Although food habits and customs differ widely throughout the world, man’s requirements for health vary little between the different races. Everyone needs an abundant source of energy, and a starchy food called a staple usually dominates the eating of any particular culture. Starches have to be cooked to be digested so staples are prepared in a traditional way as gruel or porridge, dough, bread, biscuits or just simply boiled.
Cereals are the largest group of staples. Wheat originated in the Middle East and is a product of the crossbreeding of two types of wild grass seeds. Its cultivation spread rapidly to the Mediterranean and Europe in one direction and Russia in the other. Rye is a hardier cereal which is suitable for the climate of Northern European and Baltic countries. Rye breads and biscuits are currently enjoying a vogue in Britain although they are declining in popularity in their countries of origin. Wheat and rye are the only cereals which have breadmaking qualities. Scottish oats are also being replaced by wheat products, but some are still enjoyed as porridge and oat cakes. Maize was originally an American plant from which the Mexicans made their traditional tortillas, it is now widely grown throughout North America, Europe and parts of Africa and India. Some varieties are used as animal food and tender sweetcorn is grown for human consumption. The Americans refer to it colloquially as “corn” and it is a valuable source of starch in their manufacturing industry. Rice is ideally suited to damp tropical climates in the Far East and parts of India. It is eaten by a large proportion of the world’s population but is one of the least nutritious cereals especially if it is milled. Millets are very small coarse cereal grains which can be made into gruel, porridge, flat cakes or beer and they grow in dry, tropical areas with poor, thin soil.
Tubers are also staple foods in some areas, the most common of which is the potato which came from the Americas. It was the staple food of the Incas until its introduction to Europe by the explorers of the late seventeenth century. Potatoes are major energy suppliers in Ireland and parts of North Eastern Europe. Yams are grown in Africa, the West Indies and Asia. Sweet potatoes (USA), taro (Pacific, Africa and Asia), Sago (Malaysia) are other root crops. Cassava is a tropical shrub whose roots provide staple food but because of the low concentration of protein, can lead to mal nutrition in places where poverty prevents the use of expensive protein sources. Tapioca is a processed form of cassava starch.
Pulses, nuts and seeds provide nourishing protein which is complementary to that in cereal grains. They are more popular in Eastern countries – Soya beans which have long been used as flavoursome and nutritious adjuncts to a ricebased diet. Lentils originated in the Mediterranean and are mentioned in the story of Jacob and Esau. Other varieties are now grown in India and Egypt. Several varieties of dahl (beans) are grown and eaten by Indian Hindus who eat no animal produce. Groundnuts or peanuts are legume seeds which come from Brazil. Lima beans originated in Peru. Cow peas and locust beans are grown in tropical and subtropical areas. Traditional methods of cooking and preparing beans have evolved, as some contain toxic chemicals which must be removed before consumption. Nuts from tropical or subtropical climates are sources of protein, vitamins and energy. They are grown for eating or for extraction of the oils. Coconuts are important food sources for Pacific peoples, who drink the milk inside the fruit, eat the flesh and make toddy from the sap of the palm. The coconut copra (dried flesh) can also be extracted and the remainder used for animal food. Sunflower seeds are cultivated widely in Russia and are now becoming popular in the West as a health food in biscuits and sweets.
Seaweed, fungi and tropical fruit
An unusual vegetable which is popular in Japan is seaweed although it is used in lava bread in Wales too. Edible fungi are regarded as a delicacy and are popular in Chinese and French cuisine. Locally grown fruit can now be exported from areas of plenty to other countries, owing to the speed of transport and better storage facilities. Some interesting tropical fruit are Chinese lychees, mangoes, pawpaws and guavas. Most countries have native vitamin C rich citrus fruits, berries or currants. Bananas, plantains and breadfruit are carbohydrate rich fruits which act as staples in the West Indies and Pacific islands.
Meat and fish
Most societies eat some animal product to supplement the staple with proteins and vitamins. Island peoples eat more fish and marine products. Inland people depend more on domesticated animals, who can be kept on cereal wastes or inedible crops. Unusual animal food sources are snails in France, brains in Scotland, insects used by some Africans and Aborigines, rats, cats and dogs in Africa and Guinea pigs in the Andes. Keeping animals for their products like milk and eggs has predominated in North Western Europe. Animals have to be well fed in order to produce eggs and milk on an economic basis. The agricultural conditions and climate area ideal in temperate zones, although less conventional animals can be used in other countries.
A high energy source of food in the form of fat is often necessary for providing sufficient energy in the diet. Countries whose intake of fat falls below ten to fifteen per cent of total energy may often be poorly nourished, as the palatability of the diet is low and it is difficult to eat enough carbohydrate foods to satisfy energy requirements. Animal fats tend to be a major source of energy in affluent countries. Vegetable fats used to be less expensive but the gap is closing.
Most cultures have their own fermented or distilled drink which is a byproduct of a staple food or fruit, e.g. beers and spirits in temperate countries and wines, toddies and beers in warmer places. Fermented milks are very popular in some dairying communities and health claims of longevity have often been made in these areas.