Category Archives: food fun

Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future

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Yesterday I got a pleasant surprise when WordPress notified me that I had 500 posts. It seems like a long time ago that I started this blog, a journey prompted by the food safety scares of 2008: e coli in lettuce and tomatoes.  And while some of today’s stories are similar, I do see many hopeful notes of progress. One area in which encouraging news is growing is the issue of food production in a time of climate disruption. How will we grow rice in drought like conditions? The solution could be “Sahbhagi Dhan”.  Research is ongoing on how plants “remember drought”, or how they are equipped to deal with total water deprivation: efforts that could create varieties of alfalfa, sorghum, corn and soy beans that will flourish and nurture us in a very different environment.

And sometimes the research yields not only good results for nutrition but is also a treat for the eyes, like this lavender lime, full of beneficial bioflavonoids , that will add a lovely burst of color to our plates!

(Image Courtesy: “Agriculture Rice Green Field and Blue Sky Background” by blackzheep, freedigitalphotos.net)

Taking Up a New Food Tradition: “Hoppin John” on New Year’s Day

 

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Though I have lived in the US for  a while now, I just learned about the tradition of eating “Hoppin John” on New Year’s day. The first description I read of it involved black-eyed peas, pork, rice and some greens. The black-eyed peas represent coins and the wish for prosperity, the greens of course represent cash. This immediately reminded me of a favorite recipe from India  and I thought I would use it. And so our first meal of the year was this bowl of golden goodness, glowing with turmeric and a little chilli powder, with a sprinkling of cilantro standing in for the greens. To me, this represents the best of all possible worlds, memories of the infusing the adventure of the present.

Further reading brought interesting facts to light: the original dish used red cow peas not the black-eyed peas used today; the rice used was  Carolina Gold and the story of how this variety disappeared from the market is a fascinating story: the soft lowlands on which Carolina Gold rice was cultivated were unsuitable for the use of machinery and there was not enough labor for the intense work required, a hurricane added a further blow. So rice production shifted to other states and other varieties. But a resurgence of this variety was brought about from grains obtained from a seed bank and a small number of farmers are growing it. (One wonders though how the issue  of labor/mechanization was resolved, material for another post perhaps!)

As I write this, I discovered yet another Indian take on black-eyed peas, this time with curry leaves, which I love, and coconut, looks like day two of the new year may also involve black-eyed peas…

#Farming Friday 14: Holiday On A Farm

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All of us cannot be farmers and some of us might not even be ready to give it a try, that too on a holiday. But here is the charming account from someone who took a working holiday on a farm in Italy. I might like to go there now, after reading this, but am still not sure about the “herding the pigs” part!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Pumpkin Time is Here!!

 

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Happy Fall! In the US this is the time when “pumpkin flavored everything” hits the stores. The first time I heard of Pumpkin Spice Latte I did wonder “pumpkin and coffee…???” The reality is that its more about the spices associated with pumpkin: cinnamon, nutmeg etc; rather than the pumpkin itself, which brings in the pumpkin factor at this time of the year. Check out this link to know which of your favorite treats actually contain pumpkins.

Home is Where the Fish Are

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As I try to meet the packing deadline for a month long trip back to see my family, two images float in my mind’s eye: one is the monsoon rains bursting down and the other is my mother’s plate of steaming rice and fish curry waiting at my place at the table. While most people today are familiar with Indian food, cuisine from the state of Bengal is less well known. Bengalis are obsessive about their food and there is a strict code to the cuisine: the order in which dishes are to served, what is cooked in which season, which vegetables with what fish; the list goes on. In the old days, young girls were grilled on their cooking skills as part of the arranged marriage interview! Above all, Bengalis adore their fish, abundant in the rivers and ponds of the lush delta the Ganges river forms before tipping into the sea. And of all the fish in the world, the most precious is the “ileesh”. This used to be  the fish of celebration, on festive days, weddings or if India won at cricket!

