Friday, February 17, 2006

From Doubtful to Delicious

Well, my dubious lunch turned out to be a fairly tasty meal after all. I had packed lunch and dinner for today yesterday night, and although both dishes seemed like a good idea at the time (coucscous with apricots and yogourt, and couscous with eggplant), when I looked at the couscous this morning it seemed unbearably bland and dreary and I realized that the eggplant that my wonderful aunt and uncle had made was actually not fully cooked (the onion and garlic were still that slightly opaque colour of white that indicates rawness and the eggplant was spongy and white, also a sign of rawness--quite, quite indigestible). It was clear that I had nothing to enjoy in either of my two meals today. . .

So, I bought a roasted vegetable sandwich for breakfast-lunch*--a ciabatta bun filled with a few rounds of zucchini, some strips of red pepper, and a few branches of cauliflower, bound together by some mozzarella cheese, and grilled. It had potential, but I would have preferred a little more moisture and flavour in the sandwich (Tapenade? Pesto? Even mustard would have been good). I thought I would save the other two meals for later, when I would be too hungry to be particular about taste and presentation . . .

Turn ahead now a few hours, to the point where I have eaten up the dubious lunch for my dinner. I must say that for a spontaneously-thrown-together dish it was very good. All I didlast night was to measure out some instant couscous into a bowl, put in some diced dried Turkish apricots, add a good pinch of salt, a squiggle of honey, and hot water that equaled a little more than the volume of couscous (i.e. 1/3 cup and say, 2 tablespoons). After a sprinkle of cinnamon, this dish was put into the fridge until this morning when I doubtfully spooned some plain yogourt over it and hurried off. I left it for most of the day in the refrigerator, so most of the liquid in the yogourt had been absorbed by the couscous and apricots by the time I came to eat it, the dish presenting itself as a bowl of slightly compressed couscous and apricots with yogourt that was akin to mascarpone cheese in texture. To my surprise, the first experimental bite proved that the combination was tasty: gently granular couscous blended with moist, slightly tart yet sweet apricots, and thick, tangy yogourt with the faintest hint of cinnamon behind it all. Topped with some crumbled walnuts I had stashed in the refrigerator, the couscous was even better--the crunchy texture and nutty flavour melded so nicely with everything else.

And here I conclude with the ways in which I think the couscous could be improved:
  • Infuse a little water with cinnamon and cardomom (either sprinkle the ground spices over some hot water [if you are rushed] or bring a small pot of water to the boil with the spices in it.
  • Put the diced dried apricots into the hot water first so that they do not compete with the couscous for liquid. It would be even better to put the apricots into the water that you infuse with the whole spices.
  • Try other dried fruit and nut combinations: figs, dried cherries, pistachios, almonds. . .
I suspect that this dish would have been even more delicious if I had eaten it freshly made: hot couscous and apricots, cool yogourt flowing around the pasta and fruit, and chopped nuts sprinkled over top so that they remain crunchy. Of course, even straight from the refrigerator this recipe tastes good, making it a worthy candidate for a packed meal.

* In other words, I missed breakfast and ate an early lunch, but because this was unintentional, I do not call it "brunch" (which is a fraught word in the culinary world anyway).

Monday, February 06, 2006

On eating food

Okay. I’ve been making myself rather miserable for the past two days from thinking deeply about the state of the world’s food in the 21st century. After the tea on Wednesday, I was chatting with S., L., and K. about vegetarianism, veganism and issues concerning food supply. K. said that the “tax break” for food producers actually goes to the corporations and not the farmers, which surprised L. I was thinking a lot about why people become vegetarians; there seems to be so many more reasons now, when it used to be a matter of religion that you did not eat meat. L said that she doesn’t eat meat because she doesn’t like it, and also because she feels strongly about the meat industry. Although S. didn’t say, I think she’s vegan for similar ethical reasons, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I started to despair, as if eating meat were a selfish and barbaric thing to do.

We were talking about how farming is so tough and profit is now the driving force behind food production. I learned a lot about the industry that I never knew before, and my, does it sadden me. S. told me that one big, big corporation that manufactures products for both ends of the food cycle more or less forces farmers to buy terminal seeds rather than normal seeds (which can be collected at the end of the season to be planted the next year), so that they must continue to buy from the corp. Argh! This and other practices that ensure food monopolies by the corporations make me feel so angry and so helpless. Did you know, L. asked, that “they” are going to raze some of the rainforests in Borneo to grow oil palms? I had no idea, but guessed that oil palms are a ready cash crop and make the rainforest a justified sacrifice.

