Cultural differences

The way we preserve food…

1:08 PM

The other day I was reading The Big, bad, blonde, bahu’s latest blog on preserved food and the difference between US and India in how canned food, frozen food, and leftovers are perceived.

I obviously faced similar clashes there, mostly with my MIL. Let’s clarify right away though I understand perfectly where her opinion comes from. She dislikes leftovers in general, and that has to do mainly because she is the first generation of lady who got introduced to a fridge…that too later in life, not in childhood. And in a country where it can be 45+ degree Celsius in Summer it means food outside a fridge WILL spoil fast and everything has to be bought on a need of the hour basis and consumed quickly. The reason why spices are used in Indian cooking is also a matter of food preservation.
Every single culture on this planet has their own way of preserving food and insuring the survival of the specie rather than decimation by food poisoning. And I actually find it very amusing now when someone asks me why we eat only canned food in the west. First because it couldn’t be further from the truth, and then because canned food is the evolution of the earliest food preserves that were a necessity for people in Northern countries to actually survive Winters.
While the climate is rather temperate in most of India with shorter Winters and no frost making the soil unworkable, back in Switzerland no veggie can really be planted or grow between November and March, which means five months during which people had to live on what they processed after the harvest before the invention of fridges, and high speed import of food from across the globe.
In India you still find seasonal veggies in December and even in the 2-3 months of really dry weather before the monsoon you will still find a few veggies who will grow fine. There is also a wider variety of pulse on the market which can be stored and be consumed all year round.
While grains are also available in Switzerland, they can’t sustain someone through a harsh Winter with no other food source, hence the necessity of preserves, I have two grand mother that both learned the art of preserves in home economy school, they grew up during world war 2 which to an even bigger necessity not to waste their rations and even more of an obsession to turn every single scrap of leftover food into the next meal, they like my MIL didn’t have a fridge, but Switzerland having less heat even at the peak of summer, meant food could be stored in the cellar, which was the room intended for preservation in every homes. Both my grand mothers grew up in a farm house where such storage room was big and located appropriately to insure the least sun would come warm the walls (underground), later they got married one live in an apartment built for lower middle class people, the other lived in one of these brand new residential layout in the suburb in one of these little row villas so popular in the 50’s and 60’s, this is also the time at which having a fridge started to be not necessarily cheap, but envisageable for most families, though old habits die hard and both kept the darkest coolest corner of their home as a pantry just the same, my apartment living grand ma kept hers in hallway built in wardrobe,my other in her basement. I think both really stopped making preserves in the 80’s because they both agreed this was time consuming and no longer a necessity due to the easily available fruits and veggies and the fact imported goods weren’t as expensive as they once were, their reusable preserving glass jars became a great way to store rice, pasta, cereals and dry fruits instead.
My own mom who grew up with a fridge, but a mother who still did preserves, did try to do it for a while but gave up pretty much at the same time her mom threw the towel, but the concept of pantry pretty much stayed alive, my mom’s was a huge wooden decorative chest placed in the most sunless spot in the hallway between our room, but instead of containing jars of preserves, it contained, canned kidney beans, crackers, extra packs of rice, store bought jarred pasta sauce, canned exotic fruits for fancy dessert and all the non perishable food that came as a promotion at the supermarket which could be bough in bulk in order to save precious money.
Her kitchen cupboard had all the spices and opened packs of pasta, rice and pulses transferred to her old preserve jars. And the freezer compartment of the fridge had frozen meat, frozen veggies and sometimes ice cubes in there. That was until the 90’s when my paternal grandmother showed her the fridge sized multi compartment freezer unit she just bought, and my mom thinking it would be a good idea bought one for our kitchen at which point we started shopping right across the border in France to save more money as back then the French Franc – Swiss Franc rates were working in the interest of the Swiss, suddenly my dad’s salary was buying a lot more food and our freezer could hold it all and it simplified the life of my part time working mom when it came to planning meals, often it was just about taking the meat out of the freezer the night before to thaw in the fridge, explain the rest of the family what to do at lunch time if we came home before her (kids in Switzerland have a long lunch break but go back to school in the afternoon until 4-5pm), it became even more handy after my parents got divorced and my mom worked full time, with both my sister and I being in different schools with very different timings, dinner was the time we would sit down and plan the next day’s lunch, if the meal my mom planned required a little prepping she would half cook the thing in a casserole, then store the thing in the fridge and whoever came home first took the casserole out, continued cooking, and took some frozen veggies out of the freezer to cook so that by the time we were all at home for lunch we could sit down and eat and then go back to work/school. If there was enough leftovers, they would come back on the table the next day after having been stored in Tupperware style airtight boxes right after the first time they were served and straight to the fridge.
My mom also used to pride herself on her home made Bolognese sauce made with ground beef, mushrooms and tomato concentrate, but preparing it was lengthy, so she would often take a rainy Saturday afternoon, take her gigantic saucepan out (that thing could hold 6-7 litres of liquid) and cook a huge batch, then store it in freezer proof plastic containers that could hold 4-5 servings each, and each time we wanted spaghetti she just had to throw the icy sauce into a saucepan and let it simmer on low flame while the past was getting cooked. No preservative in her sauce, no colouring, and stored in the freezer it can stay fresh for a year or more (though we were all such fan of that Bolognese that it never stayed in there more than 4-5 months).

Yes, preserving food is very much part of western culture, so are big pantries. Started as a necessity in old ages, turned out to be a convenience in modern days of dual income nuclear families. And in fact culinary inventions such as smoked meat, smoked fish, sausages, cheese, wine and pickled vegetables were all ways to make sure nothing got wasted and could be kept for harsher days.
And now before some of you might start commenting on how India sure had their dark times too…I am NOT denying it, I KNOW that famine did occur, but what I was trying to explain in this entry, is that while India had rough days, most people living in the plains never had to deal with harsh snowy winter that had to push them into preserving food the same way people in the west had to, this is all cultural, and culture is intrinsically linked to the land we live on and how the elements treat us. Each culture has their own set of religious or pagan rite that marks such things as harvest, end of Winter, return of fertile time, solstice celebrations and the culinary treat that goes with each festival.

My fundamental question though is why then is that a lot of people I met in India telling me that western eating habits are all unhealthy…clearly we survived through the time as well as any other culture no? And yes I agree industrial processed food isn’t the best, never has been, and in fact a lot of people in my generation goes back to home made preserves just adapted it to the present time using the freezer more than they would vacuum seal technique on glass jars.
My MIL is the most ferocious of opponent of my western “quirk” to store leftovers in the fridge (in an airtight container), or my other quirk of cutting spring onions and storing them in the freezer in a ziploc bag so that I always have some fresh stuff to add to a dish, or my major quirk of cooking muffins and cakes to use my over ripe bananas and then freeze them so I always have a healthy home made whole wheat flour low sugar treat to satisfy my sweet tooth. She should not know about my storing whole wheat store bought pizza base sitting in my freezer now.

And speaking of culture and food preservation still, I might be Swiss, but while back home I used canned and frozen stuff more, I now use more fresh produce too.

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