Food


Nigel Slater was brought up in the fifties as a shy single boy in a middle class family.  His father was the manager of a small factory and constantly irritable.  His mother was seriously ill with a lung complaint.  Nigel was lonely; his interest in food developed because he was hungry for some variety in his diet;  hungry for affection.  His mother couldn’t cook.  When in doubt, as was frequent, she made toast.    

On the night, she died, his father couldn’t tell him.  Later Mrs Potter (Joan) entered their lives as a cleaner.  She was brassy, canny and efficient, seduced Nigel’s father by the way she looked at him as she polished the brasses and how she wiggled her bottom as she dusted under the dresser.  She made housework irresistibly erotic.  And she was a wonderful cook.  Her steak and kidney pudding  was a work of art; her lemon meringue pie sheer sensuous delight.   

She caused quite a stir when Mr Slater took her to the Masonic Lodge dinner.  The ladies looked askance with grudging admiration.  ‘She may be as common as muck but she certainly knows her cleaning fluids.’   Smitten, Mr Slater proposes and buys a house for them all in the country.  Nigel is very unhappy and competes with Joan for his father’s attention by learning how to cook,  but Joan undermines him by forgetting the afternoons he returned home with a meal.   One afternoon, Nigel returns to find that his father had died mowing the lawn.  Joan announces, ‘it’s just us now, kid,’  but Nigel has other ideas.  He walks out of her life into the kitchen of the Savoy.  

This film emphasised the traumas that could befall teenagers when parents transgress family taboos.   Nigel, traumatised by grief for his mother, could not tolerate his father’s new found sexual interest in Mrs Potter and resented her intrusion into his father’s life.   He felt excluded, rejected from my own family,  betrayed by the one he should be able to trust.  He was a prisoner in his own home, yet he could not leave while his father was alive.  Home life not only has to be boring enough to want to leave it but stable enough to be able to.  To leave home, teenagers must neither need nor care for their parents.  Nigel could only do that after they had both died.   He became a wonderful chef and food writer,  but kept the idealised view of home alive in his writing and cooking. 

The film made me think about Stephen, my stepbrother.  His father, Ron, fought a successful campaign for custody after divorcing Margaret, only to put him his the care of first his own parents and then my mother, Doris, who had divorced Wallace to be with Ron.  But Doris resented his presence; ‘I’ve got one chance of happiness and I’m not having it spoilt by that little brat.’  Stephen and I  weren’t close; we never really lived together.  Mum had already left me in Taunton to board at school and then I got a sequence of live in jobs before going to university.  I didn’t really see Ron’s house as home; we’d already left home two years previously.  But Stephen must have been very unhappy.  He wrote me an letter after Ron died, disappointed and angry that he was never mentioned in the will.  Stephen came out in his late teens, about the same time Nigel acknowledged he was gay.    

Lee Hall’s rewriting of Nigel Slater’s book, Toast, the story of a hungry teenager, was screened on BBC1 on December 30th.   Helena Bonham Carter was so sexy as Mrs Potter and yet last week she was also perfect as the dutiful consort  in the King’s Speech.   Nigel’s stepsisters were upset by the portrayal of their mother, which they considered inaccurate.  This week, Agnatha von Trapp, the last surviving von Trapp sister, died.  She had reputedly never got over the fact that her father, Captain von Trapp, was depicted as a strict martinet in The Sound of Music.       

It’s our ability to control fire that made us human.  This is the message of Richard Wrangham’s new book, ‘Catching Fire’,  which was published last year.  It’s the latest big idea in evolution, the one that Darwin ignored.    

Wrangham approaches the subject from the perspective of an anthropologist and primatologist; he has worked at Gombe with Jane Goodall.  His hypothesis extrapolates from three sets of observations.  First, when food is cooked, nutrients are more easily digested and assimilated into the body.    Cooking softens meat, loosening connective tissue and allowing enzymes access to muscle proteins and fats.   Cooking also breaches the rigid cell walls of plants, exposing starches and sugars and vegetable fats to digestion.  Cooked meals require less work and less time to eat them.  Less effort needs to be spent in finding food that can be easily digested.  Cooking saves us time; time to think, to plan, to bond and it has to be said, to eat more food. 

By comparison, other mammalian species spend the majority of their time hunting, feeding and digesting their food.  Sheep and cows would never get enough energy to reproduce if they didn’t eat all day.  A male tiger needs to spend nearly all its waking hours hunting.  Only when it has had a big blow out, can the tiger afford to rest up and digest.   

But for humans, it’s different. They had time.  People gathered around their fires in the evening to tell stories, to sing, to drink, to plan the next day’s activities and to make love. It was around the hearth that tribes forged their identity in mythology. Fire became the focus of the social group, the hearth, the forge of civilisation. Cooking expanded the range of foods that could be eaten.  This meant that people didn’t have to hunt and gather particular foods; they could cultivate and herd them in farms.  This allowed people to settle in villages, towns and cities.  

