By Aaron Hirschhorn, Kelly Rojo Reyes, and Sophie Phillips

During our stay in Toulouse, one of the biggest cultural shocks for us was the difference between French food and cuisine and what we normally eat at home in the the United States, as well as the different relationships we have with what we eat. We will start of by will discussing the various foods that are very popular to eat here but are very difficult to find in the United States, and that we had never seen before arriving here. Then, we will discuss the relationship between food and the land in France. Finally, we will discuss the impact of couscous in France and the importance of the cuisine as an aspect of culture. All of this will serve to give a summary of our experiences with food in France, and will demonstrate a few aspects of the importance of food in French culture.

French Food

France is a country with a grand culinary history, with each region having its own unique meals. Since my arrival in Toulouse, my host has cooked aa number of traditional French meals for me. Normally, I am not a very adventurous eater, and I typically don’t try strange new foods. However, I told myself that since I am in France and my host bought and cooked these for me, I have to at least taste them. So, that’s how I ended up eating a number of types of food that I would never have thought of eating before, including some I had never even heard of before.

I’ll start with the meat. My first night here, my host cooked for me “confit de canard,” or duck confit. I actually like other types of meat similar to duck, such as chicken and turkey, but I had never eaten duck before. I was a little scared to try it, but I actually liked it. It reminded me a little of chicken. Now, a few days later, my host cooked duck again, but when I saw it, it looked very different, and I was confused. Instead of resembling chicken, it looked more like beef. When I asked about the difference, my host explained to me that the different parts of a duck are different. The duck confit is a white meat, like chicken, while other cuts of duck are red meat, like beef. And indeed when I tasted this cut of duck, it tasted more like beef. Because of my confusion throughout all of this, my host obviously realized that I had never eaten duck before she cooked it for me, and she wanted to know what other kinds of meat I had never tried. This is how I can now say that I have also eaten lamb and veal.

Along with meat, I have eaten a number of new fruits and vegetables since my arrival in Toulouse. The lychees surprised me the must. Again on my first night here, after having finished the duck, my host asked me if I wanted a dessert. I said yes, and she took out a bowl of fruit. I saw apples, bananas, oranges,and  a mango, but also other fruits that I had never seen before. I also noticed that there was a type of nut, which worried me because I am a little allergic to certain types of nuts, but my host picked one up and explained that it was in fact a fruit called a lychee. She showed me how to crack and open it, and I discovered inside a white and fleshy fruit. I watched as she put it in her mouth and then spat out the pit, and I copied her actions. The sweetness of it surprised me me. It was a very unique flavor, but I liked it.

The second new fruit that I ate was a fruit she called a “kaki” (which I later found out, when I looked it up after dinner, is what we call in English a persimmon). It was also a dessert fruit, but when she took it out I initially thought it was a tomato. However, she cut it in two and handed me one half along with a spoon. I scooped the fruit out of the skin and ate it, and it reminded me a little of a plum, and I love plums.

I believe that eating these new foods, along others that I tried (for example an endive, a bitter vegetable that I didn’t enjoy, and cassoulet, a traditional meal of the Occitanie region where Toulouse is), has improved my immersion in French culture because it opened my eyes to new experiences and tastes. That is to say, in eating these foods which I had never tried before but which the French enjoy often, I was able to further immerse myself in the life and culture of Toulousans. What’s more, by learning what they eat, I also learned about their habits, their customs, and even some laws. For example, in French, there are seasonal foods that are eaten only in winter or summer because that is simply when they are available and thus when they are popular, whereas in the United States we can find pretty much whatever we want whenever.

            In the end, in my opinion the goal of spending a semester abroad was not only to improve my level of French but also to discover other ways of life to which we can compare our own. That is how we are able to learn and find new experiences. And with cuisine being a very important aspect of French life, I find that these encounters that I have had have helped me to do exactly that, thanks largely to the cultural education my host gave me. Apart from these experiences with potentially more regional food, we also learned about the link between food and France as a country, as well as the broader world, which we describe below.

French Terroir

One aspect of French culture that I noticed is the strong link between food and land. French people seem to be more conscious of the origins of a product than Americans. Several times, when I’ve eaten with my hosts, they have taken the time to explain to me the regions the plates come from, and also the customs that surround them. Certainly, with cheeses and wines, their origins seem to be characteristics of major importance, almost equal to their taste. This cultural consciousness of the origins of products creates the impression that French people have more of a connection with the food they consume.