So reading about the beloved ileesh  vanishing from the earth is liable to stop the Bengali heart.But that is exactly what seems to be happening now, ileesh is growing scarce and Bangladesh (which became a separate country later, but was originally a part of India and shares the language and cuisine of Bengal) has banned ileesh exports. At the root of this is that all too familiar, tawdry tale: we abandoned the code of cuisine which treated the fish with reverence, ensuring that it was used sparingly, never eaten during the egg laying season. Now, we demand it all the time, in ever increasing quantities, even freezing it great chunks of ice to be sent to distant countries. There, it is defrosted, prepared as best as possible, and though completely devoid of flavor after it’s  arduous journey to the plate, still revives memories of home and family, far from the paddy fields.

On a more somber note, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 which took about 3 million lives.  World War II was on, and the harvest was diverted by the British toward the war effort while the  people who worked to produce the food were ravaged by hunger. An outstanding film on this famine, “Ashani Sanket” seen through the eyes of  people in a village, was made by Satyajit Ray. It is often named as one of the best films ever made and I was a young girl when I saw it but still remember some scenes with much clarity: the lush green fields contrasting with the desperation  and degradation of the villagers, forced to sink to unthinkable levels in their search for food.

Posts might be a little infrequent during the next few weeks…..whatever I can manage in between bouts of food coma! Wishing you all a lovely summer!

 

Starbucks Will Add Calorie Information to its Menu

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It was going to happen, sooner or later. How will it feel when the calorie count for a frappuccino is posted right there on the menu board?  Summer is here and many of us will be turning to blended coffee drinks. (Some of us, let us admit, will stick with them well into pumpkin latte season!). Posting calorie counts does not necessarily change consumer habits over night. The consumer still has to able to process the information and figure out what portion of the daily calorie intake is being taken up by a drink or a baked good. Some will ignore the posting, some might opt for lower calorie options.  If the consumer is on their daily visit, they might be more concerned with the calorie value than those on an occasional visit. For me and the other Moms, catching our breath with a chat in the middle of the week before scattering off to errands and volunteering duties, the calories are usually passed over in favor of fun. How many calories are there in that mocha frap, anyway? 200. Without the whipped cream. One cannot be too cavalier, after all!

New Day, New Diet Trend

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The Mediterranean Diet, long known as the “ideal” diet to follow , is problematic for those who live in countries where some ingredients, olive oil for example, are not readily available. So, researchers in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland came up with a dietary regime based on local foods and tested the results on two groups of people: one of which was put on the local foods based diet with the added rule of no red meat  and no sugar; and another which consumed red meat and white bread as is normally done in these countries. Not surprisingly, the people in the first group showed an improved good cholesterol/bad cholesterol ratio and also changes in a marker for inflammation.

The benefits of a diet based on local food are not only financial and environmental but are also reflected in improved health outcomes as we eat the diet best suited for the conditions in which we are living. But pursuing the goal of local eating alone is not enough, even better is to eat in season. When we explore, as this chef did, what is actually growing around us, we will discover foods we did not even know existed. Case in point: I could not have identified the greens in the image above last month but have just discovered how delicious these garlic scapes can be! This is the top part of the plant, we normally use the bulb, and; here is the best part: by using every bit of the plant we reduce food waste and crucially, a waste of the water that went into growing that plant.

 

The Price of Fear

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An interesting piece on the price we pay for our fears, in The European Magazine. This question is central today in much of the issues being debated in the food world. There is distrust of biotechnology because there is no way to prove that they are “completely” safe. If its not food, then its public health which is vulnerable to fear and distrust.The irrational (and, as proven recently,) baseless fear of vaccination is being blamed for a measles epidemic in Wales and also a persistent Pertussis outbreak in the US. Why have we become so fearful?

If our ancestors had not been adventurous and ready to take a risk, we would be living in a very different world. One where we would never have been to the Moon because no one could show conclusively that it was safe to travel there or even tried a fruit like the rambutan which, looks somewhat scary but is actually delicious.

