“Love is the greatest refreshment in life,” Pablo Picasso once mused. Though today he is remembered more for his legendary artistic prowess than for his cooking skills, Picasso must have gotten something right there, since Valentine’s Day as we know it is practically inseparable from food. Whether you’re making plans to dine out or cook a meal for two at home, one thing is clear: in the game of romance, you impress your date’s taste buds or you lose.
Where words may stumble or get misconstrued, a delicious meal in a candlelit setting can never fail to whet one’s appetite for romance. History is littered with tales of famous characters carrying out wily seduction by way of food like Cleopatra and Casanova. While Valentine’s Day goes by different names and incarnations in different countries, food is naturally a prominent feature in each culture. Though they may not necessarily be romantic in nature, these foods are rich in history and symbolism relating to Valentine’s Day. Here, we take a look at some culinary fares from across the globe that are responsible for setting hearts (and tongues) aflame each year.
Valentine’s Day in the United States is a huge affair as nearly everyone in the country celebrates one way or the other. Walk down the street and you’ll see mass-produced Valentine’s Day decorations adorning storefronts; stacks of red ribboned gift boxes and cards sit prettily on shelves; plump Cupids wink slyly with arrows poised to fly. In fact, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find places that aren’t cranking up evergreen tunes pledging everlasting love and loyalty.
One of the more popular food-related traditions on this day is the sending of candygrams. Candygrams typically come in the form of creatively arranged sweet treats (usually on a sheet of paper), which are accompanied by a special message to the recipient to let them know how appreciated they are. From gum drops and psychedelic chocolate bars to cinnamon buttons and rock candy, candygrams are truly a labour of love and affection.
For a Valentine’s Day meal out, heartier fare is usually preferred. Demands for steak, lobster and spaghetti dishes soar significantly on 14 February in the States. Add in champagne, cocktails and gooey cake desserts and you have both satisfied couples and restaurant businesses.
In Japan, the women take charge of romantic overtures on Valentine’s Day – and it’s all about chocolates. According to Japanese custom, women are obliged to give chocolates to the men in their life. Beyond significant others, this extends to family members, colleagues, friends and bosses.
The type of chocolate given to a man depends on his status in a woman’s life: honmei-choco (prospective winner) are given to husbands, boyfriends or crushes; giri-choco (obligation chocolates) are given to friends or acquaintances. Some Japanese women exchange gifts among themselves which are called tomo-choco (friend chocolates). Needless to say, the month of February is a major one for confectioners and business owners as sales soar sky high.
Exploring the Japanese confectionery industry is like taking a trip to a wonderfully bizarre, extrasensory planet. Where else can you get a Valentine’s Day gift consisting of chilli powdered Kit Kat, squid candy, black garlic chocolate, grilled lamb caramel bites, cake soda and chocolate beer (to name just a few)?
On 14 March, it’s time to celebrate White Day. This time, it is the men who are required to provide something in return to all the women who gave them chocolates. Fun fact: if a man dislikes a woman who got him chocolates, he’ll buy her marshmallows.
South Korea’s celebration of the day of love is very similar to Japan’s, although they have yet another follow-up after White Day: Black Day, which falls on 14 April. On this day, those ‘unfortunate’ people who did not receive any chocolates or gifts on Valentine’s Day and White Day make their way to local Korean restaurants to eat jajangmyeon. An assortment of wheat noodles topped with thick black soybean sauce, diced meat and vegetables or seafood, jajangmyeon is a favourite among Korean families for its flavourful taste and affordable cost. On Black Day, however, it is a reminder for singletons to either ‘mourn’ or ‘celebrate’ their solitary status.
Did you know that the Swedes import and consume the largest amount of candy in the world? 18kg per person yearly, to be exact. Candy consumption is such an integral part of everyday life that the term smågodisätande was coined to describe the act of eating sweet treats. It’s not that difficult, then, to imagine the literal explosion of candy that ensues come Valentine’s Day, or All Hearts Day as it is known there.
All Hearts Day is a relatively new concept to Sweden, having been introduced by flower vendors in the 1960s. Though the celebration itself is rather subdued compared to other countries, the sweet tooths of Sweden revel in gift-giving. From heart-shaped chocolates to sweet breads and rich pastries topped with buttercream, marzipan or cardamom, Sweden is the place to be for those who love giving and receiving sweet treats.
Although Iceland does not technically celebrate Valentine’s Day, it does have special days reserved for celebrating spouses. Of course, it’s not a true celebration in Iceland if there isn’t at least one grand feast involved.
The party gets started with the centuries-old tradition of Bóndadagur, which literally translates to Man-of-the-House Day and falls on the first day of the old Icelandic month of Thorri. This is when women show their appreciation of their partners by serving up classic Thorri dishes including sviðasulta (sheep’s head jelly), slátur (soured blood and liver pudding, hrútspungar (compressed and pickled ram testicles), sviðahaus (singed sheep head), hákarl (fermented shark meat in small cubes), blóðmör (blood pudding) and lifrapylsur (liver pudding). Now that is a feast fit for Vikings!
As a reward for all of their hard work, Icelandic women get a special day dedicated to them in return: Konudagur or Wives Day which marks the end of Thorri. This is when men traditionally show their love for their wives by buying significant amounts of flowers and cooking them an equally grand feast of Icelandic delicacies, washed down with several rounds of Brennivin and much merriment afterwards.
Rome, Venice, Verona…great Italian cities known for the vibrancy of their romance and charm. This is hardly a coincidence considering that Saint Valentine, the man who inspired the idea of Valentine’s Day, came from Italy. Valentine’s Day in Italy is almost exclusively centred on romantic love – family members and friends usually don’t exchange presents with each other.
Needless to say, couples celebrating this special day in Italy will be spoilt for choice when it comes to shows of affection and inspiring cuisine. Delicious seafood pasta dishes can be found at almost any local eatery, while risotto, pizza and roasted lamb chops would make any date a success. To top all it off, Italian desserts are just as scrumptious as the main courses – who could resist ricotta cheesecake, ciambelle al vino (cookies dipped in wine) or spoonfuls of cool gelato?
The Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Known as the Qixi Festival or the Night of the Sevens, the significance of this day is steeped in the legend of a tragic romance between a princess and a cowherd.
Chinese food is rich in symbolism, and the Qixi Festival naturally pays tribute to this fact. In accordance with the romantic nuances of the celebration, foods representing various aspects of love are often cooked and served. These include ducks, eggs and pomegranates (representing fertility), lychees (a feminine symbol of romance), lotus seeds (a sign of many offspring to come), noodles (longevity) and chicken (indicating a happy marriage or union). Many of these dishes come served in red dishes as red is considered the colour of happiness.
Where do we begin? Mexico’s longstanding association with romance-inspiring gastronomy is so strong that talks and symposiums have been held there to discuss aphrodisiac foods. Unsurprisingly, many of the aphrodisiacs known throughout the world today have their roots in Mexican history.
High on the list is chile (not to be confused with chilli), a quintessential ingredient in many Mexican dishes. It is said to be linked to one’s sexual drive due to the rush of heat it produces when eaten. As a result, you can find suggestive references related to chile in Mexican culture including the classic Spanish song La Llorona: “I am like the green chile, hot but tasty.”
Just as potent as chile is pineapple, noted for its sweet smell and taste. Likewise, passion fruit is linked to fertility due to its abundance of seeds; in the Oaxaca region its fruit pulp is used to make cocktails for social occasions. Avocadoes originate from Central Mexico, and are well known for their sensual connotations just as much as their health benefits. Today, it’s a central ingredient in many Mexican households.