Skip to content

Archive for

Food Links, 20.11.2013

  • Israel’s prickly pears are under threat.
  • Cases of malnutrition have doubled in English hospitals.
  • Growing maize for ethanol is an ecological disaster.
  • The increasing attractiveness of sorghum.
  • Why maize-based agriculture is problematic.
  • Will a tax on sugary soft drinks reduce obesity?
  • McRib was first introduced in 1982, shortly after the company had designed the McNugget.’
  • Should Tasmania remain GM-free?
  • Eat your apple cores.
  • Using cooking to cope with Alzheimer’s.
  • Jon Stewart dismisses Chicago pizza.
  • Flying fish supper.
  • The Pocket Bakery.
  • The worst restaurant customers.
  • Cumin is the best spice.
  • Hot spiced gingerbread.
  • A pie chart about pies.
  • How drunk were late-Victorian train drivers?
  • How to clean out your fridge.
  • Egg whites are more expensive than ever.
  • Reinventing sushi.
  • Interesting food packaging.
  • ‘Police have seized 150 kilograms of cheese found in the back seat and boot of a car stopped in Sydney.’
  • Where to eat in Kinshasa.
  • The return of offal.
  • Understanding MOOCs through food.
  • Orson Welles attempts to sell frozen peas.
  • The long debate over the privatisation of London’s water supply.
  • How to write about African food.
  • Bell Peppers.’
  • ‘The bhut jolokia is a hundred and fifty times hotter than a jalapeño. Gastromasochists have likened it to molten lava, burning needles, and “the tip of my tongue being branded by a fine point of heated steel.”’
  • Mark Bittman is surprised in Chinatown.
  • Jay Rayner on trying and re-trying food.
  • London’s best hot chocolate.


I have an odd enthusiasm for Iceland. I think it stems partly from the fact that in Brave New World, troublesome and insubordinate academics are exiled there. Although when Aldous Huxley published the novel in 1932, the Iceland he imagined was one of the least technologically advanced nations in Europe – and not the socially and politically progressive place it is imagined to be today. In fact, much of the current interest in Iceland stems from its response to the 2008 crash: Icelanders did what so many in the West wanted to do. Laurie Penny writes:

What most of the world appears to believe is that, some time between 2008 and 2009, the country refused to bail out its banks when the global economy crashed and that instead it jailed all of its bankers, overthrew the government, wrote a new constitution on the internet and elected a lesbian prime minister who solved all the nation’s problems with a flick of her magic wand.

Iceland became, seemingly, a Guardian reader’s paradise. But the reality is more complex, and, possibly, less attractive:

Although it is true that the three largest banks – Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki – were allowed to go bust in 2008, this was hardly a political choice: Iceland could do nothing else, because their debts were ten times the size of its GDP.

Popular protest did force the writing of a new constitution, but this has never been implemented. Earlier this year – for all the promise of Iceland being lead by a Pirate Party – Icelanders re-elected the centre-right coalition which was in power before the recession. And Iceland is no feminist paradise either.

But it remains a compellingly fascinating place. I think Penny sums this up particularly well:

Iceland has always been a land self-authored in myth and legend. Its lava fields and glacial plains are supposedly populated by elves, trolls and huldufólk – hidden folk – in whom 80 per cent of the population believes. At least, that’s what the PR for Icelandair wants you to think… In fact, it turns out that only 30 per cent of the population believes that fairies exist, although that third is prepared to agitate for roads to be diverted around their supposed homes. This is remarkable enough that one wonders why the tourist board bothered to exaggerate.

A few months ago, while visiting another city on the same latitude as Scandinavia – Edinburgh – I bought a copy of Sarah Moss’s memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). It’s an account of a British family’s year in Reykjavik, during which Moss taught English literature at the University of Iceland.

Interested in histories of eating and cooking, some of Moss’s most evocative passages are concerned with how she comes to terms with Iceland through food. The availability of a variety of – occasionally rotting, often seriously under-ripe – exceptionally expensive fresh produce imported from all over the world, suggested the enthusiasm with which Icelanders embraced consumerism during the boom. (Another potent example of this was the stigma attached to buying second-hand goods and clothes. Her efforts to buy a used washing machine were greeted with appalled horror by many of her colleagues and friends.) In fact, she and her family packed with them the foods of home – ‘the manifestations of English metropolitan middle-class identity’:

We have five litres of olive oil, a dozen tins of anchovies and a dozen jars of capers, miso paste, pomegranate syrup, cocoa nibs, seeds for growing coriander, basil and mint. Smoked chillies, sumac, allspice, dried dill, cumin. Preserved lemons, three kinds of paprika, dried lime leaves.

