Monday, May 25, 2015

The 200 Food Decisions We Make Every Day ...

Recently, I came across a study which referred to another study by Brian Wansink of Cornell
University. Wansink had found that we make at least 200 food-related decisions every day and ever since I read that, I wanted to explore it a bit more. When Wansink and his colleague
Jeffrey Sobal asked 139 participants how many food-related decisions they made every day, the average answer was 14. But then the respondents were asked to reconsider the various contexts and circumstances in which they made decisions for a typical meal, snack and drink - time,
company, etc and when these were added up, it showed the participants made an average of 226 food decisions a day, 59 of which related to what kind of food to eat. This lead the researchers to conclude that such gross underestimation pointed to the probability that people often engaged in mindless eating.

I thought it would be interesting to record my own food-related decisions and see if they
numbered that many. I didn't get around to maintaining a diary but I did make an attempt over the last three hours and here's what I came up with. (The figures in brackets at the end of each para are the number of decisions.)

Note: I haven't read the entire study, just gists from various sources online, but I thought it would be fun to list all that I could and see how many food decisions I can come up with.

May 23, 2015

  • Decide to make pappucharu with lesser dal than usual, so that there wouldn't be too much left over. Use up the half of the bottlegourd and two of three carrots that I had bought the previous day. (2)

  • Of the two-and-a-half fistfuls of toor dal that I cooked (above), I set aside some, on the spur of the moment, to mix with the new mango pickle that my mother had sent over. (1)

  • I decide to add coconut to the French bean and broad bean stir-fries that I made. (1)

  • I decide the small amount of oil I had used in them was enough - one spoon each in all the three items. (1)

  • I feel lazy about having to peel the garlic and use it but I go ahead and do it. (1)

  • I decided not to use the curry leaves in the fridge as they had all blackened. (1)

  • I thought of breakfast but didn't do anything about it. I went without breakfast. (1)

  • I had a couple of lychees but realised it was thirst and drank some water. (1)

  • I think about adding ghee to the dal and pickle and rice combination (above) but decide it isn't worth the effort of setting my plate aside, opening the ghee jar, finding the right spoon and adding it. The kitchen is very hot and any time spent out of it, even a minute, is well worth a sacrifice. (1)

  • I add some oil from the pickle to make up for the ghee.(1)

  • Decide to add another bit of pickle knowing quite well that it would be too much, and that it will spoil the taste of the dal-pickle combination. It does. Serves me right. (1)

  • Ate a serving of rice with the beans. (1)

  • I hadn't eaten the pappucharu. I should eat some. But I miraculously decide to stop. I will cool off with some plain curds and beans instead. Shall I have another helping? Hmm? No.(3)

  • I remember to put everything in smaller containers and store it in the fridge.(1)

  • I should remember to take the murukkus to office. A water bottle as well. I put the murukkus in a container and put it in my bag. I decide to rely on the water cooler at work for today because I don't feel like lugging around a second bag that's heavy.(4)

  • I switch on my computer at work and feel like having strawberry gateau or chocolate cake. I toy with the idea of stopping by for some on the way back home later in the day. I am hungry. Within half an hour of coming to work, which is about two hours after lunch, I dip into the murukku container and eat some. (1)

  • I drink copious amounts of water to make sure it all gets flushed out properly when the time comes. (1)

  • Then colleague #1 comes over and eats some of the murukku. I keep her company.(1)

  • We both dip into another colleague's diet potato lacha but we don't eat much, we go off for coffee. (1)

  • At the canteen, the coffee looks too strong to have it sugar-less so I have it with a bit of sugar. (1)

  • I drink most of it. Usually I have only half. (1)

  • I work a bit, thinking of food, recipes and blogging most of the time.

