Monday, September 20, 2010

A little food for thought

A Little Food for Thought
By: Cristian Feher

It's the year 2010 and there are almost as many different types of foods as there are people. But the really interesting part is looking back at where some of these foods have come from, and where some of them are going. I give a few examples that have caught my attention below.

Many people take modern refrigeration for granted and do not realize that it's not until recently that this technological advance has been shaping the way foods are stored, prepared and consumed. Many of the foods that have been around in the world were developed in cultures where no refrigeration was available. Take curry, for example. The flavorful spice mixture we know today as curry was used by several cultures for hundreds of years as a method of keeping meats from spoiling. Picture a hot day in India where the temperatures rise way above 95 degrees on a regular day. A fish was cleaned, cut up and cooked in a clay pot with a heavy dose of curry, spicy peppers (capsicum), herbs, vegetables and water. If covered with a cloth, this dish might have lasted up to three days in ambient temperature without becoming spoiled (bacteria would have found it difficult to grow inside the spicy curry mixture). In colder climates, Vikings might have kept a freshly killed elk buried in ice and snow while consuming over a period of time. Severed slices of flesh would have been roasted over a fire and enjoyed with dried berries and leaves. A series of sharpened wooden sticks jutting out from around the elk would have kept bears and wolves from stealing it during the night. Today, there are many backyard Vikings that still enjoy this ritual on Sundays! In the South Pacific fish were wrapped in leaves, clay and sometimes raw sea salt crystals. These packages would be buried underground with hot coals and rocks, and dug up to eat up to two days later. Many tourists enjoy this method of cooking while on vacation in the South Pacific today, and it's a popular attraction on the food networks. The Aztecs would steam rudimentary corn dough wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves for preservation, and you can still enjoy them at your local Mexican restaurant today. You can also fast forward to the perfection of this particular method of cooking and visit Venezuela during the Christmas season for an amazing "hallaca" (a savory saffron and raisin meat stew encased in corn dough with annatto, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to perfection). However, the most common method of ensuring fresh food, which is still seen today in many cultures, is the ritual of going to the market for food on a daily basis. Whether in France, Trinidad and Tobago, or Argentina, this is a ritual that I try to take part in whenever I travel. Food prepared freshly in a culture with a high turnover of meat, fish and vegetables has always yielded the best results in my opinion.

You wouldn't think of it at first glance, but war and conquering has done a lot to change the food scapes of many cultures. This is evident in Japan and especially the Philippines where hot dogs and Spam (an American canned meat product) have become national staples. Filipinos consume more spam per capita than Americans do! And if you ever get a chance, try some Filipino hot dog stew. It will make you wonder why you've wasted so many years plopping it on a bun. The Spaniards can be traced by the chickens (and diseases) they left behind as they conquered, and if you've ever had the pleasure of sampling French-Vietnamese cuisine, you know what I mean. Every cloud has a silver lining, and this is probably the silver lining of war - the seed of culinary creativity that it leaves behind.

I can only imagine what the future holds for combinations of new foods. I'm sure that preservative-laden meat patties, processed cheese and apple pie are leaving their mark in the Middle East as we speak. And you may visit Afghanistan or Iraq fifty years from now and wonder how they ever got along without them.

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