On a quick trip back to Kent, they bought and smuggled into Iceland

two whole salamis, a wheel of Kentish cheese … approximately three kilogrammes of chocolate, from Cadbury to Valrhona, two Christmas cakes and a stollen, half a dozen russet apples, a bag of unwaxed lemons and a couple of dozen tins of anchovies, capers and vine leaves.

Anxious about being caught by immigration officials, she hurries her husband and children through the airport. Max, her eldest son, ‘looks anxiously into [her] face. He’d make a lousy chorizo mule.’


Moss is not unaware of the irony of importing what are, essentially, the ingredients of Mediterranean peasant food to Iceland, a nation apparently with a close relationship with the natural world. However, she sympathises with the taste that Icelanders’ developed for imported food, given the relative monotony of diets until, at least, the mid-twentieth century. These were heavy in smoked and dried fish, and meat often preserved in whey, blood pudding and liver sausage, potatoes, and plenty of dairy products. Grains and green vegetables were a luxury.

These high-fat diets seemed, though, to sustain farmers through long winters. Matthew, a colleague also from Britain, remembered his introduction to rural cuisine in the 1960s:

the worst imaginable kind of food I could ever think of was put on the table, steaming salted fish with a terrifying smell to it, and hot sheep fat, and potatoes. That’s all there was. And I knew I was going to be there for six weeks, and I would have to eat it or starve. I told myself, you wanted to come to Iceland, you wanted to find out what it’s like here, you bloody well eat their food, and I forced myself to eat it. And it was delicious, absolutely glorious. It’s one of my favourite dishes today.

Matthew’s answer to why they didn’t fall ill – in the absence of fruit and vegetables – was that they ate a lot of fish:

And Iceland moss, swede, and white cabbage. A lot of white cabbage. … And of course a lot of milk, and skyr [curd cheese].

Why didn’t they get scurvy?

People drank a lot of Iceland moss tea, and they were probably using many more grasses and herbs than is recorded. That knowledge has gone.

I think his point about forgetting what people used to eat is an important one. I was reminded of Moss’s book a little while ago when – for various reasons – I attended a lecture presented by Tim Noakes. Once best known for his deep knowledge of sports science, Noakes has recently developed a reputation for his almost evangelical faith in the carbohydrate-free, meat-heavy Paleo diet.

I was struck by Noakes’s use of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts which recommended excluding carbohydrates from diets, to bolster his arguments. And by his insistence that because people – like Icelanders – in the past were able to live healthily off diets consisting mainly of red meat and animal fat we should attempt to replicate them in the twenty-first century.

There are many problems with Noakes’s arguments – not least his dubious methodology in a recent paper – but I’d like to focus on his use of history to argue for a return to what our ancestors (allegedly) ate. As Moss’s friend Matthew makes the point, our knowledge of how eating habits changed over time is patchy, at best. Peasants did not painstakingly record every slurp of nettle tea. Also (and this is taken from a satirical piece, but it’s accurate):

You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it. Our adaptability is the hallmark of the human species. We’re not called omnivores for nothing.

Noakes’s reliance on an idealised vision of the past is a significant weakness in his argument. It ignores the fact that we have a tendency to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible: when vegetables and fruit became more easily available, Icelanders happily included them in their diets.

The current obesity ‘crisis’ cannot, in other words, be fixed by returning to the mythical diets of the past. It is caused by such a myriad range of factors – ranging from poverty to urban planning – that to blame a taste for carbohydrates is to demonstrate a very narrow understanding of the problem.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 13.11.2013

Ice Cream in Mandela Square

This morning I went to re-register in time for next year’s elections. My voting station is at the Ridge School, an elite primary school for boys perched at the top of the startlingly rich suburb of Westcliff. It is one of the oldest parts of Johannesburg, with its Arts and Crafts mansions and streets lined with old, well-established trees. It is where industrialists, whose fortunes were made on the mines, settled to live in the comfort that a city with cheap land and even cheaper labour could provide.

In some ways, it feels that Westcliff has changed very little since the early twentieth century. There were two black domestic workers, in uniforms and aprons, waiting to check if they were registered to vote. And there was a huddle of affluent white people gathered around the stall operated by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was nowhere to be seen.