When new seeds and fertilizers were introduced to the Indian farmer in 1963, they too may have been fearful but they adopted this technology thereby bringing in the Green revolution that ultimately saved so many from hunger, malnutrition and untimely death. Instead of obsessing about what is on my plate and in my food, can we agree to try something that might provide solutions for those who have nothing on their plates? At this point in the discussion usually some one jumps up to say that production alone cannot solve the problems of the food system. I could not agree more but I would point out that by spending all our time and energy talking about GM food/organic cultivation/local or not, we have little left to spend on enormously important matters like consumption patterns, food waste, or malnutrition, among others. That is also part of the price we pay for being fearful , we are left with less than optimal solutions because we did not use our time and resources wisely.

And we can start with baby steps, perhaps move on produce item from the organic to regular column on our grocery list and try that or trace a news report to the actual study they are talking about and decide for oneself what to believe. And if you should choose conventional watermelon instead of organic this week,  you could  also try out this watermelon stroller, bringing you portable and chilled watermelons just in time for picnic season!

Why Should We Cook?

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Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”  was one of the first non-policy books on food that I found totally absorbing. It showed me food in a totally new light, never again would I look at corn the same way! So I look forward to reading his new book “Cooked” which is  being released today. While the reviews at the New York Times,  Washington Post or on NPR are generally warm, I am curious about some of the points that came up. I am a strong advocate for cooking at home. It is the healthier and cheaper option. But Mr. Pollan’s belief that people don’t cook because they are doing other things like surfing the Internet or watching TV  is not a view I share. The pre-dinner hour is usually the craziest in a household with homework, piano lessons, soccer practice all converging and squeezing out cooking time.  It is rarely a time to watch TV or surf the web, there are other factors at work here: lack of time, knowledge of basic cooking skills come to mind.

More concerning for me was his nostalgic call for a return to the “communal fire”. He posted this quote on Twitter: “The microwave is as anti-social as the cook fire is communal.”  Food prepared  in the microwave qualifies as “food” solely on technical points, I agree, but the communal fire is not the answer. There are many places in the world where even today, food is cooked over fire ( a real fire not the stove top familiar to us). This requires the women and young girls to walk miles in search of firewood, carry it back on their heads and then labor over starting and maintaining the fire to cook on, all the while inhaling huge amounts of smoke that is toxic for them and , indeed, for the entire household. So, for these women, an option to that fire is very welcome.

Mr. Pollan also makes the point that women left the kitchen to participate in the outer world but did not success in bringing men into the kitchen, other than in the form of the men who head the processed food companies. Well, if there is a movement on the part of men to occupy the kitchen, it has not hit my part of the world yet. The grim reality of home cooking is that it takes a whole lot of time: time to clean and prepare fresh produce/meat for cooking, the actual cooking time and then cleaning up afterwords and it is going to take more than one person to do all this so it requires a time commitment from everybody. And while watching amazing dishes come together on TV is mesmerizing, packing lunches and making dinner everyday is , to be honest, fairly tedious.Once we acknowledge this and also the fact that however boring and time consuming it may be, cooking at home is essential for a healthy society and for building family bonds we will be closer to working out a life pattern that works for everyone and still lets us eat home cooked food.

Why Do We Watch Cooking Shows

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My idea of a perfect spring break would have been to laze around at home working my way down the pillar of books at my bedside and , for a change, watching my favorite cooking shows. (Instead, I found myself taking a road trip, indulging in awesome food, and spending way too much on souvenirs without which, kids seem to think , no trip is complete).

There are shows that bring out our inner competitor. We watch “Chopped” and think, ‘Oh, I could do better than that in 20 minutes”. Top Chef is a peek into a world that we never usually get to see and we marvel at the skills on display. Do we ever try to learn anything from these shows or try out these foods at home? Well, Rachel Ray is a practical guide for some, Ina Garten of “Barefoot Contessa” does explain things well and now that she has okayed frozen asparagus, I actually pay attention instead of merely fantasizing about having a kitchen and herb garden like hers. But , by and large, TV shows are entertainment for me. If I want to learn how to make sushi or samosas or want to know how to fillet a fish correctly, I depend on all those helpful people who have posted their videos on YouTube! This post came on as I was reading this lovely piece by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker.