It is lunch time in a village near Siem Reap,  the children, no more than six years of age, sit on the ground,  the branch between them.  They  tear  off leaves, dip them into the jar of pungent fish paste and  chew on them.   They seem happy and well nourished.   

It  is early evening in a side street in Hanoi.  A crowd of people squash together around small plastic tables; they are talking and laughing.   The cook is preparing the food on simple charcoal braziers; sticky rice and pho, a spicy vegetable stew with chicken or fish, which he serves up on large steaming bowls.   Among the vegetables are tarot root, carrot, morning glory stems and leaves, green beans, green mango, and sliced banana flower.  The spices include garlic, ginger, galangal, turmeric , coriander, thai basil, saw-edged mint and lemon mint.     It smells and tastes delicious and the ingredients; the vegetables  Dessert is sweet mango and sticky rice in caramelized palm syrup.        

The food culture in South East Asia is so different to that of America and Western Europe.  Most people live in the country.   Vegetables and spices are grown locally in small plots outside the villages and transported fresh to markets.   There are abundant fish in the rivers.  They are caught the same day and kept alive in the markets in bowls of aerated water. People keep chickens, pigs, buffaloes and dogs for eating and supplement their diet with rats and squirrels, even spiders, ants  and frogs  and maybe a deer which they have caught in the forest.  They eat everything here.  This creates a very balanced diet with all the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids, abundant probiotic carbohydrate and fats and protein in moderation.  It is a healthy way of eating. 

The food is enriched by a palette of spices, which are blended together to create the balance of hot and cold, yin and yang, by which the people ensured adequate intake of micronutrients hundreds of years before anybody had heard of vitamins.   People understand  the medicinal properties of spices and know how to use them to enhance the appetising qualities of a meal in order to provide  satisfaction without overindulgence.      

Even very young children have a sophisticated palate.   From a very early age, they become conditioned to the  pungent fermented fish sauces, the hot chillis,  the aromatic flavours of fresh rhizomes of turmeric and galangal, the burn of ginger, the cool sensations of mint and thai basil.  

Eating is a social activity, accompanied by talking and laughter and perhaps a shot or two of Lao Lao rice whisky, handed to each person in a small bamboo cup.  The food is placed in the centre of the table and people share it.   Not only is the food healthy, the whole eating experience facilitates well being.          

In the country, people eat just two meals a day.  They work in the fields until it gets hot and then come back for a midday meal.  Then they might rest and work again in the evening until dinner.  Children work as well, but they also might go to school. 

There is little distinction between lunch and dinner.  Everything is served with sticky rice or rice noodles; and the choice of meat or fish or vegetables determines the balance of spices.   You see very little obesity in the country.   People seem fit, muscular and have spare bodies and good teeth.  

To eat, people squat around the table or sit on impossibly (for westerners) low stools .  They have very flexible joints.  They can squat for hours in a stable fashion, their feet flat on the ground and their thighs almost parallel with their calves so that their bottom nearly touches the ground.   They  have little of the back and joint problems of the western races.        

It is a way of life that we used to lead years ago.  Ian Mortimer’s new book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Mediaeval England, describes how peasants used to grow all the vegetables and herbs they needed in gardens  or on common land.  They also kept chickens, pigs and maybe a cow.  There were  orchards in which they could harvest fruits.   Hunting and fishing supplemented the mediaeval diet. 

Although there were risks of famine and starvation, especially in mediaeval England where food supply is more seasonal and food had to be stored, nevertheless the diet was more varied and nutritionally balanced than it is now despite improved knowledge of nutrition and greater food security.  People were more able to regulate their intake.    

It is afternoon in a village by the side of a highway in Northern Laos.  The trucks rumble past from Thailand to Luang Namatha.  A child of about two is chewing on sweets from a paper bag.  He looks fat and sleepy.  His father, also overweight and dressed in designer football shirt and long shorts looks on indulgently.   Diabetes is a growing problem in South East Asia.  Things are changing and fast.

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