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What Food on Social Media Tells Us About International Tastes


Joyce Slaton | March 5, 2018
People around the world are taking photos for pretty much the same reasons — even when sharing wildly different meals.

“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” said French philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825, not knowing that almost 200 years later, people would be flocking to social media by the millions to show the world exactly that.

From Belize to Brunei, Singapore to Sweden, these days people can’t imagine taking a bite of their food without first snapping a photo to share. But though the whole world is clearly telling a love story with their meals, is what makes a good photo different in Milan than Malaysia? What makes an Instagram user in Qatar drool, but totally turns people off in Croatia?

Tacos, photo by Clarisse Cespedes

Though the food most commonly shared on Instagram in Canada is poutine and in Vietnam is pho, there are actually more similarities than differences between folks who point their camera at the table the world over. Because once you take a closer look at what’s in all those food pix, it becomes clear that Instagram users everywhere are unconsciously taking photos for exactly the same reasons — even if they’re sharing wildly divergent subject matter.

There was a time when food photography was something that would only be undertaken by a professional: a guy (probably a guy) with a giant European-made camera, a studio full of hot lights, and a stylist standing by with tweezers and toothpicks. But things are totally different now: “Everybody, everywhere has a device in their hands that exceeds what you would have [used] if you worked for Time in the 1950s,” says food historian James Lileks, proprietor of the pop-culture museum and a columnist for the Minnesota StarTribune.

Peruvian corn, photo by Clarisse Cespedes

Instagram popped up in 2010, well after smartphones had become ubiquitous, and users soon learned that #food was a tag that almost guaranteed interested eyeballs and warm-fuzzy-inducing “likes.” To this day, it’s one of the top 25 most popular tags on Instagram, with (as of this writing) more than 261 million posts, and research has even shown that taking photos of food makes people enjoy their meals more — once they finally get around to eating them.

Though social-media sharers everywhere tend to post food photos for similar reasons, we do tend to take more photos of foods that are unique to where we are. There are just more opportunities to photograph bingsu in Korea, or fruity frozen paletas in Mexico, or ma po tofu in China.

Korean bingsu, photo by Franziska Cohen

So what are some of the dishes most strongly attached to different countries? Studies performed at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) on the photos most commonly shared on Instagram around the world revealed some striking intel. A few examples:

Infographic by Abi Inman
  • Argentina: dulce de leche
  • Cambodia: curry
  • China: hotpot
  • El Salvador: pupusas
  • France: chocolate
  • Iran: kebab
  • Italy: pizza
  • Japan: ramen
  • Morocco: tagine
  • Peru: ceviche
  • Puerto Rico: mofongo
  • Russia: cake
  • Switzerland: fondue
  • South Africa: braai

Instagram users clearly relish a sense of place, even when speaking to an international audience, says Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based journalist and author of the book The New Paris.

“As the photo of the item is itself appealing, that can go a long way in creating desire, even if it is for a food that isn’t common to a certain group of people, or even familiar,” she says. “France has its cannelés, its kouign amman, and its millefeuilles, Italy has its cannoli and tiramisu and gelato, the Levantine countries have their sticky-sweet confections, and Pennsylvania has its funnel cake. It’s about creating a context and a scene for something [others] might not understand but that piques their interest.”

Dr. Yelena Mejova, the lead researcher on the QCRI project that uncovered the association between specific countries and popularly shared foods, noted that though it was expected that foods would appear most often in their country of origin, “it was especially surprising to discover diasporas.”

"Reverse Manhattan" paleta by Fernet-Branca & Beautiful Booze

For instance, though the most commonly posted food in Canada is, as mentioned above, the local cheese-curds-fries-and-gravy dish known as poutine, the country’s most-shared list also includes pho, dim sum, sashimi, sushi, and ramen, giving the nod to Canada’s large Asian population.

Dr. Mejova also noted a “diversity of cuisines in immigrant-heavy nations” like the United States, where foods that arrived from other countries like sushi, tacos, and pho appear alongside more common regional fare like oysters, steak, and bacon.

In some cases, foods get even more love abroad than they do at home. The Food Capitols of Instagram data-mining research, performed by UK photo company CEWE Photoworld, shows, for example, that there are more tags for jerk chicken in New York City than in Kingston, Jamaica, where the dish most likely originates.

Traditional poutine, photo by The Great Canadian Poutinery

Of course, some foods transcend regional boundaries and show up nearly everywhere. Pizza, for example, is widely tagged on every single continent except Antarctica; burritos are hot in North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia; and burgers get big love everywhere from Argentina to the United Arab Emirates.

To that last point: Dr. Mejova points out that burgers are a widely available restaurant food — and since people tend to take more photos when they’re out to eat, burgers are more likely to show up in posts. They’re also often a guilty pleasure, “adding to the excitement of the event,” she says. “I am sure it helps that it’s a well-portioned food that is easy to capture with a photograph.”

Mangosteen, photo by Valerie Hoecke

Though people share pictures from their lives for many reasons — most of which essentially boil down to performing for an audience — it should be noted that when it comes to food photos, Instagram users are almost as likely to take photos of a food for its potential to shock or horrify followers as they are of delicious and beautiful fare. That’s why you see so many pictures of brave durian eaters in Southeast Asia, and fresh-air markets full of “mystery meat” in various countries around the world.

Who takes these photos? Some think it’s more likely to be tourists than locals. “If you’re in a foreign place, the task [of sharing food photos] takes on an anthropological curiosity: Look at what these people eat!” observes Ana Sirr, an American living in Berlin.

Ma po tofu, photo by Maggie Downs

Tramuta says that Americans are particularly squeamish: “Everything needs to be sugar-coated in the U.S., and you have a large swath of the population who probably can’t bear to see [certain foods]. In my book, there is a photo of a beautifully constructed dish with vegetables, herbs, and a cooked pigeon leg, and it always raised questions at my events. There’s curiosity and discomfort from Americans, whereas the French are so accustomed to seeing the realities of the foods they eat in magazines and on television. It’s all more unmasked in France.”

But there are also plenty of things we find to be Instagram-bait Stateside that are equally gross to non-Americans. Tramuta says that the “unnatural, artificial, and over-the-top concoctions that Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to find ‘fun’ or creative’ are considered positively ‘revolting’ by the French.”

Rainbow Pride cake slices, photo by Maggie Downs

“Type ‘rainbow desserts’ into Google or Pinterest and see what emerges — that generally gets filed under ‘gross American foods that shouldn’t be created in the first place,’” she says.

So whether you’re posting pictures of roasted scorpions or unicorn ice cream, you can rest assured that someone, somewhere will be into it — and someone else definitively won’t. But at the very least, you should be able to get enough “hearts” to give you the recognition and admiration that you’re really, really hungry for.

Read more about dining in the age of Instagram here.

To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca.

Joyce Slaton is a writer, editor, and tour guide who lives in San Francisco. She writes about art, movies, parenting, and all the strange and interesting things that happen in the Bay Area.


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