Monday, 17 November 2008

Learning how to boil water

Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food has received a colossal amount of media coverage recently. Oliver’s theory is that if you teach one person to cook, that person will pass the skills onto others close to him, thus transferring the knowledge to a continually widening group. Jamie’s experiment in Rotherham has certainly had an impact (although how far this programme can go without the man’s celebrity endorsement is a question at the moment), but few have questioned the assumption that cooking is actually of value, to an individual and to the society. Why is cooking so good for you? With all the frenzy surrounding TV chefs and such overused terms as seasonality and sustainability, we seem to be taking for granted that knowing how to cook is in itself better than, say, saving one’s time by buying a ready meal and engaging in some other activities?

Just how important is cooking to the nation’s psychic and, importantly, its belt size? Is the government’s attempt to make people want to learn to cook is just a disguised (or rather explicit?) attempt to reduce the NHS bill – an understandable but somewhat mechanical effort? Can cooking skills actually bring about more profound changes, such as getting communities together, opening up people's taste buds and, hopefully, their minds to other influences?

I like cooking; I love food and I am very open to tasting new and different things. I attribute my overarching love affair with food to my mother – who was born in the WWII in the south of Ukraine in a family of peasants who had moved to a city to survive the shortages of food. For my mother, as for the majority of women then and now, cooking is an essential part of life. It is their domain, their comfort zone, their way of expressing themselves. I remember vividly learning to light a gas cooker at the tender age of seven or eight; baking biscuits from a recipe in the old soviet good housekeeping encyclopedia at the age of 12; and my mother teaching me how to make a traditional Ukrainian beetroot soup, borsch, when I was about 14. As most women who had learnt to cook from their mothers, she could not provide precise instructions or measures when transferring her skills to me. Her ‘a bit of salt’ and ‘until it looks cooked’ puzzled me a lot, but it gave me a sense of food. It later allowed me to apply the learnt skills to many other dishes. As many people across the world, my mother associated food with comfort and love. Cooking allowed her to be creative. She passed these skills and feelings onto me, so later, when I wanted to re-connect with that sense of homeyness, I tried to recreate her dishes: the activity allowed me to feel less lonely living in a new country; it gave me a sense of confidence when wooing men.

I am now a fully-pledged foody, but my becoming an obsessed food-lover, I believe, has been influenced as much by the developments of the food trends in the UK over the last 10 years, as by my mum’s cooking skills. I have arrived at a point where I can combine such basic knowledge given by my mum of how to make a beetroot soup sweet (fry onions, slowly and carefully) with the ideas found in cook books (add vodka for an extra effect), and my own twist (chopped chilly adds so much fun). But I have spent the last ten years in London, being actively curious about the food developments, wanting to go beyond simple, basic combinations. Can cooking skills alone change people’s habits and attitudes? Or by force feeding them the skills we make them detest the idea of ‘labouring’ at the stove even more?

I am thinking back to my mother’s relatives living a simple life in a large industrial Ukrainian city. For them cooking is still a normal way of life. Women in the family tend to stay at home, and so they start their day by making hearty breakfasts, planning filling lunches, and spend afternoons shopping for and preparing dinners. Such factors as seasonality are not just trendy words for them, but a practical reality – food in season is cheaper. And so pretty much every meal they have is freshly made from seasonal produce available locally.

Just as ‘normal’ for them is, however, to consume large quantities of – processed, cheap – meat; and to eat every meal with alarming amounts of – cheap, factory-produced – mayonnaise. The reasons for these habits are manifold: as in many other, more conservative and/or traditional societies, meat is equated with status, with power, with strength, which means that for men in my family there is no meal without meat. Buying fresh, good quality meat is simply beyond their purse capability, however. Besides, butchers have almost completely disappeared following the years of happy communism. Mayonnaise is another tradition. It had become such a staple throughout the USSR (plenty of sunflower oil? Preference for sharp taste? Long shelf life? Or is it just good for covering up bad and tasteless food?) that many seemed to have lost their ability to taste salads without a thick layer of the white stuff.

In my opinion, what Jamie calls ‘knowledge poverty’, plays a big role here. My relatives in Ukraine, as do many other people across the globe, want their husbands, children, parents to be strong and healthy. But they don’t know how to cook healthily (or the knowledge is out of date, or too limited, or simply erroneous). They have limited knowledge of how to connect food that they consume with healthy arteries and strong muscles (this is particularly noticeable in men’s diets, where fat in food doesn’t translate into fat on bodies straight away, as is often the case with women, and so they continue gorging themselves on sausages full of preservatives to a happy heart attack at the age of 60).

With all my love for food and cooking, I wonder if teaching people the skills to cook does actually bring about the required change. In the Middle East where cooking is still a norm in people’s houses, the levels of obesity are growing fast. The link between people’s knowledge and their habits had evidently been broken down in many industrialised, developing and developed countries. So is it a role of a state to explain and inspire? Do such models as Hugh and Jamie really help to re-connect the broken link, or does is it just about learning a few trendy skills to show off in front of your mates?

My personal shift in understanding food and its role in health and community building happened when I started trying to appreciate food I was eating. It came to wanting to taste the difference between a paper-thin slice of Hovis and a chunk of sourdough bread from a local bakery. Just a few days ago, after initiating a silly and pointless argument with my husband (which even thoughtful foodies do), I was chewing on a piece of bread whilst sulking and feeling righteous. After a couple of minutes of mindless chewing I started noticing the depth of the bread’s flavour, its fresh and robust texture, its delicate pale crust. I imagined the careful hands who had spent good several days making this loaf – yes organic, and yes artisan – and my anger begun to dissipate. I just couldn’t continue self-pitting myself when there was something so beautiful and so wise in my hands. But then I had an idea about the quality of this bread and the labour involved in making it. I had allowed my tongue (and my brain) to take time and effort to learn the difference. And, yes, cooking had been part of this learning experience, but only just that, the rest is about time and priorities (and I firmly believe it is not about money, at least not in the industrial world). Is it too much to expect from a single mother living on a council estate? Well, if Jamie can teach her how to boil water, I would like to think that something, or someone, will allow her to take time next time she puts a piece of bread in her mouth and notice the difference.

Borsch a la Katyusha
serves at least 10

200 g onions, chopped finely
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 tbs tomato paste
200g carrots, grated
1 red chilly, chopped finely
1 small leek, sliced finely
around 600g of boiled beetroot (please, not the vacuum packed kind), grated
350g potatoes, cubed
250g white cabbage, finely sliced
200g swede, cubed
300g red kidney beans, previously soaked and boiled until well cooked
50 ml vodka
oil for cooking
half a lemon
4 litres of cold water
salt, about 7 black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves
to serve - sourcream and chopped parsley

Sweat onions, with garlic and tomato paste over low heat for approximately 15-20 minutes. Add carrots, leek and chilly, mix and allow to cook a little whilst you are heating up water.

When water is boiling, put peppercorns and bay leaves. Add potatoes and swede and simmer for a couple of minutes. Then add cabbage and simmer for another couple of minutes. Finally add the prepared earlier onion and carrot mixture, making sure that all the juices and scraps from the pan go into the stock. Add beetroot, squeeze the lemon and let the skin infuse the soup whilst all the vegetables simmer for another 10 minutes or so (the lemon allows colours to come to life and adds a certain zing).

A couple of minutes before the soup is ready, add beans and let them simmer slowly for a minute or so. Add vodka and stir well.

Blend 3/4 of the ready soup, retaining some of the chunks as they add texture and taste to the final combination. Check for seasoning, add parsley and heat up the whole mixture gently. Cover with a lid and let the borsch stand for at least 1o minutes (it's even better the following day). Eat with a dollop of sourcream, more sprinkled parsley and milled black pepper.Do the soup justice by serving it with proper rye bread, or at least some robust sough dough. Na zdorovye!

No comments: