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How The Military Has Influenced Cuisine All Over The World

British curry, the banh mi sandwich in Vietnam, spam and condensed milk. All of the above are food staples that wouldn’t have been possible without the unique influence of war and the military.

“All war is about food, ultimately,” food writer Clifford Wright, who specializes in the history of Mediterranean cuisine, says.

Learn more about the culinary influence of the military. Watch "Meals Ready to Eat" S1 E4: Okinawa and Guam now.

War, as a means of territorial control, means an imposition of cuisine. As empires encroach on foreign lands, they bring with them the vocabulary and foods of their home. Spain would not be without its iconic paella if it were not for the conquering Moors, who introduced rice and saffron to the region. In Taiwan, which was colonized by the Japanese for half a century, certain food items from Japan have become a staple, like the bento and different types of sushi.

In a globalized world, we owe our diversity of foods from these colonial and military patterns. Military — for better or for worse — is a culture that affects the countries that it is present in, often long after it leaves.  

“The military’s prime goal is to conquer. You bring the food with you or you take the food you discover,” Wright says.

While colonization and military occupation of lands has given birth to a diversity of food ingredients, there’s a stark difference between colonial cuisine and soldier food, the latter of which is created out of urgency and as a means of survival.

Here’s a breakdown of both:

Fried Chicken Rice Bento Box | Chi-Hung Lin/Flickr
Fried Chicken Rice Bento Box | Chi-Hung Lin/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Soldier Food

Transportable food has always been a necessity during times of war — from pemmican, dried meat carried by Native Americans warriors on their voyages, to matzo, the staple of the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt.

“One of the most ancient foods from military aggression is the matzo. It was eaten on the run and then later a version of that was hardtack, a long-lasting hard bread with salt. That kind of food represents hardship food, but it represents salvation,” Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, says.

As time goes by, certain technologies have accentuated the preservation of wartime food provisions.

“Every culture has methods of preservation,” White says. “Jerky comes out of that situation where you have to carry food in a long way.”

Industries of War - Canning - PREPARING CONDENSED MILK FOR SOLDIERS AND SAILORS | Wikimedia Commons
Preparing condensed milk for soldiers and sailors | Wikimedia Commons

Condensed milk, for one, was developed during the civil war to feed troops. By using a vacuum evaporator to kill the bacteria in fresh milk, it was a fool-proof way to ensure a lack of contamination. During the Second World War, high pressure processing was created, which in 1937, led to the birth of spam.

“It kills bacteria. You have safety from pressure, not from drying and refrigeration,” White says.  

These foods were designed to be eaten on the run and over the years, slowly made its way into certain subcultures.

For example, after World War II, there were a significant number of soldiers stationed on Hawaii. To feed them, the government ended up sending so many boxfuls of spam that it eventually made its way into the local culture.

Today, spam is a national icon of the islands — where seven million cans of it are consumed each year.

Coca-Cola is another example of a food item that has been dispersed globally as a direct result of the military. In 1941 during the heels of World War II, then Coca-Cola president Robert Woodruff ordered that “every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company.” This helped the company establish their influence throughout Europe and when peace came, the number of countries with bottling operations doubled.

There has also been the trade of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) – dehydrated foods developed by militaries in the 1960s to quickly feed their soldiers.  According to Slate, MREs from France had so much culinary stature compared to that of other countries, that five American meals were considered a fair trade for just one.

These type of meals have now made their way into civilian culture. According to a Reuters report, Amazon recently announced that they will be rolling out MRE-inspired meals that don’t require refrigeration by 2018.

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Colonial Cuisine

The second, and definitely more nuanced, expression of military influence on food is the type of food that develops during an occupation of a territory.

“One of the biggest myths is that soldiers are responsible for the transfer of foods and influence. The primary goal of the military is not food. It’s to conquer. You bring the food with you or you take the food you discover. It’s after the invading armies arrived when the agriculturists begin to arrive and introduce farming techniques,” Wright says.

Iraq, for example, has seen invasion for centuries and as a result, the region’s food is an array of influences from all over the Arabian peninsula. As author Annia Ciezadlo writes in her book “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War,” “A map of modern-day Iraq will not tell you this history, but its food will. Each empire imposed its influence on the country’s cuisine, which is why stuffed vegetables are called dolma in Iraq, as they are in Greece and Turkey, and not mehshi, the Arabic word for ‘stuffed’; it’s why Iraqis drink out of glassat, the Arabized plural of the English word ‘glass,’ and Iraqi pickles are sometimes called by the Farsi word turshi.”

Similarly, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, bento boxes with deep-fried pork chops became a regular part of what could be bought at train stations as food. Today, this dish can still be bought at train stations across the island.

It works the other way as well. Japan’s imperialist reach into China fostered a China boom in Japan. Japanese tea culture is a derivative of Chinese tea culture; ramen came from Chinese noodles.

Ramen Chef at Work in Tokyo, Japan. | City Foodsters/Flickr
Ramen Chef at Work in Tokyo, Japan. | City Foodsters/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Before the advent of modern technology, which allows for the easy dispersal of culture, long-term occupations of foreign lands were one of the most powerful means by which culture could be transferred.

While some dishes are directly adopted, more often than not, fusion dishes are birthed. The banh mi, for example, is a product of French colonialism in Vietnam. British curry was introduced to the United Kingdom as a direct result of the British occupation of India, according to White.

“The first users of curry as a military food was the British,” White explains. “The imperial navy used it as a food that was important to the navy because sailors were drawn from all parts of the British empire. They were drawn mostly from the UK itself but those people came from different parts of the UK from Scotland to Wales to different parts of England. They didn’t eat all of the same food. Being nobody’s food [British curry] could become everybody’s food.”

Today, the globalized world means a more fluid and constant dispersal of different foodstuffs and ingredients. The military is just one of many reasons why we have certain dishes. Still, it is a powerful force.

What people consume, after all, is a reflection of home and people carry their homes with them wherever they go.

Top image: King Tacos | Kyle Hausmann-Stokes

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