Fire also led to a division of labour. Women were the cooks, the keepers of the fire, the gatherers and of course the mothers, whereas men were the hunters, the farmers and the protectors.    

Not only has fire enabled human beings to evolve socially, Wrangham believes that they have also adapted anatomically and physiology to eating cooked foods.   Our jaws are much weaker than our closest cousins, the chimpanzees; not at all equipped for cracking hard nuts and seeds or for tearing meat.  Our large intestines are nowhere near as commodious and efficient at extracting nutrients from uncooked vegetable matter.  People can live on raw food if they spend time seeking out and preparing foods that are sufficiently soft, but they lose weight and tend to become infertile.  Thus it seems we have evolved into a culinary ape.   Perhaps even our hairlessness was an adaptation to the control of fire.  Did fire allow us to dispense with fur and become the naked ape.        

The important thing about a good hypothesis is not that it’s right but that it makes you think.  Wrangham’s hypothesis certainly makes us think , but it is probably not entirely accurate. 

 We are not the only species with small guts.  Carnivores,  dogs, cats have much smaller guts probably because they don’t need a big fermenter to break down complex plant material.  Perhaps the early homonids were predominantly hunters and scavengers; they ate predominantly meat and were strategically adapted to hunting and trapping animals.  But their poor dentition may indicate that they lived on soft body organs or even on food that was half rotten with some additional fruits and leaves.     

 Cooking is not the only way of softening food, acid in the stomach does it too.  After they have made a kill, lions and tigers need to rest for several hours for acid digestion to occur.  The acid in human stomachs is as strong as that in other carnivores.  The thing is, we can survive without cooking.  We can all eat raw food though we may not have much time for anything else.  Cooking saves time.          

But is there any evidence in the fossil record that links the development of humans with fire?   Humanoids with the characteristic shape that we have now,  Homo habilis and Homo erectus,  appeared about two and half million years ago, but the earliest evidence we have of hominids  controlling fire is 750,000 years ago.     

So was cooking the big breakthrough that allowed human beings to evolve into a more physiologically efficient mammal by relying on an external source of energy?   Did we develop our human shape and physiology because our ancestors had learnt to harness fire?   Or was  cooking an evolutionary accelerant rather than an instigator? 

According to Darwin’s deductions, evolution of species does not tend to occur gradually over millions of years, it is jerked forwards by environmental change;  only certain individuals were sufficiently equipped to survive and breed under the new conditions and they produced more individuals with the same improved adaptations. 

The accepted wisdom is that human evolution was instigated by climate change in sub-Saharan Africa.  Less rainfall led to a dying back of the rainforest and its replacement by savannah.   Certain of our ancestors could survive at the edges of the forest.  They learnt how to trap and kill the grazing animals for food.   Some had a more flexible thumb that could be opposed to the other digits allowing them to grip and manipulate tools.  These better equipped individuals could make and use tools, they could fashion weapons, they could throw things;  they could project into the future.  These adaptations led quickly to others.  Only those with the most efficient weaponry and skill, would survive, the rest would be killed off. 

Genetics provides the potential, the environment brings it out.   The brain develops according to experience, though some brains are more adaptable.  In a rapidly changing environment, only those apes able to adapt, survive.  So, over relatively few generations, a sub culture is selected out.  Seen from this context, fire is another tool, something the advancing ape learnt to control, but it rapidly became indispensible. Hominids adapted to it and indeed could not survive without it.  Fire now does so many other things besides cooking, it drives engines that make things and get us places.  And now we have discovered enormous supplies of fossil fuels, we are totally dependent on the energy it gives us, so much so that few of us would survive without it.  And yet, supplies of fossil fuel are finite.  They will be depleted in 30 years.

Coming down this morning, I saw

in the bone white dish,

a cargo of garlic;

ten bruise-pink cloves

in a nest  of papery skins,

like dormant commas

awaiting the next sentence.

.

The station clock was at quarter to ten.

I’m going to plant them, you said.

‘They need to catch the first frost, and perhaps,     

 next year,

we’ll cook together.’

.

When trees turn dim and lose their scent,

And birds have ceased to call  

When nighthawks glide through misty glades   

And fiery Mars comes up from shades

When fireflies blink and crickets wheeze.

and deer cough deep and owls sneeze  

The sky spreads its carpet of myth

Up ending Orion,

while I, sitting on a stone,

move the branch into the glow and wait   

‘til tousle haired, he brings dazed frogs, which,

steamed with greens, and pungent spice,  

we serve on leaves with sticky rice

and eat with bamboo shots.  .

