Curious Cook: A modern food story – Part 2

Is this really meat?

Read Part 1

At home with food 

When thinking of home modern foods, many would probably think of ready-to-eat meals, available for dining after a spell in the microwave, oven or pan of boiling water. There are many other foods which are used at home which are not available only a hundred years ago. Examples are frozen vegetables, fancy tinned/bottled sauces, special seasonings, coffee pods, vacuum-sealed products, etc. Even tins of food have not been around more than two centuries – the can opener was only invented in 1866 and this then spurred the adoption of tinned foods for use by armies and travellers before making their way into homes. There are now also packs of controlled nutrition meals available from diet management companies which help people manage their calories and nutrients – these are usually home-delivered or sold in large supermarkets. There are even more modern foods which will be reviewed in the next part.

Modern foods offer convenience and much richer eating experiences at home, though there is normally a requirement to suspend belief. By this I mean people have to be conditioned to think that a tube of intestine-wrapped gunk (aka a hot dog or frankfurter) has anything to do with real meat, a mound of sludge from a packet is a casserole, a soggy brown crusted slab was once a fish, etc. But we are so used to this repackaging and reassembly of food into convenient formats that we hardly notice it. An issue though are the processes and additives needed to repackage foods for convenience. If you are curious about additives, read this six-part series, "How to count on food".

Fresh herbs can be frozen in ice cube trays.

Despite qualms about additives and loss of nutrition after processing, modern foods for the home are generally safe. They are a boon for people who want to save time making home meals – and it is not all only about ready dinners. For people aspiring to cook from raw ingredients, various modern formats are extremely handy– for example, frozen herbs are useful for adding quick flavours, frozen vegetable pureé cubes or greens save time when making soups, vacuum-sealed ingredients bring fresh tastes from foreign lands, etc. Many varieties of prepared sauces also provide countless options for interesting home-cooked meals.

An observation

It is not uncommon to see packaging highlighting a product as “Made WITH 100% Organic Chicken” or something like that. This is not as healthy as it sounds because these labels do not indicate the amount of the organic meat. It may be 80% or it may be 1% – we cannot tell from the label. It would therefore be better if a label stated that something is “Made OF 100% Organic Chicken”.

Similarly, be a little wary of products that claim to consist of 100% natural ingredients. While the ingredients may all be from natural sources, it is not natural to have, for example, a preservative such as sodium lactate injected into chicken meat. The self-evident fact is chicken meat by itself will never have sodium lactate included in its natural configuration, even if the compound is derived from other natural sources.

Food at restaurants

It would be tempting to think restaurants cook food like at home, only in larger volumes – and in rare cases it is possibly true. However, many modern restaurants rely heavily on pre-packaged commercial foods and seasonings, even if they do some form of cooking on site. A few of the worst examples may be some British pubs where you can find the kitchen area by following the “ding!” sounds of microwave ovens sitting next to deep-fat chip fryers.

The simplest indication that restaurants are nothing like home cooking is the menu – the larger the number of offerings, the greater the likelihood that pre-processed foods would be involved in some manner. Also the requirement to deliver the same dishes over and over every day usually leads to some form of standardisation on commercially-prepared ingredients to promote consistency, efficiency and reduce time/effort for cooking.

Restaurants have ways to promote consistency, efficiency and reduce time/effort for cooking.

Another pressure on restaurants is cost. As commercial enterprises, restaurants need to keep costs low to maximise profit. While being economical may apply for many homes, people are usually unaware of the very dubious quality of ingredients available at wholesalers, in particular cheap commercial cooking oils which often contain trans-fats to extend shelf life. Oils with trans-fats are banned for home sales in almost all developed countries, but curiously are still available for use in commercial kitchens in many countries, including Britain.

To save on transport, fresh food is stored for lengthy periods in fridges, leading to food critic Anthony Bourdain’s advice against ordering fish on Mondays at restaurants because that is when leftover fish from the weekend is sold. Some restaurants do source and prepare fresh seasonal ingredients on a daily basis but they are the exception rather than the rule, at least in the West.

Making food look pretty (or “classy”) and delicious also involves using items seldom found at home, such as maltodextrin and food colourings. If you are curious why maltodextrin features in many top-end restaurants, please read "How to count on food – Part 6".

But this does not mean avoiding dining out, because restaurants offer a meal experience that differs significantly from home dining. Apart from the variety of good dishes, there is also the ambience, service, wide selection of wines/drinks, lack of washing up, and no requirement to shop and do the cooking. Also some top kitchens have specialised equipment which cooks in a manner impossible at home, such as industrial smokers. Another is the Josper charcoal oven (a favourite of Ferran Adrià), which can sear, grill and roast meats at up to 500°C – my oven can only stretch to 280°C. The difference is sensational flavours which simply cannot be reproduced at home.

There is also the cost of dining out, which is usually higher than home dining. However, I had visited food courts in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, where cooked meals are considerably cheaper than what I could have prepared at home. I sometimes still shudder when thinking of the ingredients used there. It is the starkest reminder that convenience does not necessarily mean quality.

Downsides of modern food

Apart from some dubious ingredients in modern foods, there is another downside: modern food has conditioned many people to prefer robust flavours, making it difficult to appreciate the natural taste of food unadulterated by hearty seasonings. Why this is problematic is because many people have lost the ability to discern good produce from poor-quality substitutes. This is a huge benefit to the food industry because they only need to manage cheap seasonings and texture compounds to sell vast quantities of inexpensive food that people would not normally choose to eat. A case in point is sausage rolls, which can contain less than 8% meat. To know more, please read "How to count on food".

Infusing intense flavours via modern sauces or blends of herbs is simply an easier form of cooking compared to teasing subtle tastes from ingredients. It is also difficult to retain original flavours over time, especially in commercial packaging.

A preference for robust flavours can make dietary changes difficult (eg. for losing weight or health improvement). Most modern foods contain added salt, sugars and fats combined with seasonings for taste stimulation. It is known that sugars induce cravings while removing fats causes anxiety – therefore both items can encourage addictive behaviours (again helpful for the food industry). This is because such additives have an insidious effect on the mesolimbic pathway in the brain – for more about addiction, please read "Symbols of addiction– Part 2".

It is feasible to re-capture an unbiased sense of taste – though studies have suggested it may take around 30 days of avoiding modern flavoured foods. It may be worth the effort (and pain) if you genuinely need dietary changes.

As an aside, if you wish to eat less, try drinking 500ml of water just before eating. Before distension, a human stomach is one litre in volume, expanding to four litres when fully stuffed. So drinking water before food will reduce how much you can eat. It also cleanses the palate.

The next part deals with some very modern foods, which may also provide unexpected benefits apart from tasting pretty good.

Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

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