Saturday, 10 April 2010

A paean to Korean food, and Jamie Oliver takes America

(let it not be said that I never pick descriptive, straightforward post titles)

It was observed to me, and by me, that I have been writing less frequently. I guess in the first few months I was here, it was very important for me to recount what I had been up to each week, not just to share it with you all but also to remind myself of all the fun and positive things among the doom and gloom. As I feel more and more settled (just in time to pack up and leave again...), perhaps things that would have been really exciting and novel no longer strike me as quite so blog-worthy, which no doubt contributes to the longer gaps between posts. Also, despite being - as you well know :-) - rather self-centred and self-important, too often I feel that the things that are going through my head are not quite appropriate material for this venue, and so they remain unsaid (for the most part).

Having said all this, there are a few bits and pieces that have caught my attention in the last few weeks, so here goes, in no particular order.

Korean food had already received a fleeting mention a few months ago when I sort of learned to prepare jap chae, but I don't think I have ever fully expounded on how much I like it, and what a great culinary discovery it has been. Thanks to my Korean colleague and friend, I've had Korean barbecue twice at a fantastic place in Edison (sadly I don't remember its name - but it's the sort of 'local' place which seems to cater mainly for the local community of expats) and it's such a great meal - there is a grill/live coal thingy in the middle of your table, and delicious strips of beef are grilled on it, and you have various paraphernalia to eat it with, and random dishes of very spicy things (in particular kimchi, pickled veg - usually cabbage). Also, when Nick was here said friend had us over at her house for dinner, so we got proper home-cooked Korean food too - spicy stir-fried pork, and less spicy pork, and more kimchi and jap chae - it was so delicious, I could've eaten it all night. Basically, if you ever come across a place that serves Korean food, try it out. It's than Chinese food (which I am choosing as a term for comparison mainly because I figure it's the Asian cuisine that most people will have been exposed to), in the sense that I feel like there is less interplay of several different spices and more of just one or two bold flavours coming through. But I am not a food writer, and I suspect that these poor attempts of mine aren't doing a good job of conveying the idea...sorry.

Also on a food-related note, I've been watching Jamie Oliver's latest experiment, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which is basically Jamie Oliver doing Fifteen and that other show he did about healthy eating in schools and somewhere up north all rolled into one and packaged for the US. He is in a town in West Virginia which has been labelled as one of the most unhealthy in the US, has a high rate of diabetes and obesity and other illnesses, a high rate of deaths linked to these, etc. And he wants to go into the schools and change their meals, and get people on the streets cooking, and meet individual families and change their know the drill.

Now, while not wanting to be rude to my host country, there is a lot that is wrong with their approach to food here, no doubt about it. A quick walk through any supermarket will prove it - not just the sheer amount of products, and varieties (Tropicana, for example, has at least six different kinds of orange juice - and I don't mean 'orange + another fruit', or 'blood orange' instead of 'normal orange' - just different varieties of bog-standard orange juice), and the enormous sizes that things come in (gallons, two dozen, and the like), but the very large proportion of these that are convenience foods, prepackaged foods, pre-prepared, ersatz, and generally troubling. I am not trying to preach - there is some American junk food that I absolutely adore, Reeses cups and Tootsie rolls and Hostess cupcakes probably being the holy trinity (blame my US schools for that!). And I can well imagine that, given the apparently unstoppable fecundity of women here, having access to a lot of convenience food is the best way to manage to feed your family while not losing your sanity. And I won't even go into the discussion of how this relates to income and other sociological factors. But what seems to be lacking in so many people, almost in the general consciousness, is the notion that there are alternatives to a lot of this kind of food. I notice this for example when, in magazines, they have those 'helpful' articles that say "swap this food for this other food and it will be better for you": and invariably both of these things will be some prepackaged snack or something you can get from a fast food joint - like, swap the Dunkin Donuts triple breakfast cheesy egg sandwich for a Dunkin Donuts single turkey bacon English muffin. Or, uhm, make your own breakfast? "Handy 100 calorie snacks!" screams the article: and mostly lists brands which have made smaller packages of their snacks so that the calorie count comes in at 100. The idea that you could bypass these kinds of foods and buy actual ingredients instead just doesn't seem to register, most of the time.

So in this respect Jamie Oliver's efforts are more than laudable - showing people what makes food (and what goes into processed food), what makes tasty recipes, just getting them to think about the issue at all. There are epic battles in the elementary (=primary) school he is targeting, where among other things children get pizza for breakfast and there is no cutlery given to them, which of course somewhat restricts the range of food that can be served...In fact, I generally find myself liking the man, somewhat despite myself (his fake chumminess/blokeishness is really grating, his florist's collection of daughters is pretentious, and really he does try too hard): I obsessively watched his various crusading tv shows and have bought his posh magazine and even ate at, and didn't dislike, Jamie's Italian (though that may have had something to do with my lunch companion - let me show off, ok?). I think that it's because I do believe that, deep down, somewhere between the book deals and the celebrity endorsements, he does care about people eating decently and having a love of, or at least an appreciation for, good food, and that sort of cancels out all the other annoyingness.

It was therefore a little sad that his first forays into the psyche of this town were so fraught, and saw him reach lows that included crying and dressing as a giant pea pod. People didn't understand him - not just his accent, but his whole way of being, of interacting - they saw him as the annoying posh bloke come over from across the pond who wants them all eating lettuce and using cutlery. I guess that, although some of his shows have been on tv here in the past, he, understandably, doesn't have the weight of his well-known public persona behind him here; he's not a household name, a famous guy, so people are more irritated than awestruck when they have to deal with him or listen to him trying to change their work patterns. That, on top of any other ideas they might have about food and what does or doesn't constitute an acceptable meal for children or adults (pizza: good, it has 2 servings of 'bread'; Jamie's stir fry: bad, we can't be sure that there are two cups of vegetables in every serving we dish out).

Of course, everything we see is mediated by the editing of the show, which is gratingly modelled on the "Plucky solitary man overcomes incredible challenge and triumphs at the last minute against all odds including the evil native (here, the local radio presenter)" narrative that is a staple of reality shows (especially US ones, she says from the height of her TV-less experience). Pits of despair! Respite in the form of the carefully assembled team of earnest high-schoolers (seriously: Hispanic youth who has been in and out of juvenile prison; pretty Indian girl who has been adopted and tragically lost her father to obesity; bulky black American football player who even turns up in his kit; white obsese girl who may die of liver failure; generic non-threatening white boy, tending towards red hair and freckles to balance everything out)! Attacks from the local DJ! Moral support from the local priest! Disappointment when people seem uninterested in stir fries! Unexpected deliverance in the form of a flash mob dancing and making a stir fry at the same time! I kid you not - here is the video to prove it. You have to watch it.

So it's hard to really know if any of this is really working (and there are still a couple of episodes to go) because concrete results are, of course, eschewed in favour of catchy soundbites and tearjerking moments (and if someone is crying, the camera is so close it's basically in their tear duct), and also I think I have been rambling about this instead of making a point, so I will try to make one now and then shut up: I guess my take on this is, if it works for American audiences, and if they can overcome the feeling of being preached to, and at least change the way they think about food, if not the way they actually consume it yet - well done Jamie. But I have a strong feeling that he's just preaching to the converted.

Other than this (since I've gone on for far too long) - loving the lovely weather and trying to go out on my bike as often as possible to take advantage of it; looking forward to having Sandra and Sam and Steven here!!!!; and kudos to Radio4 for producing, in the past weeks, an absolutely riveting 4-hr adaptation of Clarissa (sadly I think no longer available) - I was completely engrossed in it, couldn't wait for the next week's episode, listened religiously and shouted at the characters as if it were a football match. Radio4 is simply one of the best things on this planet, and I don't care if this makes me sound like a middle-aged tweed-wearing wannabe intellectual.

1 comment:

Fuffa said...

That was interesting. I love me some food talk:)
Also, aside from having a different culture about food, in Italy we are very lucky to have access to a big quantity of fresh ingredients that are still cheaper than junk food. And even when you eat out, you can still get a "homecooked meal" in some trattoria or pizzeria at a much lower price than, say, McDonald's.

On another note, the flash mob was hilarious:)