Cooked is a four part docu-series streamed on Netflix. It features food author and cooking enthusiast Michael Pollan. He is an award winning food writer and seeks to return his readers and viewers to more traditional ways of how food is cooked and prepared, and that is from raw ingredients with the most minimal amount of processed foods as possible. The idea is simple. Everyone can cook, you don’t need to be a gourmet chef or even take any cooking classes to make attempts in your own kitchen. As long as you have good simple, wholesome ingredients and a good friend, relative or parent to show you the ropes you are on your way.
This program interests me because as a work-at-home mom, I spend an inordinate amount of time cooking or doing tasks which are related to meal preparation, such as grocery shopping, food preparation and deciding on the menu for the week. I am not someone who is adverse to cooking. I quite enjoy it and if I may say so myself, I am not too terrible of a cook. I can put together a meal quickly and efficiently and most of my friends have cleared their plates when they eat at my home. But when you have a family who depends on you to cook for them, day in and day out, something which is a hobby can become another tedious chore, like laundry or doing the dishes. And nothing gets my goat more than when my husband or children complain about a meal I make. I have gone ‘on-strike’ as a result of such complaints.
This program is very much in line with my cooking philosophy and that is while it requires some skill and organization, it’s not an impossible task. And especially if you cook with fresh ingredients and minimize processed foods in your cooking, it’s infinitely more enjoyable. There is a satisfaction of seeing raw ingredients that was just laying on your kitchen counter and now it’s turned into a bright, colorful and delicious meal ready to be enjoyed.
The four parts is broken down into the Four Elements: Fire, water, air and earth and how each of those elements play a role in our food. Pollan takes us on a world tour to places who best represents these four elements. For fire, he took us to the Australian bush, where the aborigine reside and how they use open fire in the open bush to cook their food, mostly hunted from the Australian outback. They include kangaroo or wallaby, a very large scary looking poisonous lizard and wild turkey. This is the way the aborigine have eaten for tens of thousands of years. Just open roasting fire of wild game, with no seasonings save for the woodsmoke. In their aborigine beliefs, fire is a healing entity, not something to be feared or avoided. Fire, when used and adapted properly, is nature’s best resource.
When the Australia government decided to ‘assist’ the aborigine peoples and moved them from their bush dwellings to government funded housing, they lost access to their natural habitat and hunting grounds. Instead of eating the food which their bodies tolerate better and food they’ve eaten for millennia, they begun eating carbohydrates, sodium, sugars, fats and large amounts of processed food which are provided by the government. They started to gain weight and many developed Type II diabetes. In looking for ways to solve the health crisis, an activist said the best thing to do is to let the aborigine people go back to the bush, their natural habitat, where they can hunt for their food, especially before they lose the skills to do so. Sure enough, after they went back to the bush and resumed their old way of life, they lost the weight and the Type II diabetes that came with it. This misguided ‘experiment’ informs us that humans are also part of the larger ecosystem and when you remove a group of people who is acclimated to one type of lifestyle or diet to another, serious health implications can result, and very quickly.
For water, Pollan brought us to India, which is a subcontinent with a very vibrant and diverse cuisine and food culture. Indian cuisine also favors the one-pot cooking method, where you chuck everything into one huge pot and slow cook the favors and you let nutrients slowly release into the broth of the dish. Something else which is unique to India too is, especially given its large size, they still largely abide by the ‘eat locally grown’ food model. Meaning, every region of India adapts their food to what their region grows. In the Punjab region, which is also the bread basket of India, vegetables feature heavily, so their cuisine consist of more vegetables. In the Gujarath region, they do not put crushed tomatoes in their curries like other parts of India because tomatoes aren’t readily available and so the their curries heavily feature coconut milk. India is also unique in the respect which despite having exposure and access to Western foods like KFC, McDonalds carbonated drinks, the majority of Indians still prefer to eat traditional Indian meals of flat breads, accompanied by dals (bean curries) and vegetables. In fact there is a whole cottage industry of people, who’s job is to cook fresh lunch boxes for city center workers out of their own kitchens and they are delivered by special lunch delivery men on bicycles, rickshaws and other modes of transportation to high rise buildings in the city. Those people could have easily ordered from an array of restaurants and canteens nearby, but it’s not home cooked. As for all those pungent spices that feature in Indian curries, all of them have healing qualities. They aid in digestion, blood circulation, keeping one regular etc. Because of their religious beliefs and general lack of space for livestock farming, meat doesn’t feature heavily in Indian cuisine. Their main sources of protein are beans, chicken and mutton.
Like the aborigine in Austrialia, the Indian families who’ve abandoned home cooked meals and have begun relying on restaurant and takeouts for meals have put on weight and acquired some of the diseases which come with that, such as Type II diabetes and high blood pressure. This trend is most prevelant amongst middle to upper class Indian families where both parents work long hours. And it’s begun to concern social activists in India. Traditional and family cooking in India is a huge part of Indian culture, and it should never be substituted in favor of KFC or McDonalds (which in India, they deliver to your front door when you order). Pollan asserts that, when people ‘outsource’ their eating to restaurants and takeouts, we lose knowledge about our culture and cuisines. We lose knowledge on how to prepare dishes and more importantly just how to cook a meal from fresh ingredients.
The most educational section is the section about air. And Pollan instructs his viewers on how bread is really made. Real bread should only consist of three ingredients: whole wheat flour, salt and water, which you leave to leaven on its own by exposing it to air, and after it leavens, you put it in the oven and bake it to its natural wonderful goodness. While I am aware that most breads purchased in supermarkets are laden with preservatives and additives, I wasn’t aware that you aren’t supposed to add live yeast to bread dough. It’s where the wheat intolerances spring from. Real bread is supposed to take 2-3 days to make if you want to leaven it. You can also eat unleavened bread, which then you can bake on the same day. Flat breads or Pita breads which are consumed in India, the Middle East and parts of the Mediterrnean are usually unleavened. In Morocco, bread and the breadmaking process is holy and sacred. It’s truly the bread of life. They don’t even take a knife to bread because it’s like desecrating something that is holy and sacred. For Moroccan women, every morning, they make the bread that is to feed their family for the day and the process in which they make the bread is almost like a meditation. The concentration and love poured into the process is handed down over the centuries. After the bread is made and moulded into its intended shapes, they hand it off to their sons to bring it to the neighborhood baker to bake the bread and then he brings it home when the bread is done. Then they all sit down and break bread, with their hands. This is a daily family ritual. While about 1% of the population suffer from Celiac disease, which is a severe intolerance to the protein gluten found in wheat and grains, the rest of the people who have gluten intolerances is really the result of poorly made bread from poorly milled wheat. Adding active yeast into bread instead of letting bread leaven on its own also contributes to gluten intolerances.
The earth section will be the section that interests most people. It talks about fermentation. How some of our favorite foods and beverages depends on this fermentation process: Wine, beer, spirits, even chocolate. When cacao pods are harvested, they are white in color, and there’s this mucusy membrane attached to it, the farmers then ferment these pods for days to where they turn brown color and become chocolate. After that you can grind them to a paste to make chocolate bars, chocolate candies or dry them into powdered form for baking or hot cocoa. Fermentation is nature’s way of allowing humans to preserve food before the refrigerator was invented. Pollan also featured one of my favorite fermented foods, the Korean kimchee, which is the fermentation of Napa cabbage, Daikon root, with lots of garlic, chili powder and salt. It’s wonderfully pungent and because of the abundance of garlic, a natural antibiotic, after a satisfying meal paired with kimchee, you feel you can go slay vampires with your breath.
The program also highlights the insidiousness of the food industry. Their cynical attempt to change the taste buds of a nation, by adding lots of sugar, salt and fats into processed foods. These three ingredients are fillers where they can decrease the amount of ‘real’ food in the package. This combination is also highly addictive, very cheap to produce and causes a load of health problems. Pollan also points out, while fresh foods and produce have increased in price by 40% in the last 30 years; sodas, canned goods and processed foods have gone down 17% in price. The working poor, those who can least afford ill health have no choice but to feed their families on sodium laden, sugar laden and fat laden processed foods. Pollan promotes and demands that government provide people with access to fresh foods and meats. This is something which resonates strongly with me. My monthly grocery bill is atrocious and we don’t even eat a meat laden diet. To lower the cost, I supplement our protein intake with a variety of beans and legumes. I take great pains to shop at neighborhood grocery stores, farmers markets (if you arrive one hour before they close, you can get a 50% discount on vegetables) to find the best deals for fresh meats, poultry , fruits and produce; I try to stay away from large chain grocery stores, but the amount I spend on food is still eye-watering and unacceptably high. My children are only 4 and 2, they aren’t even hungry teenagers yet. Spending so much on food have discouraged us to eat out or order takeout, which means more time spent in the kitchen for me. As a family, we’ve made a commitment to not eat processed foods except for special occasions. I’ve figured out better and healthy ways to make our favorite meals, including desserts. Much to my relief, my husband has offered to do the dishes and he’s teaching our kids to clear up after themselves. It’s never too early to teach them that. I also learned from Michael Pollan, that my physical act of being in the kitchen and exposing my children to my style of home cooking, I am passing down knowledge. Knowledge which they can’t learn anywhere else. I can live with that.