The Food of a Younger Land

A Portrait of American Food–Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal

by Mark Kurlansky

I didn’t know that Mark Kurlansky is considered a food historian, I simply consider him one of my favorite yummy book authors.

The background of the material in this book is intriguing on its own: The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was established during the Great Depression to improve employment. Hundreds of writers are put on the government’s payroll. Some may be established writers, some journalists, some just worked marginally with writing. The FWP’s first project was a series of travel guides of the states and deemed a success. However, when the guides were completed in 1938, and there was still no end in sight to the Depression, a new project was started. America Eats was intended as a guide to regional recipes and social traditions involving food. The project was halted after Pearl Harbor, and the materials collected thus far were archived in the Library of Congress.

Author Mark Kurlansky dug through those old papers, and from them emerged an interesting look about American food circa 1938. Some of the original writings are recipes, and some are valuable and illuminating glimpse into the past of how American, especially ethnic Americans and Native American tribes, prepared and enjoyed their food. Which, needless to say, is very different from what we have today.

While some parts, such as recipes, of the book are rather boring, some of the articles included are writing with zest and humor, and reflect the different personalities of the authors. Mark Kurlansky’s introduction to each session binds the articles together beautifully. It was delightful to read about the origins of dishes, and the description of the parties certainly makes me wish I were there, even if those were food I don’t usually crave for. It’s a shame that with ease of transportation and travel, as well as the disappearance of local wildlife, many of these regional specialties only survive in memory now.

My favorite line is the one about geoduck clam: “There is no polite way to describe geoduck clam. It looks like a giant clam which has bitten off an even larger penis.” Ha ha ha… It also surprises me to hear of the preparation of duck wrapped and baked in clay… it’s similar to a Chinese dish called beggar chicken (supposed the beggar didn’t have anything to cook the chicken with after he stole it, so he just wrapped it in mud and baked it in a fire). I also didn’t know of the Basque population in Boise, Idaho. Indeed, this is an eye-opening book.

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Published in: on August 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood

by Taras Grescoe

This is the type of book that you will keep quoting from to share with your friends and families, as you discover one nugget of fascinating information after another. You are, however, most likely told to shut up as you would totally ruin their appetite, and most people prefer to enjoy life with a conveniently ignorant but easier conscious.

Wanting to enjoy seafood with a good conscious, Taras Grescoe set out on a nine-month, worldwide search for a delicious—and humane—plate of seafood. From North American Red Lobsters to fish farms and research centers in China, Bottomfeeder takes readers on an illuminating tour through the $55-billion-dollar-a-year seafood industry. Grescoe examines how out-of-control pollution, unregulated fishing practices, and climate change affect what ends up on our plate.

For those who are interested in the subject of how man’s action affect the ocean, and the world at large, this is a book not to miss. It makes me shameful how men treats the environment, the lives of other animals and even the lives of other human beings. Needless to say, it makes me view a plate of seafood with new eyes and understanding. This is an eye-opening look at aquaculture that does for seafood what Fast Food Nation did for beef.

If a restaurant puts out a menu with dishes prepared from the meat of panda, jaguar, chimpanzee and grey wolf, most of us will feel indignant and a picket line will form outside th establishment. However, hardly anybody protests when a restaurant offers the seafood equivalent of such menu. In fact, diners may be delighted and considered this an indicator that this is a high calibre restaurant capable of offering such rare delicacies.

Maybe it’s because everything is hidden under the ocean, and what’s out of sight is out of mind? Just as most people can comfortably push out of their mind the question of how their meat comes onto their plate? Or maybe fish doesn’t look as cute as pandas and seal pups so it’s harder to stir up our urge to save it from distinction? Maybe the ocean is so vast that we fail to contemplate it could have a limited supply?

With farmed salmons, we create a system where we input more protein than the output. We are taking food away from fishermen living along seacoasts worldwide. We weaken the wild salmon stock. With farmed shrimps, we create a toxic environment that poisons water supplies in villages, causes lesions and sicknesses in villagers, turns marsh and rice fields into wastelands. Does all that help with ending world hunger? No. It just allows the greedy consumers in developed countries cheap salmon sashimi and cocktail shrimps at buffets. Cheap and very unhealthy. For the farmed salmons, due to lack of exercise and a diet of vegetable oil and soy, their flesh is an unappertizing grey, which has to be colored up… with addictives offered in a convenient chart of colors ranging from salmon pink to neon orange. And farmed shrimps are likely the most chemical laden seafood you can find.

