Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Wisdom Of Traditional Eating

While everything traditional is not really the best option for a changing world, there is much wisdom stored in old ways, that we disregard or choose to forget.

Japanese scientists recently performed a very interesting experiment (that could have been done anywhere in the world, and probably should) - they took several groups of mice and fed each group with dishes recreated from menus of typical Japanese households in 1960, 1975, 1990 and 2005.  This comprised, for example, of mixed rice with dried whitebait and green seaweed flakes, bean and miso soup with taro and mustard spinach for breakfast as opposed to bacon and eggs, toast and fluffy boiled potatoes.

Not surprisingly, the animals that were fed with traditional diets lived longer and better than the ones fed on modern diets.  (K. Yamamoto et al. Nutrition 32, 122-128; 2016).

Diet induced diseases are on the rise everywhere but India with its large population and changing rural and urban dynamics, sees a huge amount of ill health in a relatively young population.  White rice, sugar, processed foods are common culprits (when consumed on a regular basis in large quantities).  The Harvard School of Public Health recently published a paper showing that people who eat one cup of white rice a day have a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  White rice consumption is possibly the single largest factor driving this kind of diabetes in India today.

Recently we got a medical check up done for our driver, who is in his early fifties.  His blood sugar levels were surprisingly high, and, to our consternation, the doctor did not even ask him about his diet!  He just prescribed a standard drug to control the sugar levels.  This is just one illustration of the thoughtlessness that goes behind treating diet and lifestyle induced illnesses and the importance of awareness in preventing and controlling such situations.

Should rice eaters switch to brown rice?  Brown rice does not necessarily have a lower glycemic index (i.e. the amount it increases the blood sugar level by); the glycemic index of rice is species-dependent.  But brown rice is heavier to eat (thus one eats less); it also contains vitamins, minerals, oil and fibre which are nourishing and are absent in white rice.  Indian scientists have now developed a new variety of rice that looks white but is unpolished and are trying to introduce this into people's diets (the rationale being that many people don't like the look of unpolished rice).

Appearances do rule the world!  There is a story about a Thai princess who once saw some workers eating unpolished rice that was coarse and ugly looking.  Out of kindness, she declared that these workers must be given white rice to eat, and thereby began their health problems!

India is blessed with a huge variety of traditional foods - many kinds of rice, lentils, millets, wheat, corn and vegetables.  A little thought in choosing what one eats would go a long way.  Of course, what we eat is very important, but almost as important, I think, is how and when we eat.  Eating with awareness (and, if possible, appreciation) of one's food, and at regular and proper times, helps tremendously.

I quote below from two very different books about some traditional forms of food and eating, that charmingly remind us of things forgotten-

"Viennese children were brought up to a rumbling accompaniment of admonitions... But the hardest to understand and to obey, "Don't spoil your appetite - Du sollst deinen Appetit nicht verderben!" was thundered so often and so sternly that it sounded like a latter-day commandment.
   It was doubly difficult for children to learn not to spoil their appetites, because their parents condemned as extremely harmful all the sweets which they really wanted to eat, while all the things they didn't want to eat anyway, such as Spinat (an even less popular word than spinach) and farina pudding, were the rewards for which their parents expected them to keep their appetites intact.  But when they had grown up and had made the happy discovery that they were keeping their appetites unspoiled for better things than farina and spinach, they appreciated the wisdom of the admonition; and they, in turn, drummed the same old lesson into their own children.  as  a result, all Viennese sat up straight at the table and kept unspoilt that most precious possession- their guten Appetit.
   The fine point at which the Viennese were no longer spoiling their appetites and were, in fact, correctly gratifying them was established geographically and horologically.  Anything eaten anywhere except in the dining room, no matter how tempting or nourishing, was frowned upon.  Anything eaten before the appointed dinner hour was considered a definite spoiling of the appetite.  Everything that was eaten in the dining room, after one sat down at the table- with clocklike punctuality and very straight, of course, was smiled upon as legitimate and proper dining, the very thing for which the appetite had been so carefully protected and preserved.  Under these circumstances, the announcement of dinner was always greeted with the greatest pleasure, unless for some unthinkable reason it was late, in which case their were frowns and an audible "Endlich- at last!" when the dining room doors were opened.  No one lingered; they leapt to their feet and began a light and elegant stampede to the dining room and to the long awaited Vorspeise...

 ...What's more the guests no longer sit quite so straight at table, and, to the horror of the cook, they are not nearly so punctual in reaching the dining room as once was the reliable custom when dinner was announced with the striking of the clock."
 (Gourmet's Old Vienna Cookbook, A Viennese Memoir, by Lillian Langseth-Christensen and Leo R. Summers)

"Burmese food is for eating mainly just before morning's pleasantness is lost to the heat of the noon, and again as the cool of evening falls, and eating together is a buttress against dusk's approach.
   Ideally, you should have, minutes before eating, a quick-pouring bath, put on clean loose clothes, and go straight to table.
   Traditionally no wines or spirits, and certainly no tidbits of food, should come between your palate and that table, simultaneously laid with the full meal.  However, present eating shows that foreign wines or Mandalay beer accompanies Burmese food agreeably.
   No flowers or other inedible decoration should be on the table, least of all for guests to whom most hospitality is due.  Eating is the pleasure, and when you in turn are a guest, do not discount the food by an undue amount of conversation.
   A meal's importance is such that, as no one should interrupt yours, so no one who walks in to find you at one should pass by without an invitation to eat.  The carpenter, masseur, bill collector, or postman will recognize the form of your invitation and reply, "I've eaten, please carry on."  A friendly  acquaintance, whom you must press till he sits at the table with a filled plate may sit long and leave the food untouched.  Your close friends who say, "All right then, just a bit of that one," will go on eating till they've shown your family how good your cooking is.
   Burmese food, therefore, must be cooked in quantity and be stretchable by nature.  Today's priorities in your budget might make this difficult.  However customs still enable you to enjoy this traditional gregarious eating.  Tell a sister or friend that tonight your family will bring its dinner over..."
  (Cook And Entertain the Burmese Way, by Mi Mi Khaing)

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