Rethinking food

Moving to Thailand has made the challenge of decreasing my carbon footprint a lot easier. Without a car, I walk everywhere and occasionally cycle. Now I’ve been rethinking my relationship to food – well, actually, I’ve been doing this for years but I hadn’t made much progress because I’d been too distracted by other things. A critical turning point in my thinking was reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver in 2008. This book has had a particularly profound and lingering influence on my understanding about issues relating to food production and eating locally, and I’ve been waiting for the right moment to act upon some of the ideas it raised.

Rimping supermarket
Rimping supermarket

Being here in Chiang Mai, I’m confronted by food in a way that I simply wasn’t back home. When I occasionally shop for food here I am acutely conscious of what’s local and what’s imported, because the price differential is generally indicative, and occasionally even startling. A bunch of us visited Rimping supermarket by the river for the first time recently and it was like being in a fluorescent wonderland. I saw all sorts of food I hadn’t laid eyes on in months – blue cheese, proscuitto, figs, the whole bit. It was the kind of food I used to completely take for granted back home and thought little about where it actually came from.

(And, let’s be honest, I was too busy eating it all to notice – spliced figs filled with blue cheese wrapped in proscuitto. Bake for 10 minutes. Divine.)

Although I haven’t quite gotten a grip on when things grow – and what the seasons here even are, actually – it’s fairly obvious when something is in season. You would have to be blind not to notice mangoes, mangosteens and rambutans spilling off supermarket shelves and going for loose change. It’s even more noticeable at food markets, which are a wonderful source of local produce. (As an aside, I’m not entirely sure of it, but I don’t think the produce sold comes from industrialised farms here either and are from ma-and-pa type farms instead. That’s not to say that there aren’t other problems with local farms – over-use of pesticides being one of them.)

Going back to the price differential point I raised, the cost of food here is generally much more indicative of how many food miles you’re consuming. A common complaint in developed countries – Scandinavia aside – is that we simply don’t pay enough for our food because of factors like subsidised fuel; everything is so cheap that it’s little wonder that the average person simply doesn’t worry too much that a banana has travelled all the way from sunny Jamaica to a local supermarket shelf in rainy London. All that stuff is so much clearer here and I’m as close to being a ‘locavare‘ as I’ll ever be. For example, a bowl of noodles on the street here generally costs 30THB (about $1) and it MUST be made of fairly local ingredients – rice noodles, pork strips, greens, cabbage, broth – otherwise there’s no way people could make a living. Compare that to a bar of (delicious) German Ritter chocolate, which will easily cost almost three times as much – and fair enough, given how far it’s had to fly to be here.

Having said that, I still haven’t quite gotten my head around why a decent cup of coffee is so expensive – about twice as much of a bowl of noodles, even if the milk and coffee is from local sources – but I think it has something to do with fair trade hilltribe coffee and yuppie demand because Thai iced coffee on the street, loaded with condensed milk, is very cheap at half the cost of a bowl of noodles. (Hmm, I’m not quite sure why I have decided to talk about a bowl of noodles the way economists talk about the Big Mac Index.)

Anyway, as you may have figured out by now if you regularly read my blog, eating is a much favoured pastime here – not just by me, but by the general population in Chiang Mai. I honestly can’t believe how much I have eaten out in three months. It’s been excessive to say the least and I would be lying if I said that I always enjoyed eating out so often, which is why I cook whenever I can. I’ve gained a little bit of weight, but that’s not what really worries me – mainly, I would really just like to be healthier.

Following on from this, I’m really warming to this whole idea of eating less by becoming a “mostly” vegetarian (similar to the idea of being a  ‘Weekday vegetarian‘ as Graham Hill calls it). It won’t be that hard for me as I never crave meat, and I don’t tend to cook with meat at all. But I couldn’t go the whole hog, so to speak, because I really enjoy eating a lot, and I enjoy learning about cuisines with the kind of rigour that some people apply to undertaking a degree. Being adventurous with food means, to me, eating just about everything – and when I say that I’m not really exaggerating. There are things I would prefer not to eat – like deep fried grasshoppers – but when it came down to it, I would eat it if there was a reason to. And no, I don’t mean that I need a life-or-death reason like crashing in the Himalayas and being confronted with starvation etc.

To get the point: I am going to cut back on eating meat where possible – definitely most breakfasts and lunches, home-cooked meals – and try to be healthier, insofar as that’s possible in Thailand. (Thais, by the way, don’t really get the whole vegetarianism thing.) Yep, I will have a different relationship to food. So when will I start this? Well, After my birthday next week, naturally. Until then, I am going to eat like every meal is my last!

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