I consider this book excellent, as it does not just scare the reader, but rather offer something practical. The author shows what we could do: from being a more conscience consumer and pay attention to what we eat, to fishermen adopting a more conversing approach to fishing.

If you can’t go vegetarian, if you want to continue eating seafood, at least do yourself a favor: read this book and know better what to avoid.

ETA April 11, 2010: I came across an article about Shark Fin Soup, and here’s my blog post about it:
http://tinyurl.com/y9gjedf
You can also sign the petition at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/11/save-the-sharks

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate

by Felicity Lawrence

This book is written by a British author, and while I have read plenty of books about the sad state of our food industry: unsustainable industrial farming, farm animal abuse, illegal immigrant workers, harmful addictives, obesity crisis, food mileage, and so forth, I figure it would be interesting to read about the same issues from a different perspective.

In some way, you can call it “comforting” to know that we Americans don’t face these problems alone. Nonetheless, in some way I have, like many Americans, a more picturesque image of Europe. We think of the French, the Italian and the Spanish cuisine when we hear the word gourmet… excellent wine from vineyards older than our country, homemade dishes prepared for hours by loving matriachs, farmers markets selling the freshest pick of the season, rustic bread from brick ovens, lunch and dinner enjoyed at a leisurely pace. It is therefore, a sad and rude awakening to know that the pasture is not that much greener on the other side of the pond.

This book is however much better than I thought, and I gleamed a lot of new knowledge. When it started out with the meat processing plant and undocumented labor, I was like, oh yeah, I read that ten million times already (though American’s labor is from South America, not Eastern Europe and Middle East), but after that it was one eye-opener after the next. For example:

Chicken meat can be “beefed up” with hydrolyzed beef protein (make from cow waste) so it can hold up to 50% water in weight, though latest technology can break up the bovine protein so much that DNA testing may not reveal its presence. Some chicken nuggets were found to be made up of as little as 16% chicken, and a good portion of that from chicken skin and mechanically recovered meat.

In prepacked salad leaves using modified atmosphere packaging to increase shelf life, the chemcial used to disinfect the leaves may cause cancer, not to mention that a study found that people who eat these salad leaves show no increase in antioxidants in their blood sample, compare to a control group who ate regular lettuce leaves.

In 2002 the British grocery retailers accounted for nearly 1 billion kilometers of food transportation. And England is no bigger than a small state in size! It’s too mind boggling to even begin to do the math for the United States. No wonder it’s said that eating local helps save the environment a lot more than driving less.

Traditional bread baking requires the dough to be left to ferment and prove over extended periods. In industrial baking, they incorporate air and water into the dough with intense energy at high speed, and by adding chemical oxidants (to get the gas in), higher level of salt (as there is no time to develop flavor as in traditional dough fermentation) and hydrogenated fat (to provide structure) they save time, labor, and have higher yield (usually it contains 8% more water than bread made from traditional method). It is however found that the traditional fermentation allows the wheat to become digestible, and modern methods of baking bread may be the cuplit for increased cases of gluten allergies.

In the chapter titled Apples and Bananas, the book mentioned how fruits and vegetables are not selected for their flavors. An apple has to go through a “beauty parade”. A machine has cameras to take up t seventy pictures of each apple as it passe along a conveyor belt to grade it by size and color. If the specs call for 15-17% blush red on green, an apple that is 18% or 14% red will be rejected, and end up either as fruit juice or just go to waste. Another machine, the penetrometer, will measure the firmness of the fruit. A buyer told a farmer that while his apples taste great, they don’t pass the test, and so the fruits are rejected. To measure up to the ripeness requirement will mean fruits that are picked too early.

The narrow specifications also mean that plenty of food go to waste if they don’t measure up to the standards. For every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used. Only 35% of green beans meet the supermarket grade: they may be curved, too long, too short, too thick, or too thin. The high cosmetic standards also require heavy use of chemicals to achieve.

