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July 2013

MealTango - bringing civility back to the table



Margaret Visser in her wonderful book "The Rituals of Dinner ", points out that one of the things that makes us different from animals is  that we share our food. We do not eat it on the spot .We carry it home and apportion it out between family members.

We have slowly made the sharing of food into an art form. refining rules and adding aesthetic. The mark of a civilized man is the manner in which he "breaks bread"; customs of preparing and eating food that brought pleasure ,culture  and even sophistication to the daily meal. 

In the era of fast food, these forms are fading. Ingesting a meal in the shortest possible time with the least effort minus any decorum , communion or civility cannot be doing us much good.
When we go to a restaurant we try to recreate the those practices of service and conversation but the experience has become ubiquitous  as has the food. It is not possible to create excellent food with fresh, locally procured ingedients for large numbers of people without losing out on quality and taste. 

Luckily there  are many people out there who share the  love of convivality that goes especially well with food and who are willing to put in the effort to make great meals to share .  As Margaret Visser  said people who "remember that breaking bread and sharing it with friends "means" friendship"... and that the word "companion " means literally " a person with whom we share bread."
To meet those people take a look at a new site called MealTango. It brings together hosts and guests who share a love of food and company. It promises to make meals unusual and sociable anywhere in the world.
So if you are a traveller who would like an authentic taste of the place as well as meet a local family you can log in as a guest and find yourself an experience just up your street.
This experience is open to residents as well. Say I want to try appams and stew made in typical Kerala style and meet new people in the process I can find what I need in a few minutes. 
MealTango is also a wonderful opportunity to anyone who has ever dreamed of opening a restaurant but does not have the financial backing or management skills . Its like having an informal restaurant in your own home where the host and guest sit at the same table . Its a perfect showcase for culinary talent and skills in an informal setting. And a chance to earn a  little or a lot for that proficiency.
What I like are the options open for all. Vegetarian , Non Vegetarian, Indian, International, Diabetic, Gluten free, Satvik Jain and  Kosher meals are some of the choices available. 
MealTango sounds like a blessing for the foodie, always on the look out for different tastes with a guarantee that only the best, freshest ingredients will be used . The site offers a hearty meal , breakfast , lunch , tea or dinner that can be had in the company of affable people with similar interests.

I have already booked up for several meals in the next week  and will following up with feedback and reviews of the same.
Meanwhile if you want to be a guest or host log in to and sign up. It takes all of five minutes.


The Fat of The Land

Processed versus fresh foods
As food prices escalate across India and the cost of 250 grams of the most common vegetable ranges between 20 and 60 rupees, the weekly basket of fresh fruit and vegetables for a family of four weighs less and less. Till ten years ago most people in India subsisted mainly on fresh food and whole grains and no one was overweight, in fact the average person was thin by international standards and not because of malnutrition.

Now that fast food and processed food is available cheaper than fresh food many among us choose these alternatives on a daily basis.This is both for reasons of cost and convenience but also because in India there is a strange perception that processed foods are better for us- which is why people both rich and poor are turning to them.

Processed foods are filling our grocery store shelves. Instant foods, readymade sauces, packaged meals are slowly reducing the space given to fresh produce. These are so attractively presented many people think they are better both nutritionally and taste wise than food produced at home. As consumers we should become more aware of what exactly is in those packaged and processed foods, or the fast food so readily available everywhere in urban areas.

The list is distinctly unappetizing: Anti Caking agents to make flours, salts and powders flow, bulking agents to increase the quantity of foods, food colouring to make food look more attractive, emulsifiers to keep oil and water mixed, acidity regulators, glazing agents to add shine, humectants to keep food moist, sweeteners, tracer gas to protect packaged foods, stabilizers and preservatives among several others much to increase shelf life and reduce chances of spoiling.

And strangely enough the worse we eat the fatter we become. “According to a report from urban South India, 21.4 % of boys and 18.5% of girls aged 13-18 years were overweight or obese .The prevalence of obesity among school children in India has been reported between 5.74% and 8.82% “ Qazi Iqbal Ahmad - Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 2010 Part of it is due to lack of exercise . Part of it due to the food choices made by parents today.

We are surrounded by obese people, many of them young, who weigh up the costs of food in a very short term light. “Why should I buy expensive vegetables and fruit, spend time cooking and preparing a meal when I can get a Burger for less”. A stomach can be filled with anything edible and few young people think about the value of ingredients when taste can be manipulated with all kinds of unhealthy additives.

The reason why these processed foods have been so willingly embraced is a kind of food snobbery. The poor, who fed themselves on Jowar and Ragi imagined that wheat and white flour was better because these refined foods were consumed by the rich. Even today the household help will turn up her nose on chapathis to eat white bread. Perhaps it is the taste factor but that is doubtful. Who can deny the greater flavor that Jowar and Ragi have? These also take longer to digest and the stomach feels satisfied for longer. White flour, while quicker to digest, needs to be eaten in greater quantities and so there is an increased intake of starch and sugar while roughage and nutrients have been stripped by refining. Many processed foods are empty of natural nutrients and these have to be added . 

Obesity is only one reason to avoid processed and fast food. We just have to turn our eyes westward to observe the long term effects of this kind of diet . The US has a huge health industry dealing with those effects.

Without any doubt they are bad for our health. While many processed foods claim to reduce cholesterol, glucose levels or weight by cutting out the offending ingredient we know there is no particular food which can be treated like poison. At different times accusing fingers have been pointed at fat, gluten or sugar and foods have been processed to remove the particular poison. So we have low fat milk, sugar free ice cream and sodium free etc. In fact it has been proved that high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease are just a few of the problems exacerbated by these processed foods.

It would be wonderful if simple facts about food, health and nutrition could be taught in our schools. Young mothers also need to be taught to make the right choices for their families. I find it strange that we really need this education when many of those facts were self evident in not too distant memory ,when the average Indian’s plate held mainly vegetables and whole grains appetizingly and simply prepared .

The government would do consumers a service by preventing the import and sale of processed foods and spend more on the infrastructure required to distribute fresh food and grain rather than investing more and more in the processed food industry.

We could save a generation of young people who might otherwise look forward to a life of odd diets and disease.