  • Then I tell my colleague who sits next to me, the one with the potato lacha (potato straws), that I desperately want to eat something hot. She offers me the lacha, and I take it, telling her that my BP surprisingly was 140/80 the other day when I went to meet the doctor, and how could it be, I don't have a problem and I shouldn't be having lacha which was quite salty but of course, it was nice because there was an aftertaste of chilli powder.(2)

  • I put some on a paper and snack off it. Colleague #1 comes back and helps herself to some lacha, puts a mountain of it on my paper and we both eat off it.(2)

  • My murukku container has migrated to my colleague's desk in the meantime. I had put it there to offer it to her and others. I retrieve it and finish it off. I drink hot water from the cooler. Then I work steadily, cravings and hunger pangs making themselves felt. I push them away.(2)

  • I leave work at about 8.15 pm, and head for the supermarket. I buy four packets of slim milk. Then two cartons of coconut milk, to replace the two we used up. This brand has a way of disappearing from the shelves for months together. A small tin of condensed milk, simply because I find it. If I don't grab it now, next time I need one I'll have to buy a regular, big one and make more dessert than I want. It can't be stored. (Well, no one needs condensed milk, do they? They only want it. And it's not even as if I make dessert regularly.) (3)

  • I decide not to throw out the Black Forest cake just yet. We had bought it to delight our very young niece who loves cutting cakes, birthday or not. It's been seven days since she cut it, and she didn't show much interest in it herself after the first day. It's five days since she and her parents left to go back home and it's lying in our fridge, untouched. (1)

  • For dinner, I take out the pesarattu batter I've made in the morning. I eat it with some ginger pickle, after some deliberation.  Just one, I tell myself, a large one, and then some rice with the pappucharu (in picture above). I stick to that decision. I eat some curds and broad beans too but I don't feel guilty. I think of another helping but put a lid on it, literally and figuratively.(5)

  • I boil a packet of milk. I wonder whether to chop up a cabbage and store it in the fridge for tomorrow's cooking. Should I add coconut to it or not? Should I look online for a recipe? Something with wedges of cabbage rather than the usual minced? I abandon the idea.(6)

  • Then a friend calls and we discuss death, disease, stones in urine and ... no, the list of unsavoury topics ends there. I stir a smidgeon of curds into the boiled milk so that it will turn into curds for the next day's meal. I feel like chocolate and have a small wedge of almond chocolate. I have a bit more, a square. I think about some more but I kill the thought. Then I polish off some lychees. I guess each fruit is to be counted as a decision. I start counting the seeds to see how many I've consumed but abandon the attempt. It's fruit only, nothing heavy. (12-20)

  • I've forgotten to update my food and fitness app today. It reminded me once, I put it off. I'm going to do it now. I'm very proud to say this is one exercise I've not given up every since I started it a month ago. (1)

  • It's past midnight and I'm typing out this post. Will I have the energy to cook tomorrow or should I simply order in? There's a new restaurant that promises meals of home-cooked quality just around the corner ... (2)

That's about 70 decisions in all. I wonder how much more I have forgotten or overlooked, because I kept remembering things as I was writing this post. I also sincerely believe, though, that like most respondents in that study, probably, that I've been honest about the whole thing. It's like that disclaimer we declare and sign at the end of application forms or declarations: "... these responses are true to the best of my knowledge and belief ..."

Have you ever attempted something like this? Or have you ever maintained a food diary? How did it work for you?

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Salad With Some Summer In It - Bittergourd & Mango

If you know me, you wouldn't have come here for a beautiful picture of the bittergourd-mango salad that is the subject of this post. (The photo is way down, this time.) What you will get, instead, is a discussion on the methods of de-bittering the bittergourd, and some memories stoked by the taste of this salad.

What worked for the short, plump bittergourd didn't suit the long one. And what I hoped would be a Mauritian bittergourd salad turned into "let's try this Sri Lankan recipe" and then into my own.