Old is a relative term, though, and particularly for Johannesburg, a city founded only in the mid-1880s. For all that its northern suburbs give the appearance of static, solid, prosperity, it is a city which continues to evolve at a frantic pace: it grows, is torn down and rebuilt, has been run down, and is being gentrified. In fact, the urban forest of Joburg’s affluent areas is a pointed example of the constructedness of this city: planted to provide timber to the city’s mines, the canopy of green and purple which covers old Johannesburg in the summer has created a new ecosystem, replacing the original grassland of the Highveld.

A while ago, some lovely friends took me to dinner and pudding in two parts of the city which also show particularly well how South Africa’s shifting demographics – its growing middle class, in particular – are helping to change the city.

One of the oddest spaces to contemplate this transformation is Mandela Square in Sandton, a suburb in the north of the city which has, since the 1990s and especially after the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved there in 2000, become an alternative city centre to the old CBD. The middle of Sandton is dominated by shiny corporate headquarters and a collection of high-end shopping malls – one of which is Nelson Mandela Square. Known until 2004 as Sandton Square, the mall was renamed after the installation of a massive, six-metre statue of Nelson Mandela.

The statue – which is slightly out of proportion – is to one side of the piazza at the centre of the mall, and overlooks a fountain. To its left and right are restaurants, some of them branches of popular, but pricier, franchises. We had excellent ice creams at an Italian place, and watched as tourists posed in front of Madiba, and took photographs of the water feature.

Mandela Square – and, indeed, Sandton – is often held up as an example of the crass materialism which has accompanied – and has been produced by – South Africa’s transition to democracy after 1994. Uncomfortably, and ridiculously, it links a depoliticised Mandela – Madiba-as-friendly-giant – to a celebration of post-apartheid consumerism. It is true that Sandton is, to some extent, an unpleasant example of the city-as-anodyne shopping mall. Architecturally, Mandela Square – and Sandton City, and the Sandton Convention Centre, and Michelangelo Towers, and the Da Vinci Hotel – could be just about anywhere, and that, really, is part of the point.

My friends and I began our evening, though, at a wonderful, and in some ways equally incongruous, Thai restaurant in Edenvale, a suburb on the border of Johannesburg and the East Rand. It is one of a collection of towns and settlements established to the east of Joburg as result of mining (for gold and coal) and manufacturing. Recently, though, its low property prices and new malls have drawn the city’s new middle classes. It is, in some ways, the epitome of big city suburbia. And yet, down a not-particularly-lovely street, is a place which serves delicious Thai food.

In some ways, the South African taste for Thai has been driven by the fact that Thailand is one of the few countries to which South Africans may travel without visas, and, even with the current weakness of the Rand, remains relatively inexpensive. Thai restaurants – some of them part of the Wang Thai chain – have popped up in middle-class suburbs, alongside pubs and steak ranches.

Rising above the noise and bustle of Johannesburg – and with a clear view of the Sandton skyscrapers – Westcliff, secure in its incredible wealth, seems to be immune from the change happening around it. But Westcliff is as entangled in Johannesburg’s making as are Sandton and Edenvale: it was shaped and produced by the mineral revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. It was modelled on similar, upper middle-class suburbs in Britain. It is as much a construct as Sandton and Edenvale.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Foodie Pseudery (48)

New York Magazine on the juice craze:

Juice announces that America is still a bountiful land of plenty despite our abuse of the Earth. Juice announces that you are hip to the trends, part of the scene that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, and other toned-and-together Celebrity Juice Fans featured in Star magazine. Juice says you don’t do manual labor: You make money with your fingers in the new economy, nails painted a cheery neon or pastel gel as you text. … And for a certain, uniquely ­American urban tribe, juice is a sacrament—or at least part of the sacrament.

Food Links, 06.11.2013

Chop Suey in Barberton

A few weeks ago I was accepted on a writing retreat held periodically at Pullen Farm, a facility owned by Wits University about five hours’ drive northeast of Johannesburg. One afternoon we made the short journey to Barberton, a small town whose chief attraction is that there was a short-lived gold rush there more than a century ago.

Like other countries with vast, sparsely populated interiors – I think of Australia and the US – South Africa does weird towns very well. I’d visited Barberton once before, on an epic family road trip in the late-1990s, and we’ve all since remembered it as epitomising rural South African strangeness.  In some ways we’d been primed to look out for the odd, having seen a newspaper headline which screamed ‘Vampire Mermaid Strikes Again!’ in nearby White River. (It’s the ‘again’ which I find so intriguing.)