Nyok!

The male is shaped like a fork with the central prong much longer; the female like a knobbly green tuber, but both can be used.  When they look ready, the villagers prop their  ladders up against the tree, just a bamboo pole with rungs on each side, and climb up.  Syrup can be harvested from both flowers, but they have to be ‘ready’, turgid and yielding slightly when squeezed. If there are too many flowers on a single tree, they remove some of them to concentrate the yield. They then ‘milk’  the chosen flowers by squeezing them gently between large wooden tongs, like those that were once used to get sheets out of the boiler.  This is known as ‘training’ and it is done morning and evening for a four days,  After each training session, they dip the end in a bottle of water.  Then when the flower seems ripe enough to harvest, they cut off the tip with a sharp knife.  If the tip seeps, they attach a bottle to the end and allow the juice to collect. At the end of the day, they pour the dilute syrup into a large metal bowl and allow it to simmer overnight.  The oven is made of the particularly pure clay that can only be collected from termite mounds.  As the branches smoulder, they advance them into the oven to maintain an even heat, hot enough the boil the juice but not too hot so it will dry and burn.

The concentrated syrup is brown and tastes like fudge or maple syrup. It is just right for cooking as a moderate heat makes it runny. It sweetens the coconut cream and fish sauce in Fish Amok.  It is delicious when poured on fresh mango and coconut sticky rice and when added to tamarind juice and lime, it make such a refreshing drink. Or just buy a packet of palm sugar lozenges wrapped up in a palm leaf. So much better than Kendal Mint Cake.

Fish Amok

Chop garlic shallot, galangal, lemon grass, the pool and juice of a Kaffir lime peel and pound together in a large wooden pestle and mortar until it is an even pasty consistency. Add real chilli paste (Kroenung) then top up with coconut milk,  a dollop of palm syrup, fish sauce and an egg.  Add chunks of fish.

To make the banana leaf container, fold the edges of the leaf over and seal with a tiny wooden sliver until you have created an open box, 3 inches by 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches deep.  Pour in the mixture and steam for 20 minutes.  Garnish with thinly sliced Kaffir lime leaves and carrot and eat with jasmine rice.

 

Sticky rice with mango and palm sugar caramel. 

Peel the mango by slicing level with the flat side of the stone and then cut diagonally. 

Boil the rice, allow to soak in the hot water and then steam it.  (In Laos, they soak it overnight in cold water and then steam it over muslin.  

Place a dollop of palm sugar (like maple syrup but nicer) in a pan with butter and coconut cream. Simmer until it caramelises.  Pour over the mango and rice.  

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.

Deep fried Tarantula with pepper sauce!  Yum!  This was something new.  I had to try it.  But it was still a shock when four large black spiders arrived on my plate.  Cambodians love them, crunching them whole like crisps.  I tried a leg. It was all crackle and no taste, but the pepper sauce tasted delicious.  Nothing ventured …..,  I took the body of the arachnid, dipped it in generous quantities of pepper sauce and popped it in my mouth. The meat tasted quite sweet, almost like crab, and I was almost able to forget what I was eating.  Nobody offered to join me in my spiderfest, so still smiling, I crunched and swallowed three more!

Romdeng restaurant is situated in an old French colonial mansion in the centre of Phnom Penh and staffed by street children. It was opened n 2005 by Friends International, offering students the skills to open their own businesses, while recovering the skills of Cambodian cuisine lost during the hegemony of the Khmer Rouge.    

 In Cambodia,  many children end up living on the streets because of poverty, or domestic violence or increasingly the loss or one or more parents to AIDS.  They do what they can to survive but the conditions in which they live are very dangerous.  Thirty per cent of prostitutes in Phnom Penh are between the ages of 12 and 17.  Drugs are also a problem for street children with children as young as 6 sniffing glue to escape their dreadful reality.  Friends-International offers these children an alternative to life on the streets, providing medical care, food and creating innovative and exciting opportunities to build their futures.  The children in Romdeng were polite and efficient; the food delicious; the concept inspirational. 

The next course was safer;  Fish Amok in banana leaves.  This is local fish from the mighty Mekong (apologies to Dan Dare and The Eagle), steamed in a rich creamy sauce of spices and coconut milk, and presented in little containers contructed from banana leaves pinned together with slivers of wood.  This was followed by sticky rice and mango basted with caramelised palm syrup. 

It was the nicest meal we had in Cambodia.  Later Alex told me that I hadn’t really sampled Cambodian cuisine until I had tasted poung tai;  fertilised duck eggs cooked just before the duckling starts to hatch. The body parts including the emerging feathers and beak are still soft and encased in a creamy yolk.  That was a delight I did not try.  It was just the thought of it!

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