Meat, too is problematic: in the interests of making meat cheap and accessible, hormones and other drugs are fed to animals, which are crammed into cages/pens and expected to do nothing but engorge themselves and become massive. I think particularly of pork, which in North America has become leaner and consequently more flavourless over the decades, and especially chicken. Have you ever eaten chicken in another part of the world? I’ve noticed that compared to chicken I’ve eaten in Asia (for example), North American chicken tastes like. . . nothing. Actually, no—it tastes rank, like the smell of the butcher’s shop or the meat aisle at the supermarket. I really don’t like it and hate how “juicy,” that is, watery, chicken is. I said to L. the next day that I think the reason why it’s easy to become veggie in North America is because meat here is either tasteless or has a flavour reminiscent of stale raw meat (you know how meat that’s been packaged for a few days before it gets cooked smells? That’s the flavour I’m talking about). While I enjoy meat when I eat it, thinking about where it comes from and how it was processed makes me feel ill sometimes.

I suppose its my pessimism that makes me believe I can’t make a significant difference, but what alternatives are there to growing mutant but profitable foods, filling the purses of the executives and eating up the environment so that the whole world can feast on cheap, picture-perfect food? I’m aware there are alternatives, but what? How can consumers really be effective? I’m sceptical of consumer power and find it hard to believe that each person’s purchases will aggregate into a message to the consumers that food that has its nutrients stripped in the name of profitability and quantity is not desirable. Let me tell, I have been depressed about this.

Branding soymilk?

Soymilk—did you ever notice that there appear to be two demographics for soymilk? What I mean by this is that when I go to T & T, the asian supermarket, my family will always buy the “Chinese” brand of soy milk, Sunrise for choice (my uncle says they make the smoothest and best tasting soy milk of all the brands, and I agree). However, if you look around the refrigerated food section, you’ll probably notice that there are other “Westerners” brands of soy milk, including So Good, So Nice, and Silk. Peer into people’s carts, and you’ll likely notice that the Asian shoppers have only the Chinese brands in their carts, such as Sunrise. Caucasian shoppers, on the other hand, tend to have the other brands and will pick up flavoured soymilk (chocolate, anyone?). Is it mere coincidence that there is an “ethnic” division in the brand of soymilk? Something can be said, I believe, about tastes and expectations when it comes to soymilk; while you are buying essentially the same thing no matter what kind of carton it comes in, brands such as So Good and So Nice are clearly targeted towards a non-asian consumer, while something like Sunrise is predominantly drunk by Asians. Look at the packaging, for instance; the Western soymilk comes in colourful cartons with labelling in English. To me, the packing style is reminiscent of milk packaging. On the other hand, Asian soymilk is much simpler, featuring only text in Chinese and English and no images. Could the reason why Westerners don’t buy the Asian brands be a taste issue, my friends suggested. S. and L. pointed out that for many non-Asians the flavour of soymilk can be off-putting; L. says that she often buys chocolate-flavoured soymilk because its easier to drink. I do agree, the Asian brands taste more “beany” than the Western brands, which I find have quite a cooked flavour like evaporated milk. Well, I see the point and perhaps familiar packaging and different flavours make soymilk more palatable and appealing to those who did not grow up drinking soymilk. S. pointed out the organic factor as a reason for many Westerners choosing something like So Nice over other brands. Are Asian people less concerned about food being organic? In my very small range of experience, organic groceries are certainly not as important to Chinese people as to Caucasian people.

What I see evinced in the grocery store is the division between soymilk as an ordinary staple to Asians, and as a healthier alternative to milk to non-Asians, hence the packaging and advertisements for the Western brands (Asian brands are marketed to Asians differently, in that other aspects of the beverage are emphasised). Isn’t it interesting, though, that a food product is marketed in two distinct ways for two different consumer types? Maybe this is because where I live is ethnically diverse, and people tend to be quite familiar with other ethnic cultures and cuisines, so I wonder if others have noticed similar situations where one food has two consumer images.