Why Do We Eat So?
By Dan Johnson
It is not just a question of taste that creates the stark contrast between the cuisines native to Thailand and Great Britain. Worlds apart in so many ways, the geographical locations of these two lands also have a rather large hand to play. The hemispheric differences create such an enormous variance in climate and the native crops are so diverse, having any relation to one another in culinary tastes would be a long shot
Certainly the world is smaller nowadays, food can be just as easily enjoyed as if you were in its country of origin and many of the fruits and vegetables we eat don’t always come from the places you would expect. However the divide is wide and continues to maintain its divisions in our food choices and those separations in meal choice certainly have their footnotes in our tradition and culture as much as they do in the locational differences.
I could splutter on about a whole range of dishes that give example to the delectable delights we consume from our mother’s menu. Dishes in the UK such as Hot pot, Fish and Chips, Full English breakfast and Roast Dinners, or Thai favourites such as Khao Pad, Som Tam, Pad See Eiw, Phad Thai and so on. I could then highlight how vastly different in every conceivable way they are but I’m sure, as you are reading this you already understand through the process of consuming these dishes frequently, the differences in the ingredients and how they are experienced
I feel it would be more beneficial to offer some insight into the development of the dishes and why people who haven’t had the luxury of traveling away from home are so locked into their native options. On the latter point though, there is one obvious reason why a native Thai would not prefer to enjoy the dishes of Great Britain and that would most undoubtedly be due to the lack of flavours. It really cannot be argued how much more flavour dances on the tongue when tucking into a spiced up Asian dish.The intense flavours of Thai dishes are a great turn on to many but can equally be a turn off to folk who are more used to having a less exciting collection of flavours smooth over their taste buds.
This reasonably understandable difference aside, what are the reasons and wherefores of the development of such culinary mastery and why does it persist today? As the world becomes smaller, the youth are certainly more adventurous in their selection of experiences and have more opportunity to experiment but even they favour the native dishes of their home nations. That is not just down to the regular exposure either. The food they have grown up eating, favoured by those who raised them and further back in time, due to the traditions passed down, has a large part to play in the selection of favourite dishes. Psychologically there is something to be said for a flashback to childhood, an earlier simpler time that we hanker for when we choose “comfort food” or select a meal because of a nostalgic preference.
Another major factor has to be the climate itself. In each country, the climate has not only dictated the foods we have access to when locked into a certain location in the world – cold to warm over tropical weather for example. As well as the sustainable growth of the foods, there is the physical impact of eating and then digesting such foods. Then the overall energy given off from their consumption and how it makes the body feel in the long term.
Asian foods, dictated by tropical climates tend to be a lot lighter in their density, more vegetable-based and dominated by salads – especially in the case of Thai food. Also the increased use of spices in their creation is not only because these grow in abundance in such areas but also because they aid us in our ability to live in such environments. Tropical environments are more humid, with more moisture in the air and with that moisture comes a large amount of other particles such as fungal spores. These can affect the respiratory system and therefore require more maintenance than is the case for people who live in less humid environments. Chillies, garlic and other spices aid in the loosening of the sinuses and respiratory systems and can enhance the movement of any fluids developing in these systems.
With heat comes an expenditure of fluids and increased need to maintain moderate body temperatures that eating heavy, hard to digest, dense dishes is just too much for the body to handle. Ever tried to fully enjoy a full Sunday Roast outside in a beer garden during midsummer in Thailand?
The opposite is true when referring to the colder and ever-changing environments found in the UK. More staple foods, heavy and dense in their matter are harder to digest. These are most often the foods more readily available or created during the colder months such as dairy, cheeses, roots and the like – some due to growth or preparation and others due to preservation requirements during the colder months.
These foods contain far more fat and because they are harder to digest, allow for the slow release of energy over a prolonged period and energy-burning to maintain body temperature. Then in the sunnier months in the UK , lighter varieties of fruits and vegetables are far easier to grow which is in line with easier to digest, quicker to burn energy release times when the climate is more moderate and the need to keep warm is less.
For these reasons, the dishes have developed in the way that they have, not just because of varieties of vegetation available but also driven by the necessities of living in each of the environments produced by the geographical location. This, I would suggest, is also why they are maintained in each of the nations in question.
On a personal note, and solidifying the theories expressed in this pitter-patter of the keys, I have recently just returned to the UK on a more permanent basis and over the last couple of months my diet has naturally transformed to fit the extreme weather changes my body has been subjected to. At first, I instinctively ate the same way I had done over the last four years – or as close to as access to the ingredients would allow – with my regular fasting in tow – and found I was unable to handle the adverse cold I was experiencing.
I also found I was more lethargic, had less energy than usual and my ability to concentrate had faltered somewhat. An example of this would be not just from feeling the effects of the cold in the morning when it was just above 4 degrees but also later. Even though the temperature had warmed through the day to a more moderate 10 degrees c. I found myself uncontrollably cold. This happened on a few occasions before I looked to take action – for obvious reasons – and then explored the idea that it might be due to my diet and the reduction in carbs I was consuming also the far heavier fats found in cheese and dairy produce common in the diets of my fellow Brits that I was not eating.
After molding my diet to increase the stock of the aforementioned on my plate (I am currently tucking into a four-cheese quiche, boiled potatoes and peas as I write this – a far cry from my usual stir-fried vegetables and noodles I have survived on over the years in Asia), I found these complaints have almost disappeared.
There is much to say about switching your diet too quickly and a mountain of things you should watch out for but that would be an article for another day. However, the benefits of tuning my food intake to fit more closely to the environmental factors my body is now subject to have certainly enhanced my performance day-to-day.
So, it is not simply just a case of taste, a far cry of simple traditions or even a pinch of the resources available that have created these differences in the food preferences in the UK and Thailand. It also has much to do with the needs of the human body in each location’s climate. This alone will be reason enough for culinary choices to continue to dominate each nation’s choice of food as the main staple of their diet.
A word to the wise also, when in Rome…