On the de-bittering first: I stuffed the short, plump ones with 'senagakaram', what you might call a chutney powder, a mixture of chana dal powder and spices. I followed Internet instructions and steamed them for five minutes above a bowl of boiling water after scraping the skin thoroughly - I believe the bitterness is concentrated in the bumps covering the skin, and I follow it religiously, but it has also been my experience that they never ever lose the bitterness completely. With this set of gourds, though, I couldn't detect any after they had been steamed, which was truly surprising. (I didn' taste them before I steamed them.) The Spouse has a closed mind when it comes to bittergourds and I happily consumed all the 10 specimens myself over two meals.

Then, exchanging messages with a friend, I came to know about a Mauritian bittergourd salad. What attracted me was the mention of raw onions in the salad. They add such crispness to salads, don't you think? She spoke of how the recipe calls for soaking the gourds in vinegar and something something, she trailed off, she could never bring herself to eat it. So I set about looking for recipes for a Mauritian bittergourd salad but didn't find any that I wanted to make. In one picture, the bittergourd even looked bitter. (Don't ask me how I arrived at that conclusion. It's one of those I-know-it-all opinionated conclusions which are usually way off the mark.)

The next day, I saw three normal-sized bittergourds in the supermarket so I bought those. I had also seen, by this time, recipes for bittergourd or 'ampalaya' salad in blogs of Filipino heritage, and saw some preparation manual where the bittergourds were saturated with salt and soaked in water. I couldn't find the same blog post later but went ahead from memory - and was disappointed to find that they tasted bitter even after the scraping, salting, soaking and rinsing.

But I'm no wimp - in matters of bittergourd, that is - and went on to slice them. I chanced on a Sri Lankan recipe but didn't have any of the ingredients mentioned except the onion so I abandoned that too. I didn't even have limes. I applied salt, chilli powder and turmeric on the bittergourd pieces, fried them and rested them on kitchen paper, then mixed them with an onion and looked unhopefully inside the crisper of my refrigerator. Hurrah, I had a mango! I cut and peeled one side of it and mixed it with the rest of the preparation. I added a little more salt.

(That's the salad in the foreground, in the picture.)

It tasted exactly like the 'mixture' that used to be sold in 'bandis' (carts) on the roads in my town in Andhra Pradesh, when I was a child. I don't remember seeing them later. I am trying to recall what the main ingredient was - peas/ chickpeas, most likely the former - I'm not sure now, but what joy it is to discover a recipe for a long-forgotten and forbidden treat! (I don't know how I got to taste it.) Now I'm wondering if the vendor used mangoes in his mixture. It used to be heaped into a soft, starchy mountain of yellow and red in a big steel plate. Maybe they added some roughly chopped tomatoes too. It used to be decorated with tomato and onion slices, and green chillis stuck out of it. I've tried looking for pictures on the Internet but all of them seem to be modern, chaat-type versions, which this was most certainly not. There was no ' 'sev' in it, no chaat masala, just plain salt and green chillies and chilli powder. I've also seen it sold on the beach in Chennai, long ago. The funny thing is, I don't know where to find those peas! If they were yellow peas, I haven't seen them in the stores. They weren't green. If they were peas, that is.

I have asked a cousin, she does not remember either, but she will ask her mother and let me know. Meanwhile, here's the recipe.

Bittergourd, scraped and sliced: 2 cups
Turmeric: 1/2 tsp
Chilli powder: 1 tsp
Iodised salt: 3/4-1 tsp
Onion, sliced: 1/4 cup
Mango, peeled, chopped: 1/2 cup
Oil: 2 tbsp + a little more to top up

Apply the spices to the bittergourd slices and fry in the oil.

(I don't know if my theory is correct, but to save on oil and oiliness, I use a somewhat deep, curved vessel that allows these slices to get more or less immersed in just 4 tbsp of oil - I'm not sure it's deep-fried, but it's not too shallow either.)

Drain on kitchen paper towels.

Mix with the onion and mango, taste and add some more salt if you like.

Bon appetit!