Above all else, food fills a biological need; it provides our bodies with the proteins, carbohydrates, minerals and fats that we need to survive.
We evaluate our food by its texture, color, smell and taste. Every culture has dietary laws that permit some foods and forbid others, evidence that food has a social function and reflects the society which consumes it. From a cultural point of view, we distinguish between raw and cooked foods. Cooking or preserving food is a process of "culturizing" nature by applying human effort to create something edible.
In every society, people accept certain combinations of food (pita filled with cheese, for example) and reject others (pita filled with canned fruit). We also differentiate between various courses of a meal (appetizers, main courses and desserts).
Food is invested with such deep cultural significance that in certain situations, people prefer to starve than to eat a forbidden food (ie, eating pork or insects).
Food symbolizes relationships, which is why people eat at most social events. Eating from communal dishes suggests intimate relationships and the desire for cooperation. Socially, we note a difference between invitations for drinks and invitations for a meal; meals are meant for people close to us and for people that we respect. The type of food offered is also an indication of relationships – appetizers and cold foods are served at official functions and meant for strangers, while we serve hot foods (particularly meat) to people we are closer too.
Each culture dictates how a meal will be served, who is permitted to sit at the table, who prepares the food, who serves it, in which order the guests are served and even who receives the choicest serving. Table manners vary by culture and can be used as an indicator of belonging to a particular culture, group or status.
Food is an indicator of social status. Eating exotic dishes or a wide variety of foods marks the diners as from a high social class. Lower social classes eat mostly carbohydrates.
In all cultures, certain foods that symbolize power, like meat, are associated with men. Foods that symbolize weakness, like milk products, are associated with women and children.
We differentiate between food for children, food for adults in their prime, and food for the elderly. This can be found not only in types of food but in the texture of the food, how it is served and how colorful it is.
Ethnic dishes emphasize our social identity and cultural relationships. Traditions of food preparation and consumption, more than any other cultural trait, have been preserved by Israel’s immigrants; these traditions differentiate between different ethnic groups, even if the original ingredients are not available here.