The Alchemy of Food

Food is something that connects us – it’s a language that takes away age, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even the spoken word. It’s who we are. And, it’s part of our culture, our upbringing and our memories. When we celebrate, we share food, and even when we’re sad, we seek comfort with food (think funeral*). Food makes you feel something, or at least it should. For me, there’s this sense of alchemy when it comes to food – transforming a raw ingredient from nothing into something that can sustain life. That’s a pretty epic thought, especially when you can take a small amount of a raw ingredient and feed a large number of people. Just by adding water and a source of heat, 90g of uncooked plain basmati rice can transform into 290g of cooked rice that can keep you alive for much longer than in its raw state (I’ve clearly tested that).

But our idyllic edible landscape is changing. We’re becoming more and more disconnected with our food, including where it comes from and the stories behind it. Believe it or not, we’re all part of this enormous set of events that happen, and we all have a role in this food chain. It’s not as simple as the food magically appearing on your plate. And when you connect the dots, it makes so much more sense.

We live in a world where we can no longer trust our food, the source or labeling because there are blurred lines**. Words like ‘fat free’, ‘healthy’, and ‘natural’ don’t actually mean what they should, and something that would traditionally have 3 ingredients, now has 30. So, if it sounds like some sort of science experiment, you probably shouldn’t eat it. The words ‘modified’, ‘stabilizers’, ‘reconstituted’, ‘corn syrup’, and ‘enhancers’ sound appetizing too (that’s my English self being sarcastic)! A lot of labelled ‘low fat’ options that are actually full of sugar. The processed middle aisle in the grocery store entice you with low prices. Protein powder found in health drinks is a genetically modified ingredient. So too is a lot of soy products (especially in the USA) – sorry vegans. Genetically modified corn is one of the main staples for animal feed in the US too and that’s just the beginning of the chain. The list can go on. Gone are the days where an apple is just an apple. That’s why it’s important to know your farmer and ask questions. We’ve been trying to shop ourselves out of dietary problems, when maybe we just need to eat real food, cooked from scratch, with no artificial anything, just like our Mother’s, Grandma’s and Great Granny’s used to. But that’s easier said than done.

The home used to be centre of our food culture, but that is becoming less and less common. Nowadays we spend more time watching cooking shows on the TV, than cooking at home, and if we cook, we are seeking meals in minutes and convenience. When I cook I know every ingredient that goes into a dish. And it makes me feel really good to have fed people a freshly made, wholesome meal with nothing artificial added – just slow, honest food.

So, let me introduce the concept of ‘slow food’:

“Food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high quality locally sourced ingredients”

Put simply, slow food is the opposite to ‘fast food’ in every sense of the term. It’s good, clean and fair. It’s not necessarily a cheaper option (although it can be) because there has been an actual person involved.

Speaking of fast food, one of my most memorable experiences was in India in 2013, when I travelled around the country for 5 weeks on another self-guided culinary tour. I headed to Murugan Idli Shop in Chennai. We took our tuk tuk to a stained white building; as we entered there were no tourists in sight, just a bright room with communal seating and the bustle of the lunchtime rush. We received our vibrant green banana leaf ‘thali’ or plate. Replicating the locals, we sprinkled water onto our banana leaf. I ordered my food, then came our server with an array of freshly made chutneys dolloped onto my banana leaf – from tangy tomato, to a cooling, florescent white coconut and mustard seed chutney, to oil podi. With my index finger, I make a well in my podi mix, next came a glug of oil, I swirl the oil with the powder to create a dark brown, almost chalky paste. There was a sense of theater to my dining experience. Within minutes our food was delivered onto our plate. Everything made from scratch, with love, and super cheap. I took a bite, and then devoured it all, asking for more. The whole experience was so humble, so pure. This was an example of what ‘fast food’ could be, but a meal here was valued.

The culture of ‘grab and go lunches’ or eating whilst walking didn’t exist. Food was respected and designed for the masses. Trust me, I’ve been guilty of multitasking whilst working – whether in a marketing office or in the restaurant, or worst still, working until my work was ‘done’. That meant I skipped lunch everyday because the work never ended at the restaurant. I know finding a work/life balance is hard. But I’m here to just plant a seed on what could happen, and what changes we may want to make in our lives. Because we kind of deserve it, and as people blessed with access to food, it’s what we also owe to food.

We are all part of this jigsaw puzzle, and definitely part of the solution. Cooking from scratch with locally sourced, in-season ingredients is just one example. We have a choice to select the food that we eat. Real food is an option. Maybe it’ll take a little more time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And it’s not necessarily the more expensive choice either. I’m excited to share some thoughts, ideas and recipes to make seasonal and local more accessible to everyone. We can use food as a tool to shape the world better.

If you’d want to learn more, here are some links:

*[Or binge eating whilst binge watching Netflix in your pj’s]

** [hey hey hey hey]

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