Food, glorious food

The other day I saw a post on Facebook about the chemicals used to keep ready-to-eat (i.e. chopped and pealed) fruit looking ‘fresh’. I found the post interesting mostly because I had thought it was, for want of a better word, obvious that this fruit was treated with something to be able to stay so bright and perky all day long. (By the way, a tip for removing the unwanted chemical stuff from your fresh whole fruit and veg is to soak them in water that has a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in for 15mins, then scrub them a little and rinse them off.) There is an astronomical amount of information available nowadays on how the food industry ‘prepares’ food for us, the negative effects of ‘sugar-free’ and ‘fat-free’ products, the relationship between the food and pharmaceutical industries and government, but it is seemingly not far-reaching enough. And perhaps, even if it does 'reach far', the machinery of global capitalism is so strong that changing eating patterns and the content of one’s diet is not a particularly easy thing to do, and is often not economically viable for many, many people. One good tip that Michael Pollan gives which I think is particularly useful for those with a wide range of products to choose from yet have budgetary constraints is that no matter what food it is that you eat, it is always better to cook it yourself (see How Cooking Can Change Your Life). But then there is the modern-day challenge of time which must be saved for another blog post.

At the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) where I currently have an office space, food is a major part of our day, so much so that when NIAS moved to the new premises, the kitchen was redesigned so that it resembled more a ‘proper’ kitchen than a ‘staff’ kitchen: there is an oven, two induction hobs, a microwave, two fridge-freezers, pots, pans, cutlery, cooking utensils etc. … everything to facilitate a DIY lunch. And the fridges are packed! Many of us love food and it is visible at mealtimes. Most days everyone comes together for lunch at 12.30 and the colours and diversity of the food can be quite amazing. It is rare to see people eating pre-packed food (apart from sweet stuff!). In fact in four years I think the most I have witnessed is pre-packed salads and 3-minute noodles. But this can also make people uncomfortable. I remember one person saying that when she started she would just heat her food up in the microwave and bring it to the table and eat from her Tupperware. But, she said, she became a little bit self-conscious because everyone ate their ‘good looking’ meals on plates, so she started to do the same. I have to say, I enjoy eating every day with seemingly healthy eaters … I am not a food saint: I love fish and chips, well, chips in general, I love pizza and I am by no means a food snob. If microwave lasagne is all that is available, I will polish it off no problem! I am and have always been food and health conscious, and nowadays (it has happened with the more sedentary lifestyle that has come with age, change in work environments and change in family life) if I eat such ‘fast’ foods, I do have some kind of adverse reaction afterwards.

In the so-called advanced industrial societies, most people have access to the resources they need to address issues of diet, nutrition and weight gain/loss, however there are many who are not aware of the options that are open to them, such as free or low-cost advice, guidance, classes etc. at public institutions, community centres and churches. This is often not the case in other countries, regions and communities that are at different stages of development, which have been infected by the bad consumption practices of the so-called ‘developed’ world.  In reading around for today’s post I came across the term ‘New World Syndrome’. The term was first used by Weiss et al. (1984) to describe something that was happening in American indian tribes: they experienced major dietary changes from traditional high protein, low carbohydrate diets to diets consisting high refined carbohydrates and high saturated fats, and (coupled with living more sedntary lives) suffered/are suffering severe health consequences as a result. New World Syndrome is now characterized by obesity, type-2 diabetes and gall bladder diseases, and cardio-vascular diseases and a resultant short life span. The sedentary lifestyles of so-called ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ societies also contribute greatly to the onset of NWS, and the speed with which this is infecting societies around the world is such that it is common to refer to it as an epidemic (see more on the role of capitalism in the obesity epidemic here). Reference is also made to the ‘obesity-malnutrition paradox’ that exists in countries whatever their stage of development (see examples from the US here and India here).

One article that I looked at by Prentice (2005: 96-97) highlights another interesting point about social stigma:

‘In the Western world social stigmatism against obesity and a widespread (though usually unsuccessful) obsession with trying to remain lean have probably helped limit to some extent the rate of rise in obesity. In many developing countries this psychological brake has been absent. The classic example comes from Polynesian islanders who associate large body size with power, beauty, and affluence. […] Studies in African Americans have reported a lack of social pressure to be thin and reduced social negativity toward obesity especially in women. However […] there have been very few reports of attitudes to obesity in native African populations.

This point makes me think of Wonderful Copenhagen where food is such a craze – ‘New Nordic Cuisine', food magazines, numerous Michelin-starred and non-Michelin-starred restaurants, websites, TV programmes, organic-food-mania – and there are almost as many sports centers, gyms and such as there are inhabitants! I joke with my guests that come to visit, who are amazed by the healthy appearance of the average Copenhagener, that a big difference between the Danish and British partiality for drunkenness and alcohol is that Danes are up the next morning/afternoon and biking to the gym and sweating off all they indulged in the night before. The main stream media and academia Danes tend to deny that they treat people differently according to their appearances and that fat people are stigmatized, but there is strong evidence to suggest the contrary, which is the downside to the health consciousness here.

In summer the Asia Dynamics Initiative (ADI) at the University of Copenhagen have their annual conference. This year the focus is on food. Take a look at their website here: “Food, Feeding and Eating In and Out of Asia”.  ADI are hosted here at NIAS and so I am reminded about the conference by my colleagues and conscience each day; even though food is not my research focus, I am eager to write and present a paper. The difficulty for me is in deciding which aspect to focus on – there is so much to discuss. I am looking forward to attending the conference and hearing what others have to say.

Please click:
here for Michael Pollan’s website.
here for a list of more recent documentaries on food.
here for healthy eating/lifestyle tips from the European Food Information Council.
here for food tours in Scandinavia.
here for food tours in other European cities.

A couple of weeks ago I made two recipes using beetroot. It is considered a ‘superfood’ because of all the goodness it contains and I would like to incorporate it into my diet a bit more. In looking for recipes I came across this fun website called LoveBeetroot.co.uk dedicated solely to beetroot! I want to share with you the two delicious recipe’s I found and made. Both absolutely delicious:

The first is for Beautiful Beetroot and Feta Patties from the BBC’s GoodFood site. I followed the recipe and cooking tips almost 100%. The one change was to add two tablespoons of olive oil to the mixture. I actually did it by accident, but the outcome was great – I think they might have been a little bit dry without it.

The second is for a scrummy Flour-Free Beetroot and Chocolate Cake. I was particularly pleased with this one as I am not quite as experienced with baking as I am with cooking savoury dishes and so I rely on the recipe and description of the method a lot. This recipe was taken from a cookbook I bought recently, Love, Bake Nourish, by Amber Rose, to guide me with making delicious healthy desserts. The texture is amazing, the flavor delightful, but next time I make it I will add something (maybe a sweeter honey than the one I used) to make it slightly sweeter, or make sure I eat it with some vanilla ice-cream! I’ll add the recipe I used when I get home, but in the meantime take a look at this recipe for a Decadent Beet and Chocolate Cake from a really wonderful website called Green Kitchen Stories.

Flour-Free Beetroot and Chocolate Cake

300g cooked unseasoned beetroot, peeled and pureed
4 large free-range eggs
4 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon raw cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting
1 teaspoon (gluten-free) baking powder
pinch of salt
125g ground almonds (I used half almonds and half walnuts)
125g dark chocolate (70%)
4 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees. Greese and line a 22cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the beetroot, eggs, honey, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt with an electric hand mixer. When these ingredients are thoroughly combined, fold in the ground nuts.

Place a heatproof bowl on the top of a saucepan containing a little water. Make sure the bowl is big enough to cover the top of the pan, but do not allow the bottom of the bowl to be in contact with the water. Put the chocolate pieces in the bowl and allow to melt over a low heat, then mix in the oil. Gently stir the chocolate and oil into the cake mixture until well combined.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the ven for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave the cake to cool in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack.

Once the cake is completely cool, dust with cocoa poweder. Serve on its own or with creme fraiche.

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