One of the most representative examples of this cultural attitude is the system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This system, introduces in France in 1937 for preventing fraud, makes and regulates the rules of production to guarantee the quality of specific products. Today there are 300 products under this title, most among them being wines and cheeses. These appellations are closely linked to French regions, thanks to the belief that the specific conditions of a region have impacts on the final taste of a product. This belief has a name – terroir. In the example of roquefort, the AOC law only permits the moldy cheese of sheep aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to use the name. The rules of the AOC also control, with a high degree of precision, all of the steps to make it. Despite the fact that other cheeses similar to roquefort exist, the specific terroir of the region of Roquefort is considered to give a unique element to the cheese. When my host introduced me to this cheese, he immediately indicated its region of origin.

This system of appellations exists at the level of the European Union as well, under the title Appellations d’Origine Protégée (AOP). Contrary to the AOC, the AOP doesn’t indicate the quality of a product, just its region of origin and its production steps. At the level of the European Union and France there also exists organizations that control organic products. At the highest level it’s the logo Euro Feuille; at the level of France it’s the Certification Agriculture Biologique. These two organizations forbid the use of synthetic pesticides and guarantee production methods that protect the environment.

The organic movement is linked to efforts to be more conscious of the impacts of humans on the environment. In addition to stickers marking fruits and vegetables as “organic,” several stores have started to label their products with their countries of origin and the numbers of kilometers they have traveled before arriving at the store. One night, when I ate a mango with my hosts, I was surprised when one of my hosts announced that the mango had traveled up to 10,000 kilometers from Peru. These stickers serve the double function of reminding clients of the environmental tax of their purchases, and also of encouraging them to buy local products – French products. These efforts to protects the environment protect, in turn, the inextricable know-how of the land and also of French gastronomic culture.

Food as a symbol of resilience

Before I arrived in France, I had long heard that France was a nation of immigrants, like the United States, with North Africa as the largest immigrant population. Fascinated by different cuisines, I was excited at the idea of trying different Maghreb cuisines in France, especially given France’s geographical proximity to other countries. When I arrived in Paris, the first dish I tried was couscous. Greeted in Arabic by very friendly waiters, I chose the lamb couscous at the restaurant l’Homme Bleu. In an instant, I tasted all the spices used and the way the different vegetables and ingredients clashed together to give an exquisite taste. Chatting with the waiter at L’Homme Bleu, I learned that the owner and cooks were Moroccan and Tunisian, and that the waiter himself was Algerian. I was fascinated to see how different these countries are, yet how they share similar cuisines, such as couscous, which each considers its most popular dish.

Months later, in Toulouse, I learned that there was a national debate, between newspapers and journalistic polls, that couscous could be considered France’s national dish. This debate shocked me, because I said to myself, “Couscous isn’t French! How can a North African dish surpass steak frites or cassoulet, which are considered traditionally French? The metaphorical discourse on couscous reminded me of the times I went to a French café and the special of the day was couscous. I then reflected that couscous is more than a North African dish in France, it’s a representation of the immigrant communities that have created new cultures in France, such as the “Franco-Maghreb” identity.

Made from semolina, vegetables and meat, couscous is eaten on festive occasions, on Fridays as a symbol of rest, or on congregational prayer days. Couscous is a popular dish from the Maghreb region, whose origins date back to the 11th century. Couscous was created by the Berbers of North Africa, who were present in the region before the Arab diaspora. This North African dish, which has captured the hearts of the French, is an essential part of Parisian cuisine, demonstrating the importance of the diaspora of North African immigrants. Many North Africans have built up strong communities in cities like Paris, but also in the south of France, such as Toulouse.

As former French colonies, people migrated to France in the hope of finding economic opportunities, or even seeking asylum or educational opportunities. Yet the Maghreb population is still affected by the legacy of colonialism, as they are more likely to live in segregated areas and face discrimination in housing and employment compared to native French people. Consequently, the massive presence of couscous in France can be seen as a symbol of the resistance and resilience of Maghreb communities. In the face of xenophobia and discrimination, migrants have succeeded in establishing a strong presence in France to continue developing their language, culture and religion.

Despite the difficulties faced by North African migrants and their children (whether born in France or not), they have managed to create a strong presence in France, and their efforts are important in representing diversity in France. It’s important to recognize that while couscous is historically and culturally a North African dish, it should also be considered a French dish, just as people of North African origin can be “truly” French. Food is an important aspect of culture, and couscous as France’s national dish really is a big step in recognizing the impact of people of North African origin in France, and their role in France’s future.


Food is an important aspect of daily life, especially culture. Whether it was trying new foods with host families, or making deeper reflections of what food say about French society, we have learned so much by eating delicious plates. Learning about what seasonal foods to eat to and traditional dishes have enhanced our understanding of French culture. The strong link between food and land can lead to spreading the importance of buying locally, while also creating environmental friendly campaigns. Lastly, we learned how migrant communities have impacted French culture by their large spread of couscous across the country. We are excited to continue trying delicious food while learning more about Toulouse and France!