The part about coffee planters make me especially sad. The farmer kept thinking that the translator made a mistake as he couldn’t fathom how a product he sells for 200 Ugandan shillings a kilo can end up in a London cafe for 5000 shillings a cup. Meanwhile, he couldn’t pay the 5000 shillings needed for medicines for his children with malaria, and his children have to drop out of school when he couldn’t pay tuition, dashing any hope that the next generation can get educated and move out of poverty.

I kept reading it to my hubby till he complained that his appetite was totally ruined. I read it to several coworkers (during lunch time no less)… Really a good book worth sharing.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)  

Project X Challenger: Cup Noodle

by Tadashi Katoh

I must keep the record straight: I am not a fan of cup noodles. I think they taste awful. I will admit though that I do have ocassional cravings for the instant noodles, for the aroma of freshly cooked ramen, though the taste rarely measures up to the expectation set by the olfactory sense.

Nonetheless, I picked up this graphic novel, just because I am atonished that there is a book about Cup Noodle, and the foodie in me just can’t resist. The book tells of the struggle as the research team strived to create this magic noodle, a food of the new age, a food cultural revolution: a noodle that cooks in three minutes, in its own container, and can be eaten standing up (yeah, that was a sell point). A story that is somewhat interesting though hardly engaging enough.

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 1:51 am  Leave a Comment  

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan

From the back cover: “Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man discovered fire. But as Michael Pollan explain in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is changing the way Americans think about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating.”

While I have read from other sources about the horrors of feedlot and the problems of the processed food in our society, this book still provided a lot of new (to me) information, and the later parts about industrial organics and hunting/gathering are eye-openers for me. As I read the book, I quoted passages (mostly scary stats and some amusing lines) to my husband in a not-so-subtle way to sway him from meat eating.

I did not know, for example, that corn and grain feeding is so bad for the cows themselves, and that it ends up providing worse meat for us, endangering our own health. Animals get their omega-3 from grass; corn and such does not contain omega-3. In fact, the anti-inflammatory, blood flowing omega-3 is found in a plant’s leaves, and the flammatory, blood clotting omega-6 in seeds. Free-range chicken eggs therefore are rich in omega-3, as the chicken feed on grass. It’s popular now to eat salmon for its omega-3 fatty acids, but truth is that they come from the planktons the fish eat. When we try to breed fish that grow on grain, we eventually breed salmon that is deficient in omega-3 but full of the omega-6. It is believed the higher consumption of omega-6 vs omega-3 is the culprit of the many modern day diseases such as cardiac, diabetes and obesity.

Moreover, for the cows, eating corn makes their stomach acidic, and a hotbed for E coli. A research has found that by switching a cow’s diet from corn to grass or hay for a few days prior to slaughter will alkalize the pH of the stomach and thus reducing the E. coli population by as much as 80%. Unfortunately, this solution is considered impractical by the cattle industry and thus the USDA.

The author then goes on to explore the organic industry. He found that as the organic industry goes mainstream, large scale production means that some of the organic farms may not be much different from the conventional ones. The cattle may not live any better a life than its feedlot brethen, except for the feed it consume, organic rather than pesticide infested – an improvement that likely won’t affect its well-being or happiness much. And getting organic salad greens trucked all the way from California is not so green after all.

Pollan’s experience on Polyface farm is really interesting. Though it is imaginable that such substaniable, earth friendly but labor intensive (and brain intensive) farming method is unlikely to be more mainstream.

The part on hunter/gatherer is an interesting read as well, though I certainly would not fire a rifle for food, and gathering mushroom doesn’t sound fun to a city girl like me.

I doubt there is any person who would read this book and not re-think the food choices he or she makes. One may go local, go organic, or simply just eat fewer processed food or fast food… but it would be lovely if every person who’s read this book make a more conscious choice in what it goes into one’s mouth. This reminds me of a comment I read somewhere, that nowadays people put too little thought in what goes into our stomach, and into our mind. This book is indeed healthful on both counts.

Published in: on July 7, 2008 at 3:32 am  Comments (3)  

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen

by Julie Powell

Julie Powell is 30 years old, living in a rundown apartment in Queens and working at a soul-sucking secretarial job that’s going nowhere. She needs something to break the monotony of her life, and she invents a deranged assignment. She will take her mother’s dog eared copy of Julia Child’s 1961 classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she will cook all 524 recipes. In the span of one year.

