Food for thought as I try to make a meal of our cultural differences
When it comes to food, the differences between east and west are very marked in my opinion. And I’m not sure that the western diet compares favourably.
Take the other day, for instance. I was sitting in work, yawning a lot. It’s not an act I perform very quietly. A colleague noticed and asked if I was short of sleep.
I told her that I had been woken at 5.30 that morning (a time that does not exist in my consciousness) by my wife deep frying pork for her to take to work and eat that lunchtime.
My colleague asked: “Hasn’t she heard of sandwiches?”
It was intended as a joke – and accepted as such. But, it did set me thinking.
I’m not sure I can recall ever seeing my wife make a sandwich. Think about it, if you are a westerner.
Could you image going through life without ever making a sandwich?
Now my wife has eaten a few. But it is a few – the sort you buy in 7-11 with the rinds cut off and all the filling in the middle, not reaching the edges. Hardly a gourmet experience.
I find it very hard to like these sandwiches – mainly because I think Thai-made bread is way too sweet. It’s like eating a dessert.
That said, I imagine that bread is not a food that comes naturally to Thais. Indeed, there are many things about the western diet that do not come naturally to Thais.
I can recall the children of a girlfriend sitting down in a Pattaya Pizza Hut and refusing to touch the pizzas.
There was no rice on the plate. They didn’t recognise it as food. At least, not food that was acceptable to them. Ever tried working your way through three pizzas with a couple of kids sitting there with their stomachs rumbling? Not recommended!
So, my colleague’s remark got me thinking about our relative diets and, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, I don’t think the western diet measures up too well.
A glaring difference can be found in the freshness of the food we eat. Before they get to big cities such as Pattaya Thais are used to buying food for almost immediate consumption. The idea of keeping food for more than a few days is alien.
I thought I was being magnanimous in buying a big fridge for my wife’s family. If I could reach out from 6,000 miles away and open it now I’m 99 percent certain that all I would discover in there would be bottles of water. Buying food and keeping it in the fridge until ready to consume it? What’s all that about?
I’m sure that it is this freshness of food or, more accurately, the lack of added preservatives, that makes the Thai diet better for you.
The amount of preservatives added to food to prolong its shelf-life by UK supermarkets is little short of frightening.
I saw a TV programme the other day looking at the proliferation of “healthier” foods in UK supermarkets. Any food that hints at being healthy is in big demand nowadays.
I’ll give you an example. There is a supermarket chain in the UK specialising in frozen foods called Iceland. Frozen food? What’s that? villagers in northern Thailand might ask. Anyway, Iceland decided it wanted to offer a “healthier” hamburger for sale. Burgers are a big deal for them and the new-ish popularity of healthier food got them thinking.
So, a small quiz.
If you were producing a healthier burger how would you go about it?
Reduce the fat content?
That was my first thought. But I would have been wrong.
According to Iceland the route to a healthier burger is by reducing the salt content. I kid you not. Added salt is the hidden killer in modern, supermarket-bought food it seems. Reducing fat also helps, but the company decided to concentrate on the salt content.
Its dilemma was: how do you reduce the salt without taking away from the flavour?
Iceland opted to replace most (not all) of the salt with miso, the traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soya beans. Apparently, the taste is similar, but it’s a lot healthier for you.
Of course, if it’s healthy, that commands a higher price. Miso burgers retail at £1 each (about Bt42 at current exchange rates) compared with 33p – just a third of the price – for a salty one.
Well, the humble box of cornflakes (again, alien to Thais) is absolutely crammed with preservatives.
About five years ago some of the big UK supermarkets introduced a “traffic light” method of labelling food. The label shows how much fat, saturated fats, sugar and salt are in a food by using the traffic light signals for high (red), medium (amber) and low (green) percentages for each of these ingredients.
I refer to these “signals” a lot when buying food. Kellogg’s, the name synonymous with cornflakes has, to date, declined to add these traffic light colours to their boxes. It shows the figures but on a neutral background. The reason is that too many of the “lights” would show red, especially the one for salt. Red “light” spells danger – cue for a song?
Kellogg’s claims it has reduced the salt in its cornflakes by more than half in the past 20 years.
My question is: Why, if you are confident you are making progress, don’t you adopt the traffic lights system? The answer must surely be that the figures are still too high.
A very quick bit of research on the internet suggests that one bowl of the cereal contains half of the daily recommended allowance of salt.
In previous columns I have pointed to the differences I’m noticing in the size of Thais over the past couple of decades. The increasing amount of western food in the Thai diet is also leading to increasing waistlines.
For me, the answer is obvious. Stick to the fresh foods you know best and reap the benefits. There are many things about a western diet that, while tasty, are just not good for anyone (westerners included).
I’m no doctor, but “keep it fresh” would, I’m confident, be a doctor’s advice.
Food for thought!
By Dave Buckley