If you don’t like our food, we have a problem

Here in Finland people are forming their opinions on a hot matter: last night refugees at a Finnish refugee center demonstrated against the quality of food offered to them.

This is an interesting case of culture clashes, expectations and hidden norms.

First challenge: Finnish people, since their childhood, are taught not to complain about food and to finish what’s on their plates (not that this is reflected in our current food waste numbers). It gets even more sensitive if you are a foreigner. We might not necessarily write this in our country reports or tourist brochures, but man, if you complain about our foods, you are an ignorant fool and it will take us a long time to forgive you. That is Finland for you. This is a classic example of a hidden norm, a cultural nuance, which is cumbersome for an immigrant/refugee to read. My question is: are there people in these refugee centers helping newcomers to read clues about these vital cultural nuances?

Second challenge: Another taboo was crushed as these people, refugees, stood up for their rights. We do not expect victims to do this. Victims are expected to act nicely, quietly and humbly (a bit like Finnish children). When their human traits emerge, well then things just get really awkward.  Does demonstrating against bad food in a foreign country show bad judgment? Yes, a bit. Do the people still have the right to protest? Of course.

Third challenge: Many people still seem to think of food as just food, something that is produced on big fields only to sustain our biological structures. This is not the case. Food is never just food, instead it is filled with ideologies, symbols, power, heritage and culture. If you don’t believe me, move to another country where you don’t have access to Finnish food culture staples, such as bread, cheese, butter, berries and meat. Would you lead a happy life on a daily diet of let’s say, Ethiopian injera (for an indefinite period)? Would you miss certain food items so bad it made you angry? I know I would. I think in a foreign setting, let alone in a refugee setting, food plays an even stronger role. It is your one connection to what used to be a normal life in your home country.

And what would our reaction be if the ones demonstrating for bad food were elders from our retirement homes? Would that be a more justified protest?

The photo is taken last week at a Finnish school. The meal was excellent, but according to today’s news the standard for the meals at the refugee centers hasn’t been the same as in our schools.

47 thoughts on “If you don’t like our food, we have a problem

  1. If the food offered to this people was the same you and Atte offered to me when you invited me over for dinner, well, I don’t know what are they complaining about it. It was, tasty, healthy and fulfilling.
    For experience I can tell you that not everybody is ready to adaptation. I remember when we sent to of our Ethiopian supervisor for training in our farm in Italy. They were very wary of what they were eating all the time and in a case one of them was crying every day because she couldn’t have her ration of injeera and shiro. What I believe is that as long the food offered doesn’t offend their religion, they should be only grateful for the effort offered buy the Finnish government (and not only).

    1. First of all: glad you liked the food we prepared for you 🙂
      This is now a hot topic in Finland and I hope this particular case doesn’t negatively affect the general discussion on the refugee situation too much. It was just an interesting example for me to view this whole situation from a food perspective.

      I also have the experience that the Ethiopian food culture is very stubborn in the sense that Ethiopians are not that open to other food cultures. Then again, we don’t know how this will change in the coming decades when exposure to other diets has grown. I personally find a traditional diet in the case of Ethiopia very beneficial due to health, environment and biodiversity considerations..

      1. As an Ethiopian living in Finland I love Finnish food and food from other nationality. Ethiopia is christian country mainly Orthodox, usually following the Old Testament. which results with food taboos. The flesh of animals with uncloven hoofs and those that do not chew their cud are avoided as unclean so It is impossible to get pork.
        About half of the Ethiopian population is Orthodox Christian and they fast every Wednesday and Friday and during Lent, the forty days preceding the Christian holiday of Easter, Orthodox Christians are prohibited from eating any animal products (no meat, cheese, milk, or butter). Instead they eat dishes made from beans, lentils, and chick peas called shiro that is a mixture of beans and berbere.
        Ethiopian culture has been influenced very little by other countries.Even though you will find all kinds of different nationality cuisine in restaurants in the capital Addis Ababa, it is different in the country side.
        So that is why it becomes difficult for Ethiopians, not all to eat other food from other countries.
        I am sure if you eat injera for a month day in day out, you would also start missing your own food. 🙂

      2. Thanks Rebecca! How long have you lived in Finland? I just got back from Ethiopia where I lived for two years in Bahir Dar. A wonderful country and wonderful people. And I love injera! My husband and I ate it almost every day.
        I brought this example up because of my Ethiopia experience, but also because I tried to think about this current situation if it were the other way around. How would Finns react if they were waiting for asylum status in Ethiopia and would only receive injera and shiro for their meals? That would be a big culture shock for some. Food always evokes feelings.

    2. I was in Finland for a month, so I would not claim to know much about Finnish food, except what I noticed. Coming from and Indian heritage and being a reasonably good cook, I like food that has variety in taste, spicey flavours, and definitely not bland food. In Rovaniemi I had reindeer steak at a restaurant, that I liked, sort of, and I tried ‘reindeer tears’ as a drink, which I definitely liked. I had different meals on campus in Helsinki and elsewhere. I would not make negative comments about Finnish food per se, but some flavour would definitely be an improvement.

      1. Glad to hear you had the opportunity to taste reindeer! Yeah, the flavourlessness is what many foreigners comment about the Finnish cuisine. We are used to basic spices, salt, pepper and herbs.

      2. The Finnish food culture is about having the lowest common denominator spice-wise and suggests everyone adds to it whatever condiments they like.

  2. Accurate and matter-of-factly. This is just another little pang of growth pains both newcomers and natives will have to share with eachother before they can find the readiness to settle down, overcome anxiety and live their everyday lives among eachothers. Mistakes, disagreements, distress and confusion are all parts of life afterall. As long as they are not escalated into harmful dimensions, especially for political motives.

    Frankly, I don’t like having porridge in the mornings either. :<

    1. Thanks for your encouraging comment! I agree with you, this case is part of a series of collisions which are sometimes inevitable in situations like these. I hope we can all learn from the experiences and then move on.

  3. My late mother suffered of malnutrition in the years of war. And I frankly admit this complaining of food by few refugees makes me sad and angry. Also because it gives a perfect propaganda weapon for those opposing refugees. Now all the Iraqis in Finland have to cope with this damaging image.

    1. I think many people share your feelings. Although there were only ca 50 demonstrators (among a center of 350 people, I read), unfortunately this will again poison the discussion a bit. The comments I read from the center staff were very calm, though. They said everything went back to normal very quickly and this is a two-way learning process.

    1. Could be, and most likely is! I read yesterday that they couldn’t afford to serve the same as in schools. But maybe this is wrong information?

      1. I read it’s the same, except they’ve substituted pork, intestines and blood with something else, in case some people would not eat those for religious reasons. Apparently they have been preparing food for immigrants for 12 years, so they should pretty much know what they’re doing.

      2. Ok. I also read that they had been serving barley which had created some confusion (barley is animal food in many countries).
        I’d say this is a learning process! Not so serious.

      3. It wasn’t that they couldn’t afford. The asylum seekers had complained and refused to eat the same food that was served to the schools. They refused to eat porridges (except rice), they complained about the rice which is also now subject to change. And in the end the protest was about money (http://www.iltasanomat.fi/kotimaa/art-1443757439803.html). They want to cook their own foods, which isn’t possible in some places (such as Hiukkavaara).

  4. Well, your first point is very much spot on. And it is not only leaving food on the plate. I remember being in Peru and really getting cold shivers when the Spanish guy sent a Tortilla de Patatas back to the kitchen since it was not cooked enough. I felt awful for the restaurant I will never be in again. And THIS was for food I PAID for! I didn’t feel bad to get not completely cooked food, but for offending the guys whose job it was to make the food properly. So, definitely a good poin there.

    However your second point is not unilaterally true at all. Even in my grandparents generation there are people who cannot understand people who don’t like their national, or more often, regional foods. But some understood very well, that some people just won’t like mämmi or salmiakki, or even some types of fish or ways to cook food. And when you hang out with more foreign people, you start to realize that some wont’t like the stuff you like, and that in some countries they don’t teach the kids to try out all kinds of tastes. So I won’t give you a point on that. The Finns to my experience are actually much more understanding approach to disliking some foods than most other nationalities I’ve ever met.

    Also, we talk about school food here, so none expected it to be great. No one. It was never great. Good at most.

    So – why are we outraged? Where’s the audacity in here?

    Because you get what you pay for. And this is even more true around middle east than in scandinavia. If you pay little, you don’t get quality. And if you don’t pay, you get what you get. This is a very familiar concept in all the world, and not the leat in middle east.

    That’s the problem. We don’t charge for it, and it’s not dog food. We here in Finland are outraged, because we offerend these people the same stuff we feed our kids to study in our, allegedly, great schools. And we paid for it, just as we paid for our (and everyone else’s) kids. Have someone explained this to the refugees?

    These people are not our guests. They are welcome, but not our guests. We should treat these people with the same respect we treat our selves. But not more.

    As for challenges two and three; I just leave this here:
    “In escaping their war-torn homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream. Refugees arriving in southern Italy do not want to stay there: many of them are trying to get to Scandinavia. The thousands of migrants in Calais are not satisfied with France: they are ready to risk their lives to enter the UK. Tens of thousands of refugees in Balkan countries are desperate to get to Germany. They assert their dreams as their unconditional right, and demand from the European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also transportation to the destination of their choice. There is something enigmatically utopian in this demand: as if it were the duty of Europe to realise their dreams – dreams which, incidentally, are out of reach of most Europeans (surely a good number of Southern and Eastern Europeans would prefer to live in Norway too?). It is precisely when people find themselves in poverty, distress and danger – when we’d expect them to settle for a minimum of safety and wellbeing – that their utopianism becomes most intransigent. But the hard truth to be faced by the refugees is that ‘there is no Norway,’ even in Norway.”
    (http://www.lrb.co.uk/2015/09/09/slavoj-zizek/the-non-existence-of-norway)

    So, it is understandable, yes. But should we yeild to this lamentation and protests for expected quality? No. Discussion, passion, helping, translating.. ..but no special treatment. Not for any one.

    1. Thank you for your extensive comment!
      You raise questions that are very valid. “We here in Finland are outraged, because we offerend these people the same stuff we feed our kids to study in our, allegedly, great schools. And we paid for it, just as we paid for our (and everyone else’s) kids. Have someone explained this to the refugees?” — I tried to bring this up in my post by asking if there are people in these centers talking about cultural nuances, giving clues about what might be approriate to complain about etc.
      Then again I have to say I understand feelings of frustration and disappointment which can emerge in people in stressful situations. After saying that, I do also think that we should try and practice gratitude anywhere we ago.
      And let’s not forget that in this particular case there were 50 people protesting and the rest of the ca 300 people had no complaints. And in no way are these people a unified group, either. There might be very differing opinions about the protests among the center itself.

      I disagree with you in the school food issue. 🙂 I always liked it! I think it is a great system. Improvements are needed, yes, but overall, what a fantastic achievement.

      1. About all this comments,,I have to also agree with the cultural difference and culture sock that people go through here in Finland, specially food, but I’m surprised that no one just provides the raw ingredients to have them make the food they are used to, until they get a bit more acquainted with the different method of preparation.
        Raw materials are cheaper and nutritionally more elevated than pre-cooked and prepared foods that are what Finnish people usually are now getting at most schools in the country

      2. I think this is already happening in some places! At least in one center asylum seekers were allowed to prepare bread.

  5. What an earth i just read? “Refugees stood up for their rights” Could you explain this one, because these guys are asylym seekers not refugees at this point and i have not found any laws which set non citizen to have better food than anyone else.

    You guys must be biased to think otherwise but these collisions will open more and more eyes for sure and this pure madness will end someday.

    1. What you read is one person’s (mine) view on a current event from the lens of food (which is my expertise and field of interest).

      I was surprised by the attention this blog post got, it made me realize how people are really puzzled by this whole situation.

      When it comes to terminology, it doesn’t matter in my view if the person is a refugee or an asylum seeker, a discussion on rights is still applicable.

      And who is the “you guys” you refer to? I do not think this is pure madness, I think this is a learning process where these kind of collisions are inevitable but we can make it through.

      1. By “you guys” he probably means “suvakki” the people who regard every problem or perceived problem to be the fault of the native population by some virtue and never the attitude and/or adjustment problems on the immigrant part.

        I mean it’s your blog and clearly it bears your own personal bias on the matter, but many will read it as you just blaming the native finnish population for everything.

      2. Yes, it is my blog and my blog only.
        If someone reads it as ‘blaming the native finnish population for everything’, I kindly ask them re-read until they can see that this is not what I wrote about.

  6. As a long term resident of Finland, I can confirm that Finnish food is horrible. It’s like cruel and unusual punishment for refugees.

    1. Oh no, sorry to hear you think that way, that’s a strong feeling! I think you just haven’t been introduced to all the good stuff the Finnish cuisine can offer. 🙂

      1. At least I feel terribly sorry and we should immediately begin steps for providing our newly arrived asylum seekers with customised menus of their preference. As providers of safety for people in acute danger we are not obliged to provide them with just basic nutrition but the very best. I suggest the Migration Institution begins hiring new chefs with knowledge of the different local cuisines to temporary emergency shelters. We should not ask our newcomers to merge to our, far inferior culture – in food and otherwise – but we should merge to theirs instead. We should embrace this opportunity by channeling more funds from either our social welfare system or by taking more debt and not worry about our own petty little problems. Don’t you agree?

  7. I just want to say that I feel your post is a good one. I am a foreigner who has been living in Finland for many years now. I never came here with the intention of living/settling here, life has resulted in that taking place, but I was not ‘forced’ to live here. I have taken a good many years to adjust, and my choice to stay here was not because I was fleeing war/violence/fear. I do come from a country though where I now realise I can never take my child to live as it is just too dangerous, so i’ve come to accept that this is my future country. However it is not my HOME, that is where I grew up where I became who I am…..BUT I appreciate the life Finland does have to offer me. It is safe, secure and well, stable….However there are so many things that I just DONT UNDERSTAND in the Finnish culture, i’ve offended when no offence was meant…These poor people (the moaners about the food and the ones who accept whatever their fates give them) are clueless, they probably heard about this place, this magical place which keeps getting top spots in the world for happiness, raising kids, education, ‘free’ medical care etc etc, there is sooooooo much more to it all, they have no idea…..I believe that like you suggest there is a NEED to explain just how it goes down here in Finland. I am from a culture where we make noise, we speak out….I have had to learn to hold myself…to wait….There are so many things about living in a place like Finland that is HARD HARD HARD…yet no Finn can truly understand it, they say they do, but they don’t, unless you are born here, you can not get how tough living here really is. I truly feel for these people, but I think that they need to get ‘lessons’, ‘cultural awareness lesson??’…… Because no one can possibly be ready for what life here and possibly living here long term involvles…..They are clueless at this stage, and I agree with you…somehow they need to be helped, things explained and well…maybe then they will be aware and ready for all the good and hard things that living here involves…Finns are amazing people, but you got to give them time, sometimes years 😉 but they are amazing, kind and open…..but living with them is hard, especially initially when you are no longer surrounded by the stuff you are used to… the silence and darkness can break you and there is soooooo much more to ‘living in Finland’….as amazing as the life can be, there is a price….I hope this is being explained to the refugees and we can somehow help them adjust and not offend when no offence was meant. Im not saying the food moan was in anyways sensible…It irritated me too….but with my life and extensive travels….I have learnt to remind myself of the following…..’When in Rome’…do as they do…..We need to show them how ‘Rome’ operates so they can settle too……..and not cause offence.

    1. Thank you for sharing. Very interesting to read your points as a foreigner in Finland. I can relate to so many of those points, I felt the same in many situations in Ethiopia where I just spent two years. Living in a foreign country is a balancing act of feeling like an outsider at times and also trying to act as part of the majority (‘when in Rome’).

  8. The reason, due to which food prepared for schools and the complaining, Is quite bland and tasteless is simple: Decades of complaining. Someone always complains about too much salt, too much pepper, too much spices. Every cook would like to make their food “better”… But they are very strongly told not to. This is why salt and pepper mills exist along with Tabasco etc. When preparing large quantities, the food just has to be as suitable for ALL as possible. Most people are just too self centered to realize this fact. (I work in the hospitality industry)

    1. I can imagine this complaining is sooo frustrating to the employees in the hospitality industry who are doing their best to do their job and feed people! I always felt uncomfortable when some of my friends complained about school food.