This book was quite an entertaining read. I expected it to, and was disappointed it doesn’t, contain some of Julia Child’s recipe so I know better what Julie was cooking, but then this book is not so much about cooking than about one young woman’s life. A typical Gen-Xer living in NY, with a run-down, not-too-clean apartment, a good day/bad day relationship, a marriage-crazed girlfriend, many crazy friends, an over-concerned mother, a mundane OL life, booze, blogs… made untypical by her decision to cook through a classic cook book.

I love Julie’s honest and witty writing. As my friend commented, it’s not very polished writing – well, her language certainly isn’t polished – but the personable note more than make up for it. I mean, how can I hate someone who openly admits to be an awful housekeeper?

My favorite passage is the one about the Petits Chaussons au Roquefort. As she stuffed and sealed the turnovers, she mused “I’d brought the filling into being, and now I was seeking to entrap it in a buttery pastry prison, though it was obvious fromk its evasive behavior that there is nothing Roquefort wants more than to be free. Was this not arrogance? Was it not, in essence, a slave-owning mentality, to be approaching this from the perspective of how best to trap the Roquefort filling, without consideration for the Roquefort’s fundamental desire for freedom?” I think this really captures the spirit of the book.

Published in: on May 16, 2008 at 10:17 pm  Comments (1)  

Hungry Planet

by Peter Menael and Faith D’Aluisio

This is a beautiful oversized photo book. The authors visited 30 families in 24 countries and photo them in their daily lives, and the family with a week’s worth of food. It’s mind boggling to see the difference between a family from an industrialized nation and one from an impoverished country or even a refugee camp. It’s also interesting to see how many Kellogg’s cornflakes and Coca Colas show up around the world, how familiar food appears with a different package that is at once familiar and foreign.

Even the caption of the book is thought provoking: subjects are asked to name their favorite food. There is the expected pizza and potato chips, and even the no-longer-exotic sashimi, but for polar bear to be named a favorite food in Greenland – that certainly is interesting. More intriguing is that in places where you basically eat whatever you can find or grow, there is no concept of favorite food. I suppose you are just grateful for food and can’t afford to dislike something.

The book also has lots of eye opening facts, such as Mexico ranking number one in worldwide per capita consumption for Coca-Cola, and trailing the U.S. closely on obesity rate; while China enforces an one-child policy for over a decade now, its birth rate is higher than many European countries; how many cigarettes some countries consume (how can Japanese smokes almost 10 cigarette per day and still lives so long??)

Which reminds me of the joke: Japaneses smoke more than Americans, they live longer. French drinks more wine than American, they live longer. Obviously, what kills you is being American…

My favorite photo is the one of the Ecuadorian family. The smile of the whole family is so radiating. You almost feel them welcoming you to share at their table, meager though their fare may be…

Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 4:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

What a delightful read!  Sweet, bitter, spicy… all the flavors stewing in one pot.  Plus a few dashes of international flavors: Japanese dashi, Thai chili… I have a few favorites: Thanks, but No Thanks by Courtney Eldridge, The Year of Spaghetti by Haruki Murakami, Eggs Over Uneasy by Jonathan Ames, Luxury by Holly Hughes, Instant Noodles by Rattawut Lapcharoensap.

It is interesting how some people view dining alone as the ultimate treat to one self, a luxury, a celebration; while for others it is a pathetic ocassion, an indication of their failure as a social animal.  For me, I am closer to the happy camp, although I seldom indulge in a full set of china and cutlery.  (hey I still am the one to do the dishes!)  I suppose I enjoy eating alone at home, as I can cook dishes I crave for but my husband does not care for.  Such as a humble zaru soba.  A simple sushi roll with whatever I can conjure up in the fridge.   A pasta with sickeningly creamy sauce.  Dishes that always get vetoed whenever I suggest them in the most casual tone (as if that helps sneak them under the radar). 

I do admit that at restaurants it can sometimes feel awkward.   Somehow you emit an air of sadness and mystery, even when you act your best to appear confident and nonchalant.   My favorite dine alone spot is the kaiten sushi place.  Where everybody faces the sushi plates parading in front.  I also like to bring along a book, to give my eyes something to keep busy on while waiting for my dish. 

Published in: on February 21, 2008 at 4:53 am  Comments (2)  

The Big Oyster

by Mark Kurlansky

While the book is subtitled, History on the Half Shell, it is more appropriately narrowed down to History of the Half Shell and New York, as that’s where the book’s focus is.  Despite the fact that mankind has eaten oysters all over the world, likely for thousands of years, that part of history is only mentioned in passing.   I would have enjoyed the book more had it taken a broader view of oyster and mankind.