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what made Barberton so strange: the quiet, deserted town centre in the middle of the day; the old-fashioned shops selling unusual combinations of things (kitchen utensils with shoes, for instance); or the unfriendly townspeople.  It has some magnificent, deserted, Victorian buildings, which sit side-by-side with Art Deco and 1970s brutalist municipal offices.

Now, Barberton has a new shopping centre which seems to be pulling people away from the rather dilapidated main road. But there is still a general dealer there that buys everything ‘from teaspoons to your mother-in-law.’ I found a copy of Die Volkome Huwelik (The Complete Marriage), the Dutch Reformed Church-endorsed sex manual of the 1970s, for R5 at a junk shop also selling mannequins, a till, and a couple of washing machines.

A Barberton junk shop.

A Barberton junk shop.

Barberton seems to be trying harder to make something of its brief moment of international significance in the 1880s, with a collection of museums relating to the gold rush. We had lunch at the Phoenix Hotel, established in 1886 to provide accommodation to visiting mine magnates and better-off prospectors hoping to find their fortunes in the newly discovered gold deposits near the town. With the opening up of richer gold seams on the Witwatersrand, these wealthy investors packed up and moved to Johannesburg.

It is now a Chinese restaurant and sushi bar. The menu – which is extensive, and split between the staples of mid-market South African dining and some ‘Chinese’ dishes and sushi – provides diners with a handy guide to using chopsticks. There are lanterns and banners with shiny lettering draped around the restaurant, which was mainly empty.


I had vegetables and stir-fired noodles, and others had Szechuan beef, prawns with rice, spring rolls, and sushi. I’ve certainly eaten more interesting Chinese food elsewhere, but this certainly counts as one of the most unexpected Chinese meals I’ve ever had.

In some ways, though, the presence of a Chinese restaurant – and one run by a Chinese family – in Barberton should not be at all surprising. In the light of China’s growing investment in Africa, recent immigrants from China have settled across the country, mostly opening small businesses. Along with the inevitable Pep Stores, Sasko bread truck, and branch of Absa bank, the Chinese shop is becoming a feature of rural towns and villages.


Johannesburg now has two Chinatowns. There has been a small Chinese-South African population, based mainly in the country’s larger cities, since at least the nineteenth century. Between 1904 and 1907, around 63,000 Chinese indentured labourers were brought to the Witwatersrand to work on the mines, but the vast majority of these men returned home afterwards.  Under apartheid, there was an influx of people from Taiwan after it was recognised by the National Party over mainland China.

In 2008 the Chinese Association of South Africa succeeded in compelling the government to reclassify Chinese South Africans as ‘black’ so that they, too, can benefit from post-apartheid black economic empowerment and affirmative action policies. This was in recognition of the fact that Chinese people also were discriminated against on the grounds of their race before 1994.


There are around 200,000 Chinese people living in South Africa at the moment. The increase in this small population – since the early 2000s, around 24,000 Chinese have settled in South Africa (and I’m not absolutely certain of that figure) – has given rise to warnings of a ‘yellow peril’. Chinese people have been victims of xenophobic attacks, and last year the investigative magazine Noseweek published a disgraceful article alleging that, among other things, Chinese shopkeepers deliberately drive South African businesses into the ground.

This suspicion of recent Chinese immigrants would be interesting were it not quite so old. Similar allegations were levelled against the Chinese in early twentieth-century California and New York, for instance, and particularly on the grounds that Chinese refused, apparently, to integrate socially and culturally.

Ironically, though, the food served so successfully by Chinese cooks to Californian gold diggers or New York construction workers was a kind of hybrid of Chinese – and given the heavily regionalised nature of China’s cooking, there isn’t really a single ‘Chinese’ cuisine – and American cooking. Chop suey and other dishes were invented to use ingredients Chinese chefs could find in the US, as well as to appeal to American tastes.

Having become increasingly accustomed to the more sophisticated Chinese food now fairly easily available outside of China, the menu at the Phoenix Hotel, along with the dragons and fans of the décor, felt strangely retro. It listed the amalgam, ‘Western-Chinese’ dishes – including chop suey – which can be found just about wherever Chinese cooks have set up shop.

Sitting in this small, depressed mining town – there is still a gold mine and a prison, but unemployment is very high – despite the incongruity of eating Chinese food in the Phoenix Hotel, I was struck by the continuities of this situation. The family running the restaurant are part of yet another wave of immigrants – following on from the prospectors and diggers of the late nineteenth century – drawn to a country which seems to offer them a better chance, and certainly more political freedom, than does their homeland. And they continue to serve a cuisine which attempts to be both exotically enticing and comfortably familiar to their customers.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.