  9. Even Berlusconi complain about Finnish food. Well i am also an Italian, and to tell the truth I like it, and I don’t live in refugees camp. I almost cook pasta every day. As a refugee maybe you don’t have the choice of cooking but as a foreigner you have all the products to make your own food.
    I like you post Laura. 🙂

    1. The famous Berlusconi case! I don’t think Finns have forgiven him for that mistake 🙂 You are right, as a foreigner/settled immigrant you can re-create your own food culture even in a foreign setting, in a refugee center the situation is very different.

  10. First of all, I am not from Finland. I am German, and Germany takes in a huge number of refugees right now, too. I think, every country that takes in refugees will have to deal with this issue.
    1. I think, food is important, especially when you are not in your own country and have no access to well known staples. It can make you feel lost NOT to be able to find your favourite food. And food tradition stay in families a long time. My grandparents came as refugees after WW II, and still today I proudly cling to grandma’s recipes and the memories involved.
    2. Sometimes refugees are not given money to buy food, but they are brought (ready-made) food. They might not like this for reason 1.). Giving them the opportunity to prepare their own meals could relieve them from boredom and bring back proudness, fun and joy of eating, joy of life.
    Suggestion:
    Talk wth the refugees and find out, what food is their traditional one. It might in the end not be more expensive to bring them their staples so they can prepare their traditional food. Not everybody was raised on cheese, milk, rye bread, so why spending money on buying them this stuff they don’t like and might refuse to eat. Maybe Syrian people can be happy with potatoes that Finland can offer easily, they might just prepare it in a different way.
    Then: get together with the refugees, start cooking classes for example. People could get to know each other, refugees get to know Finnish food, and Finnish people could learn and appreciate new recipes, too.
    Of cours this applies to Germany as well as to any other country….

    1. Thank you Andrea for the very solution-oriented comment. I am happy you focused on the main message of my post: that food is not just food and treating it as a culturally specific thing might help adaptation and even make economic sense. I read in the news today that one refugee center in Finland had hired a cook student and an assistant of Thai nationality to cook more spicy foods, and this had even been a cheaper option than ordering bulk food from big providers.
      It is a learning process. Food can really bring people together and also provide a feeling of safety in an unfamiliar environment.

    2. This is very good input, but here’s the thing. They don’t have a cooking facility there, so it’s not possible for them to cook their own food.

      Finland was not prepared for this huge amount of asylum seekers, but yet the country has been taking them in. Some people were taken to places with proper kitchens, but once these places were full, accommodation has been improvised in different centers.

      So yes it would be great for them to cook their own food, but AT THIS MOMENT it is not possible.

  11. There was 70 demonstrators and the food was made by the same kitchen which made de food for schools and workers according to yle.

    Also I do think they have the right to complain, but they had been here for a week… a week. But also, “maassa maan tavalla”.

  12. You can a learn a lot of India which was a hotbed for refugees before the Mughal’s and British arrived. India was also some 34% of the world economy then.

    Here is a story from that era, the golden days of Bharat (India). A ship full of Zoroastrians were at the west coast of India. They were running from persecution by the new Islamic invaders of Persia (Iran).

    They docked their ship on the harbor and sought permission from the ruler of the western Indian kingdom to settle down in his kingdom. One of their necessities was freedom to build their temple and practice Zoroastrianism. The king wasn’t sure of how the local population would react to these foreigners, so he sent a glass full of milk to the ship, this was symbolic of the fact that his kingdom was full and there was no space for any new settlement, particularly that of a new culture and religion.

    But the Zoroastrians were smart, the put a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back. The message was that they would do everything possible to blend into the population.

    Today the Parsis (Zoroastrians) are one of the most respected communities in India. Even though there are only about 50,000 of them in India, they have made significant contribution to the society. The world famous TATA group was started by a Parsi and many of our eminent people in the society come from this community. There has been no known history of the local population feeling threatened or intimidated by Parsis. To such an extent when the discussion of minority discussion comes up, the Parsis are never part of it. They have truly blended like sugar in a glass of milk.