I am not sure why I picked up this book, as I have stopped eating oyster after learning the fact that the animal is still alive until my teeth chop it to pieces.  I guess I just couldn’t resist a foodie book. 

The book does provide some interesting knowledge.  Such as how inexpensive oysters were in those days.  For the price of 6 cents you could have all-you-can-eat oysters in the 19th century.  The price of one hot dog could buy you a whole platter of half shells.  The price of one strawberry a bucket.  And caviar was very lowly too.  They were used in bars, as free snacks for people to encourage them to drink more…

Another thing that definitely stays with me is how much man has polluted the environment.  It was amazing to read the accounts written by the first Europeans who arrived in New York.  The beautiful nature, the abundance of flora and fauna.  And in such a short time, the harbor was so polluted that when people try to plant some oysters back into the bay, they discovered, two weeks later, that not only the oysters died, their shells were eroded by the acid.  Urgh. 

Published in: on January 25, 2008 at 4:01 am  Leave a Comment  

Heat

by Bill Buford

This review, copied from Amazon.com, was written by Anthony Bourdain, one of the foodie gods!

Heat is a remarkable work on a number of fronts–and for a number of reasons. First, watching the author, an untrained, inexperienced and middle-aged desk jockey slowly transform into not just a useful line cook–but an extraordinarily knowledgable one is pure pleasure. That he chooses to do so primarily in the notoriously difficult, cramped kitchens of New York’s three star Babbo provides further sado-masochistic fun. Buford not only accurately and hilariously describes the painfully acquired techniques of the professional cook (and his own humiations), but chronicles as well the mental changes–the “kitchen awareness” and peculiar world view necessary to the kitchen dweller. By end of book, he’s even talking like a line cook.

Secondly, the book is a long overdue portrait of the real Mario Batali and of the real Marco Pierre White–two complicated and brilliant chefs whose coverage in the press–while appropriately fawning–has never described them in their fully debauched, delightful glory. Buford has–for the first time–managed to explain White’s peculiar–almost freakish brilliance–while humanizing a man known for terrorizing cooks, customers (and Batali). As for Mario–he is finally revealed for the Falstaffian, larger than life, mercurial, frighteningly intelligent chef/enterpreneur he really is. No small accomplishment. Other cooks, chefs, butchers, artisans and restaurant lifers are described with similar insight.

Thirdly, Heat reveals a dead-on understanding–rare among non-chef writers–of the pleasures of “making” food; the real human cost, the real requirements and the real adrenelin-rush-inducing pleasures of cranking out hundreds of high quality meals. One is left with a truly unique appreciation of not only what is truly good about food–but as importantly, who cooks–and why. I can’t think of another book which takes such an unsparing, uncompromising and ultimately thrilling look at the quest for culinary excellence. Heat brims with fascinating observations on cooking, incredible characters, useful discourse and argument-ending arcania. I read my copy and immediately started reading it again. It’s going right in between Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Zola’s The Belly of Paris on my bookshelf. –Anthony Bourdain

I don’t suppose I can add more to what Anthony Bourdain said. It’s an interesting book, with lots of insights into the operation of a restaurant and a butcher shop, all very intriguing to a foodie like me.  I admire the author for his courage to really go and do something he likes, not minding the dirt, sweat, and at times humiliation in a kitchen, to start from the lowlinest, all to satisfy his curiosity, not for money, not for a future dream of opening his own restaurant.  I am curious though about his wife, whom he mentioned very little and seems unhumanly tolerate of his unusual pursuit. (living for months in Tuscany so he can apprentice at a butcher shop, hailing home a whole pig in plastic bag…)

I happened to be reading Ruth Reihl’s Garlic and Sapphire, so it was really interesting to read the two sides of how a critic tests out a restaurant.

My favorite paragraph is towards the end, when Mario asked if the author wants to open a restaurant.  The author reflects that no, he doesn’t. <i>”For millennia, people have known how to make their food… People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth… I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional, just to be more human.”</i>

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 1:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Liquid Jade – The Story of Tea from East to West

by Beatrice Hohenegger

This book is perfectly timed for the National Tea Month in August.  Filled with digestible tidbits of interesting facts about tea, it is like the Chinese dim-sums, or the British tea cakes, or the Japanese wagashi, to nibble upon with your perfect cup of tea.

