La Boqueria Fish Market, Barcelona, Spain

Food for Thought

Fresh and Seasonal

Years ago, it was always an experience to walk into a hole in the wall ethnic restaurant where workers age. The portions were big, food was authentic to the country of origin. That is how I tasted my very first Guatemalan sea food soup. Today such restaurants are few and far between. Cost of running a family-owned restaurant is perhaps not worth the trouble.  Today, robots are taking over the food industry that is putting millions of farm hands and kitchen sous chefs out of a job. As restaurants continue to promote and exoticize foods, we are moving farther away from the frugal roots of food. Food that was cooked for sustenance with ingredients found locally. Most of us even today think we are eating the freshest of sushi at a waterfront restaurant where much of the fish used today is frozen.

Seasonality of food long gone from much of the world, people crave foods that are not native to the land where they live. Many of the exclusive New York City breakfast places have boasted about the baguettes that were imported daily from France in a Concord jet. Five Star restaurants in India serve up vegetables such as mushrooms and asparagus, which are not native to the land. What most of us have not noticed is how the overpowering narrative of the food industry has impacted the daily food habits in many households. Something I felt much to my disappointment when sharing a meal at friend’s and family in India is how the more frugal foods such as stir-fried greens or lentil soups or dals are no longer served. In fact, proteins and paneer, the more expensive foods, are the only ones that are served.

You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.” – Anthony Bourdain had once said. And truly, it is the foods of one’s frugal past that one craves with the most nostalgia later in life. Diet and exercise were never an obsession in my mother’s generation. While no one showed off muscle definitions, most were fit. My generation, having enjoyed increased affluence gave up on the foods which were an essential part of every meal. The greens and lentil and seasonal vegetables, that made for a balance meal.

Home Grown

La Boqueria, a celebrated market in the heart of Barcelona, to this day carries many Mediterranean fruits, cured meats and cheeses. The sellers offer samples to shoppers and engage in conversations. Since that was a culture that had developed around food because it helped the vendors sell their produce, it continues to this day. The stalls however are mostly crowed by the tourist population who are not motivated to buy so much as try for free. The San Miguel in Madrid serves up small portion finger foods that promotes sale of wines and Iberico ham.

The floating markets in Thailand once primarily a way to make food available to the fishermen, is a thriving tourist destination offering a wide array of merchandize including clothes, crafts, memorabilia, and food. Once a bustling place on the water, has been mostly deserted since the start of Covid. On an ending note, one is reminded once again, the words of Bourdain, “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”

Nutrition and Eco Balance

Food has been in focus for the past few years for more reasons than one. More environmentally aware than ever before, the consumer today is deeply aware of nutrition. The food pyramid has been reconstructed with majority of intake being vegetables and leafy greens and grains substituting carbohydrates. Reducing intake of red meat to reduce carbon footprint in the environment. Consumers opt for organic alternatives to genetically reengineered foods.

Compromised in taste and integrity, genetically modified crops are part of the primary staple today. Intensive cultivation for greater production has been the goal for feeding more mouths. That however remains a far cry.  People in some parts of many major metropolis in the U.S. travel miles to procure produce because supermarkets in their neighborhood do not carry quality goods. Rate of wastage of food is high due to lack of efficient distribution. Still, healthy eating can be for everyone, and it begins with the awareness of proper nutrition.

Angus Deaton, the noble prize-winning economist in discussing randomized trials that he proposed to solve hunger and the lack of nutrition among the poor in India, made a point that “experiments are technical solutions to political problems…done on the poor and not by the poor” hence set up for possible failure. The extreme income inequality is a hindrance to democracy and an effective distribution of wealth or tax money.

Many naturalists argue that one should only eat what grows in one’s environment. Thus, we see in many old cultures, foods that they have developed a taste for due to its availability. These foods, such as the tree tomato or Tamarillo, is not a fruit that many young people enjoy due to it’s bitter after taste. Yet, people have acquired taste and nutrition from it for many years. In the end, food should be for everyone as it provides sustenance and on occasion bring people together.