I quite like these stories about lunch times in Japanese schools.
The bit that western journalists seem to fixate on is the lower obesity rates in Japanese kids. The bit that I’m really interested in is the ’30 foods a day’ rule. Followed closely by the importance of sitting down at a shared table to talk and eat and enjoy each other’s company. It’s my most favourite thing, as an adult (though it was torture a teenager).
If you’re a friend on instagram, you’ll have seen that I’ve been going hard on the home cooking in the last 8 or 9 months. I started with Ottolenghi’s Simple, worked my way through Tammimi’s Falastin (fucking amazing book), through modern Indian cooks like Meera Sodha, and back to the queen, Madhur Jaffrey. With stops in books like Durkhanai Ayubi’s Afghanistan book ‘Parwana’.
I’ve been kind of obsessed with ‘middle eastern’ and ‘indian’ cooking. Though those two words are ridiculously small for such enormous and diverse cultures.
What do I like about them?
They have a lot of things in common, which makes shopping easier: rice, spinach, yoghurt, eggplant, tomato, coriander, fresh white cheese (whether fetta and haloumi or paneer), garlic, flat bread, onion, okra, lentil, capsicum, chilli, chickpea, salt…. and so many more.
In both cuisines, I’ve tended towards the vegetarian side of things. At first because that’s just where my recipe books led me. But after a while, I realised that it was easier to shop to this sort of dish (meat is more expensive, harder to get if you’re eating ethically, and makes washing up harder), and that both big families of eating leant heavily on a _range_ of dishes, not one central plate.
I think this is the key part of eating these sorts of food: variety. The ingredients are often quite samey (rice, eggplant, tomato, chilli, garlic), but the mode of preparation varies (pilaf or steamed, charred or stewed, pulped or grilled, fresh or dried, chopped or crushed). And each meal is a combination of dishes: a ‘salad’ (ie chopped fresh vegetables), a yoghurt dish or condiment, fresh herbs (so many fresh herbs!), something hot and tasty (a stew or baked dish or curry), a bread or rice, and as many pickles or chutneys as you have in the fridge.
So even though you’re sitting down to one simple main dish, it’s a very exciting feast for the senses to eat: colours, flavours, the balance of acid and base, sweet and salty. I learnt a lot about the importance of salt for balancing chilli (thank you Samin Nosrat), and when to add herbs vs when to add the spices.
This is where I think that the ’30 foods a day’ rule shines. Thirty different dishes a day is very simple when you’re eating fresh fruit and veggies, a good carb, pickles, and chutneys. I thought it would mean a lot of extra work to prepare all these new dishes. Sometimes it does. But I set aside an hour to prepare each meal, and I eat earlier in the evening (I start cooking at 5pm). Luxuries, really. I cook the full quantity of a recipe, and I freeze at least half. This means that on the nights when no one can be fucked cooking, we can dig out a little pot of ‘sour pickle chicken curry’, put the rice cooker on, and half an hour later we’re eating a delicious dinner with spoonsful of yoghurt, chutney, and quick salad.
All of this is _interesting_. It tastes good, but in so many different ways. It’s exciting to the palate, to use a hackneyed phrase. But I find, particularly as someone who looooves sweets, that this variety slows me down at meal times, has me paying more attention to the meal. Talking about it.
I’ve recently started getting very excited about chutneys. And this began with ‘Cooking with Kurma’ (Kurma Dasa), a cheap and excellent vegetarian book I bought from Community Aid Abroad twenty years ago. Kurma made chutneys easy. And they are: you just throw fresh herbs, some nuts, some salt, some chilli, some lemon juice into a food processor and mash it all up. This year I’ve been obsessing over Meera Sodha’s coriander chutney. The perfect balance of sweet, salty, chilli, acid. All these chutneys can be added to your bowl at the table, or cooked into ingredients in the pan. And if you can’t be bothered making your own (though you really should – they are super quick and easy), the local Indian grocer will have at least five shelves of chutneys in varying degrees of heat, and with a million different ingredients.
Next I move on to flat breads.
But all this is to say that the way I was raised, eating white foods prepared by English people, was completely unlike this experience. The foods my family ate had no variety. Meat and three veg from the freezer. Salt if you’re lucky. And honestly, who wouldn’t seek out a lovely big dollop of sugar, fat, and salt at the end of a sad meal like that?
Books I’ve mentioned:
O and T’s Jerusalem
Durkhanai Ayubi’s Parwana
Madhur Jaffrey (all of them, but I’m really into Curry Easy Vegetarian atm)
Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat (start with the tv show)
Kurma Dasa’s Cooking with Kurma
Someone I forgot to mention, for which I’m ashamed: CLAUDIA RODEN.
So many brilliant books. I’ve got quite a few, but the one that introduced me to her books is ‘Tamarind and Saffron: Favourite Recipes from the Middle East’. I recommend:
-> The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day (we call this ‘The Big Book Of Jewish Fun’ in our house)
-> Arabesque – Sumptuous Food from Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon
TV shows I recommend (all on netflix i think):
-> High On the Hog
(A limited series about African American food – the bits about African heritage in Black American food are really interesting. Rice. Chilli. Beans. This makes sense geographically, but also in terms of trade routes)
-> Raja, Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan
(A limited series about regional cuisines in India. A bit tourist-bloggish, but truly fascinating to watch, and a good place to whet your appetite for the topic)
-> Salt Fat Acid Heat
Zoe recommended this one, and it’s a great intro to the way these elements are used in cooking, internationally. The ‘acid’ ep, set in Mexico, was my favourite, as I love sour things, but I’m also fascinated by the science of acid.