Did you know that, for example:

– Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing in 780CE; it is the world’s first authoritative and comprehensive treatise on tea and is still in print today, more than 1200 years later, not only in China but throughtout the world.

– The virgin maidens who pluck tea for the imperial palace had strictly codified rules, including not allowed to eat garlic, onion or any spices for three weeks before the harvest, least their breath contaminate the delicate scent of tea leaves.  Similarly, the porters carrying such tea used special racks so the tea box would never have to touch the ground.

– A list of appropriate occasions for drinking tea in China, according to the Ming tea manual Chashu 茶疏 by Xu Cishu 许次纾:

In idle moments
When bored with poetry
Thoughts confused
Beating time to songs
When the music stops
Living in seclusion
Enjoying Scholarly pastimes
Conversing late at night
Studying on a sunny day
In the bridal chamber
Detaining favored guests
Playing host to scholars or pretty girls
Visiting friends returned from far away
In perfect weather
When skies are overcast
Watching boats glide past on the canal
Midst trees and bamboos
When flowers bud and birds chatter
On hot days by a lotus pond
Burning incense in the courtyard
After tipsy guests have left
When the youngsters have gone out
On visits to secluded temples
When viewing springs and scenic rocks

心手闲适 披咏疲倦 意绪棼乱 听歌闻曲 歌罢曲终 杜门避事 鼓琴看画 夜深共语 明窗净几 洞房阿阁 宾主款狎 佳客小姬 访友初归 风日晴和 轻阴微雨 小桥画舫 茂林修竹 课花责鸟 荷亭避暑 小院焚香 酒阑人散 儿辈斋馆 清幽寺院 名泉怪石

– German physician Dr. Summer Paulli said in 1665 “as to the virtues they attribute to it [tea], it may be admitted that it does possess them in the Orient, but it loses them in our climate, where it becomes, on the contrary, very dangerous to use.  It hastens the death of those who drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years.”

– Tea got a boost in England as, facing the social ills caused by gin consumption, the beverage became “the temperance reformer’s No. 1 weapon” in the crusade against alcoholism.

– The Europeans had no idea what type of plant the tea belongs to, as they had never seen a tea plant.  There were many unsuccessful attempts to bring one back to Europe. One plant fell overboard with a sudden gust of wind, one was eaten by rats; some Europeans were given boiled seeds or other plants by Chinese merchants, in an effort to protect their trade.

– Today, iced tea makes up 80% of the U.S.’s tea consumption, a trend not followed anywhere else in the world. 

– The English word “tea”, Italian , German Tee, and French thé, comes from “tay’, as pronounced in the Amoy dialect in Fukien, where the Dutch set up their trading post.  In Iran, Russia, India and Arabic countries, the word is cha or chai, as prounced in the Cantonese and Mandarin dialect, through the Arabic trrades along the silk road.  The exception is the Portuguese, who got their ch’a from Macao.  As whatever they brought back to Europe they consumed locally, the word was never exported as the Dutch did with their “tea”.

– While recent research shows that the fluoride in tea leaves prevents cavity, the poet Su Tung-p’o had written about strengthening the teeth and reducing dental diseases by rinsing his mouth with tea in 1083 CE.  

– India is the world’s largest producer of black tea, but most of the production is consumed domestically and only 20% is exported.  China exports about 35% of its production.

– Every day, 3.8 billion cups of tea are drunk around the world. 

However, as I read on, the delightful read gets heavier as the history of tea gets bloodier.  The tea tax had partially led to the independence of America.   As Britishs like to sweeten their tea, this created a huge demand for sugar.  In 1800, 30 million pounds of tea and 300 million pounds of sugar were imported to England.  Fifty years later those figures grew to 56 million pounds of tea and 1 billion pounds of sugar.  Where did the sugar came from?  The plantations in the Carribeans. Up to 70% of slave traffic supported the sugar industry. 

