the next available of carbs seems like the best option to deal with hunger.

Perhaps my perception of “carbs = power” comes from that handy-dandy Canada’s Food Guide which is in fact, not handy-dandy at all. It is incredibly misleading and definitely guided by industry hands (I’m looking at you dairy).

Anyway, my two-minute food reflection isn’t going to stop me from eating carbs. They definitely are an important part of my diet, and I’m not willing to give them up! It’s just interesting to think through the ways that our culture informs the way we think about food, and which foods we view as nourishing and filling versus which foods are just junk or snacks.


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