    As an Immigrant (not a refugee), I feel strongly that its my responsibility to show that I’m willing to blend like sugar in milk. I just have to show my willingness, it so happens that my willingness helps the locals expose their curiosity towards my culture too. I help them develop their curiosity and help them gain from good things in my culture and society. For example I expose my friends and colleagues to Indian cuisine and its worked wonders, everyone needs some spice in their lives, and Indian food has lots of it . Cough Cough 🙂

  13. Nobody has revealed the truth yet. Maybe it is because of the time of year. But the spring will be here in five months, and the Easter. And the Easter will solve our refugee problems – by MÄMMI!

  14. I have been living out of Finland and inside the different cultures for years. Yes, I miss the dark ryebread and if I get it somehow I do not waste it by offering it to ppl that do not like it or even know about it. No, I do not complain the food offered me like during Ramadan and Iftar, but it does not mean I like the food.Haris is one of those looks like and tastes like “kaurapuuro” in Finland even that it has been made from meat. I know that cooking Haris takes a long time and it is the favorite food at most of the local homes. This is the reason I take just a little on my plate and tell that I have to eat many times during the night so I will consume just a little at the time. I am living in different culture but there is no way that I could ask them to adapt mine. We lived in Island and needed to taste the whale meet especially during “torra mata week” …the smell was discusting. But we ate it just little and thanked our hosts. It does not mean that I agree to killing whales too much but the fish is their main sorce of food… Who am I to say else! I have seen ppl that are starving or really needed help and I have seen the look at their eyes when they got just a bowl of rice without the culinaristic spices to go with it. I love food and experincing with it but I need to go to restaurant and pay for doing it! So, these are the reasons that this mess in the news and complaining about food makes me angry. And last but not least, our elderies do not get bread or salad to go with their food and they have paid for it either now since they pay for they services at the elderyhome (it is not free) or they have paid the food by working and building this country for others to destroy. What did these refugees or “better place seekers” did for this country or what are they expected to do to cover the pennies that have been collected by work of others? Do you see… There is something to be angry for if not anything else the high tax percentage that Finnish ppl pay for each euro they earn by hard work!

  15. Hi Laura,
    I’m from Italy and I worked in Finland for a year, this phrase “if you complain about our foods, you are an ignorant fool and it will take us a long time to forgive you” made me wonder if I offended someone during my stay in Finland.
    In my case the main interaction with Finnish food was the canteen at my working place, eating with my colleagues. We talked often about Italian and Finnish food, and as you know for Italians food is one of the things we are most proud of, so probably I praised exaggeratedly Italian food over the Finnish one 🙂
    However I also liked (and told to my colleagues) several Finnish dishes: Kaalikääryleet, Pyttipannu, Lohikeitto and many others, and dislike some dishes (in the same way I dislike some Italian dishes as well).
    Now back to the main topic, also in Italy some asylum-seekers did this kind of protest, throwing the food (mostly pasta) because they didn’t like it. In my opinion these episodes simply shows us that not all these asylum-seekers are refugees (the difference between these two terms is explained very well by UNHCR), if a person is picky about the food offered by a country that is helping him, I don’t see why the country should continue to help him in the first place (as we don’t give them bad food and we don’t force them to eat something against their religion).
    There isn’t a magical solution to fix all these problems, but a faster evaluation of these asylum-seekers requests can help the situation.

    1. I think that you can not evaluate a person by the type of food they choose to eat, the saying you are what you eat is not applicable, but as I said in a previous posting, different tastes are among one of the qualities of humans and all people have pre conceived notions based on their backgrounds, of course when you are hungry enough no food is bad food (been there done that), and I still maintain the idea of providing the raw materials so they can fend for themselves, Give a man a fish he will eat for a day,show him how to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life..
      As with everything here.. just my humble opinion.

    2. Hi Guido, thanks for your comment. Writing is a tricky art and that sentence in my post which you refer to is a little provocative – just a style I use. Things might not be that harsh in reality. 🙂

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