With the loss of its American colonies, Britain had lost access to the precious South American silver supply.  To reverse its trade deficit in its tea trade with China and not able to offer anything of interest to the Chinese, the British started promoting… opium.  During the first decade of the 19th century, 26,000,000 silver dollars were imported into the Chinese empire.  As opium consumption rose in the decade of the 1830s, 34,000,000 silver dollars were shipped out of the country to pay for the drug.  The Bengalese opium industry represented 1/6 of the GNP of British India.   Apparently, Queen Victoria never received the letter from Commissioner Lin Tse hsu:

“I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood.  Sine it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries… Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused… You would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want…”

Sorry Lin but the Queen doesn’t read the bible the way she should…  And the sad result was the opium war, in which the British Navy soundly defeated the Chinese army (China never developed a strong naval force as her enemies historically come over land- hence the Great Wall – but not over water) and Hong Kong became a British colony.

Meanwhile, the British suceeded in cultivating tea in India, so that they no longer have to deal with any foreign traders.  As tea growing is a labor intensive enterprise, they recruited illiterate laborers to sign off their lives into slavery condition.  These laborers, shipped from other regions, were underfed and underpaid, and suffered a very high mortality rate due to malnourishment and poor living condition.

I was so disguised when reading this dark side of history.  The irony was, I happened to be drinking a cup of tea called Her Majesty’s Tea.  It was blended for Queen Victoria using tea from Darjeerling and Assam.  Argh!! I felt like pouring the tea down the drain!!!

And have things improved?  Not really in India, as the tea market is controlled by large corporations.  In fact, foreseeing India’s independence, British planters began to set up large ta plantations in Africa, and today more than half of British tea imports come from Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe.  Chinese tea production, on the other hand, is mostly on independent, individual plantations. Not that these farmers and pluckers live in luxury, but at least they are better off.

I was amazed how the ending of this book touched on social and environmental issues, and encouraged people to buy fair trade and organic.  I heard of fair trade coffee a lot, but didn’t really think about it for tea.  This book delivered much more than I expected.  Now I am likely to drink less British tea, knowing its dark history, and be more alert to read the labels!!

Published in: on July 20, 2007 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

French Women Don’t Get Fat

by Mireille Guiliano

Happy Bastille Day! Perfect timing to finish the book!

I read the Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat, and can’t help comparing the two.  (Same story – happy young girls go to America, their bodies just balloon up till they revert back to their native diet.  I guess there could be a whole series on this.) The Japanese one is more organized, though the French author seems to pride herself for not laying out the book in point-by-point format.  I like the French recipe better because the ingredients are more available. The tidbit info about French food is interesting and I’d love more of that.

The idea is sound and even though I am not particularly trying to lose weight, her general suggestion for a healthier lifestyle is worth following.  I tried it this weekend at a dinner restaurant, and I found myself being disappointed with the blandness of the tomato served, and noticing other things I didn’t before.  Hmm… it’s going to be harder to find a restaurant to dine at now!

Also a few years ago I started making dinner a smaller meal.  It’s hard, with the limited lunch hour at work, to make lunch the major meal of the day, but I tried to limit my dinner to no bigger than my lunch and it really helped.

Published in: on July 14, 2007 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Cook’s Tour

by Anthony Bourdain

This is my first Bourdain book and I enjoyed it tremedously.  (I gave him lots of bonus points for professing his love for durian, but had them all deducted for his rabbit killing spree and vegetarian bashing…) 

Like an excellent dish, the book is craftily prepared: colorful, flavorful, authentic, with complex layers of tastes, slightly exotic, teasing you to indulge in forkful after forkful. I wonder if Bourdain has a ghost writer.  Otherwise, his talent with pen certainly matches the one with pan!

Bourdain is not shy about exposing his intimate thoughts and feelings, which makes this travelogue and food guide that much more entertaining.  Very often, he would start talking about a dish, a cuisine, and then it will delve deeper.  Like when he visited France, in the end he realized that he didn’t go there to look for the perfect meal.  He didn’t go there to look for his childhood home. He went to look for his father, who was no longer there, or anywhere.   Similarly, his visit to Cambodia unleashed some very strong comments about US foreign policy.

Something I find weird about the book though – it looks like the editor hit a shuffle play button on his computer.  The chapters hop around, from Portugal to Vietnam to Spain to Japan then to Vietnam and Japan again… Not that it matters much as each chapter pretty much stands along, just kind of weird.

Published in: on February 5, 2007 at 10:41 pm  Leave a Comment