Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Food, Glorious Food ..

Or, A Steak Through Your Heart

It’s National Vegetarian Week! So, here are a couple scary anecdotes from eating abroad and that wonderful mix of substances we often take for granted .. and some stuff for the cynically inclined ..

A few months ago while staying with a group of Kurdish university students I was treated to a homemade meal called çiğ köfte (pronounced chi koftey) that they organized especially for my visit. I arrived with a friend, the only one amongst the group who spoke conversational English, and after changing into the slippers I was offered at the door and ritually washing, sat on the floor alongside several others who had gathered for the feast.

In the middle of the beautiful woven carpets that covered the floor was a large silver tray the size and shape of an extra large deep pan pizza dish with a sharply corrugated bottom. One of the men poured a bag of bulgur wheat grain similar to couscous into the pan, and after adding a little water began the lengthy time-consuming rolling and kneading the grain into a lump of pasty dough.

Although language presented a barrier to complex discussion it was still possible to enjoy each other’s company, and with my few words of Turkish and their smattering of English we managed to exchange opinions on the televised football match, establishing common ground while awaiting the evening meal. Oh yes, they attempted to teach me some Kurdish, telling me it was easier for English speakers to learn than Turkish because it was of the Indo-European family of languages, but quite frankly it was far too difficult to grasp more than a few words intelligibly, although they continued to prompt me to little avail.

It was fascinating to watch the process of food preparation unfold whilst being offered tea from a large urn with extraordinarily long spout and hand-rolled tobacco from the family farm to smoke. After the grain was readied into a ball of the correct consistency our cook unrolled a hefty bag of meat and added it to the mixture. Well, for those of you who don’t know, I have not eaten meat for about 27 or 28 years, and this was a little disconcerting. I had previously dined with Turkish friends and been served only vegetarian food, so expected this to be the same type of fare. However, they reminded me that Kurds consider themselves a culturally distinct group who try to maintain their own traditions in spite of suppression by the majority, and this was a traditional celebratory dish.

Being adaptable, and accepting what appeared to be inevitable I casually inquired what kind of meat was being put into the pan. I was informed, with amusing animal noises (once we differentiated between the sound a goat makes and a sheep makes) that it was ground lamb fresh from the farm, and that it would take about half an hour to mix the two ingredients into a perfect blend. Everyone was happy I was interested in the particularities of their exceptional regional dish and cheerfully began setting places around the vast carpet. Incredibly long lettuce leaves, cucumber, tomato and lemon slices and wonderful warm pita bread platters were laid out.

Pots of chilli peppers, onions, stewed tomatoes and tabasco sauce and a bag of indeterminate aromatic spices were brought out and the cook began to carefully measure these ingredients into the pan as he continued to roll and shape the mixture. After achieving the balance he was seeking, he set about pushing the concoction around the ridged pan with a ferocious pressure for another twenty or so minutes until he appeared happy with the texture.

He began shaping the huge ball into individual size portions so I took the opportunity to ask how it was to be cooked, whether the meat was fried in oil or placed in the oven.

After an attempt at translation the cook and I were still baffled with each other, when one of the other men began pointing to the chillis and saying, ‘this cook’ and I finally grasped the concept. The lamb, he was telling me, heated while rolling in the peppers – the acidic chemistry of the hot chillies interacting with the meat to ‘cook’ it and kill the bacteria in this 'clean meat' to a safe level for ingestion while adding that unique spicy flavour. Yes, I was staring at my first meal of raw minced lamb.

The banquet began in earnest. The correct way to eat çiğ köfte is to roll the meat/grain substance into a rough sausage shape insert it into a large lettuce leaf, squeeze on some lemon juice and enjoy. I felt ill knowing that I would have to be polite and eat this unusual but lovingly prepared dish; needless to say I did make an effort. Although I honestly had reservations about what I was doing to my body – after all, by Western standards, this was raw lamb. However, I felt explaining the concept of vegetarianism was going to be lost on these people in this setting, and it would be very impolite after they had gone to so much trouble especially for me.

I thought I could survive the taste if at least I could wash it all down with a large glass of water or maybe even a raki (local alcohol flavoured with aniseed), but that was not to be.

A huge jug of thick white liquid was produced and everyone, myself included, was poured a large glass of what I discovered was a stirred mixture of freshly cultured yoghurt and unprocessed salted ewe’s milk, called Ekşili ayran. It truly was one of the most unpleasant taste sensations I’ve ever endured; the tart acidic bubble of the yoghurt and the thick creaminess of the salted sour milk did little to alleviate the texture of uncooked ground lamb sliding down my unwilling throat, wrapped as it was in a lettuce leaf. Feel free to try this at home, but don’t blame me if you can’t find enough antibiotics or Pepto-Bismol for the week of stomach aches you’re likely to suffer.

I tell this story now because the 23rd to the 29th of May has been designated ‘Vegetarian Week’ in the UK, and I feel it is useful to illustrate the differences in culture and tradition that those of us who try to live without meat as a product in our lives must be aware of and tolerantly accept. These people don’t eat lamb because it is the only thing to eat, in fact they regularly eat more fruit and vegetables than I’ve ever seen anyone in the West eat, they eat it because they believe it necessary and it forms part of their ancestral and cultural heritage that defines their identity in a multiethnic society.

One evening after playing cards and talking had exhausted all of us (being the only true English speaker and continually searching for translations can be extremely draining after a while) I was asked if I would like some fruit. ‘Sure,’ I said, expecting the choice of an orange or a plum. A huge bowl of half a dozen varieties of fruit was procured from the kitchen, including oranges, melon slices, sweet yellow plums, an apple, two bananas and grapes as well as a few exotic fruits I didn’t immediately recognise. This bowl was placed before me and I assumed I was to help myself and pass it along.

As soon as I selected a juicy orange I offered the bowl toward a companion to my left, but it was waved away. Within seconds I understood as more dishes were brought through to where we sat on cushions. Each person was served with a massive bowl of fruit and soon everyone was eating grapes, bananas and oranges one after the other until the bowls were clear.

I was astonished and could not possibly eat all the food before me. I was chastised loudly if somewhat light-heartedly for not finishing everything – I had insulted my hosts by not eating like a pig. However, it was certainly better than actually eating a pig, or a just killed lamb.

People around the world have many different eating habits, but essentially we all need the same intake of nutrients in their basic chemical form. How we achieve the balance that maintains health is open to much debate. Personally, the above tale aside, I don’t eat meat – that is: mammals, but I do occasionally eat fish or other seafood and I'm fond of animal products such eggs, cheese and honey. This, naturally, makes me akin to a traitor to vegans and extreme vegetarians, however we all have our preferences and I feel justified in the choices I make, and make no apologies for my habits.

Many meat-eaters assume people who don’t partake of animal flesh lack protein or other basic nutrients. But, it's now widespread knowledge that proteins are found in greater quantities in some vegetables and pulses.

There are stricter vegetarians and vegans who claim it is possible to get their omega-3 (an essential mineral found in fish that builds our carbon-based bodies) from Soya. However, these people often overlook the fact that 93% of all US soy products (the world's largest producer of soy bean) now come from genetically modified or enhanced plants (created by the worldwide seed and chemical fertiliser corporation, Monsanto), and some of us would rather avoid this unnatural approach to farming with its potentially frightful effects on the human body and the earth’s eco-system.

As the example shows, deciding how to ethically and healthily approach our relationship to food is more complex than simply giving up animal products. How you and everyone else decide what is right depends upon a number of factors we must all consider when sitting down to a healthy and tasty meal. Where we live, and our personal effect on the environment is paramount. Because I live on the Mediterranean coast I choose a diet to support local farmers and producers that is rich in fresh vegetables and seafood; thank goodness I love olives and fruit and the natural healthy lifestyle associated with the local customs.

Generally I only partake of fish when eating out, as it is often the only reasonable option, or because I can’t see paying top dollar for a spinach pie I can make better at home, haha!). Others, in places where fish might not be available would obviously attempt to receive their nutrients from other sources, and I can respect that inevitability, however fast food enterprises that destroy rain forests and deplete the ozone layer to mass produce burgers are entirely unnecessary and quite irresponsibly are among the main culprits to our planet’s health and our own.

People often ask me why I gave up meat and what benefit I get from it, assuming that giving up pork chops means living on a boring diet of nuts and berries that leaves one skinny and pale. How very mistaken are the unenlightened. My own transition to a healthier more ethically balanced lifestyle took shape many years ago without the influence or assistance of anyone I knew, and the resistance and even anger I faced from family and some friends was extraordinary. I believed then as I do now that I made the right choice and that my own experience of food and its many varieties has improved dramatically by not relying on the Western staple of a slab of meat and two veg.

Although, it took several years before I had the ability to prepare as many different and varied meals as there are days in the week, now the availability of options (particularly in Europe and specifically in the UK where 10% of the population is vegetarian) seems almost endless. Recipes I learned by trial and error and my own research into different cultures over many years are now readily available in neighbourhood supermarkets and all over the Internet. It is easier than ever to make educated and healthy choices while expanding your diet to include previously unfamiliar delicious foods.

Even though many of the so-called ‘ethnic’ foods, Chinese and Indian for example, grew partially from religious considerations, many people in the West look at alternatives to meat for the sake of the environment, for personal health reasons or not wanting to be party to the slaughter of animals. So, if you want a few fun facts to share with your friends over that next relaxing coffee or pint of locally brewed ale to help them understand why people make the decision to give up eating meat, read on.

Vegetarians and pescatarians (people who eat fish but not meat) have 34% lower risk of heart disease; although vegans only have a 26% lower risk it is still significant for avoiding that potential heart attack. Livestock production is responsible for 70% of deforestation in Latin America with the typical meat eater’s diet needing two and a half times the arable land for sustenance than a vegetarian diet, and livestock animals are responsible for 20% of all greenhouse gasses and consume 8% of all drinking water (over 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean water with twice as many not having a decent standard of sanitation).

Additionally, cows and sheep are big global warmers; a single cow emits about 500 litres of methane a day, which has 25% times the impact of carbon dioxide.

Without boggling the reader with information, or getting up on my soapbox to proclaim the health statistics in attempt to convert anyone, let me remind you that eating healthier is good for your overall well-being and significantly reduces your personal carbon footprint – plus you get to eat loads of really tasty food you might not otherwise have tried.

Altogether it is a confusing and multifaceted subject that most people avoid in their daily lives, preferring instead to let others worry about how to feed them and meet their requirements of necessary nutrients.

This is a shared earth and we all have a responsibility to ensure that we continue to exist in harmony with our beautiful planet, because regardless of whatever we do to it, the earth will survive.

However, if we continue to consume and produce the way we do now, we humans may not be around to tell our grandchildren of the day we thought about our impact on the world and changed to a healthy meat-free lifestyle.

So, raise a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, or a smooth organic wine from nature’s own pleasant vines, and celebrate every day. Look to the earth for it’s best natural produce and feel better about yourself and the life you have ahead in balance with the environment and your neighbours; not only will you be a more socially conscious and ethically altruistic person, you’ll be happier and fitter than ever – and hey, we can all enjoy the benefits of healthy ecologically-minded living.

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If you want more information on this topic, or would like to investigate some of these facts for yourself, all of these facts and figures are available on the internet from many sources, but here’s a few links (I’m not associated with nor support any organisation, but you may) to help get you started with information and recipes:

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