The Golden Rice explainer

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Ingo Potrykus on Time cover (source: “Gene manipulation in plantsOpenLearn)

In the year 2000 Time Magazine ran a cover story on something that it had probably never given such prominence to before. It was a grain—a variety of rice. The cover proclaimed that this variety of rice had the potential to save a million kids a year because it was yellow when milled instead of white. In pictures, the grains have a translucent glow as if imbued with saffron or turmeric.

But it contained neither. Rather, the yellow showed the presence of beta-carotene—the same compound that makes carrots orange—synthesized by the grains themselves as they formed inside the spikes of grass. Despite being a purely humanitarian endeavor, it was given the marketing moniker ‘Golden Rice’: a name suggested by Thailand’s ‘Condom King’, who had successfully marketed another, very different, public health product. The inventors hoped that since the human body can turn beta-carotene into Vitamin A, it could help the poverty-stricken rice-eating populations of the world where Vitamin A deficiency is an often fatal problem.

The Time Magazine article warned of controversies to come, and sure enough, in the ensuing 16 years, they have. While golden rice has had plenty of technical challenges to work through, it has also run into a number of regulatory and political headwinds.

This is because golden rice is genetically modified. The original prototype included two foreign genes: one from the daffodil, and one from a bacterial species.

By and large, the foodie public is not yet comfortable with genetically modified foods. Their thought-leaders, the mavens of the new food politics, turned against golden rice almost instantly; Michael Pollan called it the Great Yellow Hype, while Marion Nestle, in 2013, said on her website Food Politics that she could not believe people were still talking about it. The opposition reached an apogee when Greenpeace activists destroyed fields of golden rice trials in the Philippines (while claiming that the vandalism was done by the farmers).

While there is widespread skepticism about genetically modified foods, public opinion is contrary to settled science and betrays several misconceptions. But apart from the general debate, each genetically modified product has also to be understood in its own terms.

The orange hue

Gold—or less grandiosely, yellow-orange—is a color that nature is quite adept at. Pumpkins and carrots come to mind, but there’s no limit to the orange hues: fruits, and petals, and yellow corn, and egg yolks, and butter; leaves during autumn; and so on. When you see the yellows, oranges, or reds out in nature, it is a clue that the plant has been manufacturing pigments known as carotenoids. Each of these pigments, down to the molecule level, is a precise chain of 40 carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms, and sometimes oxygen atoms too, hanging on like amulets on a bracelet.

One of these is beta carotene. A 40-carbon, 56-hydrogen chain with loops at each end, it is a celebrity because of how the liver processes it, if eaten with some fat—it splits each 40-carbon chain into two molecules of Vitamin A. And Vitamin A is crucial for our eyes and immune systems.

But plants do not create beta-carotene in order to nourish us. It is crucial for them, too. It collects light energy and so helps leaves photosynthesize. It plays the role of an antioxidant by intercepting free radicals.

The white on rice

You might ask: if beta-carotene is so important for plants, why did rice need such expensive intervention—why doesn’t rice create its own beta-carotene out in nature?

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Rice grains (source: “Photos of some important cereal grassesWayne’s Word)

But that question would be misguided in two ways. For one: rice does indeed create its own beta-carotene—where it needs it, which is in the tissues that photosynthesize, mostly the leaves. If you look closely, you see a dent in one tip of the torpedo-shape that is a single grain of rice. This dent is where the germ used to sit—the germ that would turn into a new rice plant if sown, that was removed during the milling process. Since the germ has to photosynthesize as it grows, it does have the capability to create beta-carotene and other carotenoids.

But not the surrounding starch—the food for the germ as it grows, which is also the part we eat. This starchy part is very low in micronutrients and contains no beta carotene.

The other reason that question would be misguided is the deeper one: there is no “rice” out in nature. The species Oryza sativa is entirely a cultivated species; its closest relative that it probably arose from, known as brownbeard rice (Oryza rufipogon), is considered a weed when found in rice fields, and, when harvested together, its grains are winnowed out like chaff.

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Wild rice v/s domesticated rice (source: “New tricks for a very old cropEzra Magazine)

The ancients created the rice we eat. Their needs drove early rice evolution: they needed a crop that was easy to harvest, so they selected plants whose seeds didn’t shatter and fall when ripe; they needed a crop that was easy to plan for, and rice adapted in response to ripen all at once instead of in dribs and drabs.

They bred it to yield much more grain than the wild plant they found, and bred starch into the grain. They also bred the red color out. Did they just prefer white grains? Perhaps, but it is more likely that they got white rice as a side-effect of breeding traits they actually cared about, like making the hull easier to remove. Regardless, red rice, as the wild brownbeard is also known, wasn’t red because of carotenes, but rather, the same kind of tannins that give red wine and chocolate their deep color.

The rice crop has seen many improvements since the days of the ancient farmers. Many of these came in the 1960s, under research projects that are given the umbrella term of ‘Green Revolution’.

Though many of the Green Revolution improvements had to do with higher yield, the folks at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), under whose aegis these projects took place, had their eye on nutritional factors as well. A haunting story is often told about Peter Jennings, the legendary breeder: he had hunted for yellow grains of rice out in the fields for decades, hoping to find a rice plant that had spontaneously mutated to create yellowness. He was well aware of nutritional deficiencies that made rice a less-than-ideal staple food.

This isn’t as vain of a hope as it sounds. Occasionally farmers will find an oddity among their crop that has a beneficial trait or two, and sometimes that oddity will be bred into a well-known variety. The story of Cheddar Cauliflower, the bright yellow cauliflower sold in upscale grocery stores, played out this way.

Regardless, the decades-long hunt for spontaneous beta-carotene rice turned up fruitless. This led Peter Jennings to suggest one day in 1984 that if he had his druthers, the science of biotechnology that lay over the horizon would take on the challenge of creating yellow rice. Two researchers, Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, took up the challenge.

The beta carotene assembly line

In the early 1900s the Ford Motor Company revolutionized car manufacture with the assembly line: rather than each car being built up on the spot in a bespoke kind of way, its manufacture moves through stages, each of which focus on doing the same step over and over.

As with much else, biology got there first. Within each plant cell, which is essentially a factory, several assembly lines proceed simultaneously, each putting together the chemicals that the plant needs.

One of these assembles the 40-carbon beta-carotene. It is put together from pieces as though Lego blocks were being connected.

One of nature’s most common Lego blocks is a 5-carbon block known as isoprene; it is veritably the 2×4 brick of biochemistry. You might not have heard of it, but if you wander among oak trees on a hot, sunny day, chances are that their leaves are emitting an abundance of isoprene into the air; if you are familiar with the smell of rubber tires in the heat, chances are you have smelled it.

Considering that isoprene is a 5-carbon block, and we want to get to a 40-carbon chain, you would be absolutely justified in relying on arithmetic to deduce that it takes 8 blocks of isoprene. Although it isn’t isoprene itself that takes part in the chemical assembly line, but rather a form known as activated isoprene.

Let’s zoom in on a segment of the assembly line. The cell has already created 20-carbon chains out of 4 isoprene blocks, the steps of which we won’t go into. Where we begin, two of these 20-carbon chains are stitched together to make a 40-carbon, 64-hydrogen chain. This is phytoene, a colorless compound.

Watch carefully, because the creation of phytoene is an important step. It is colorless, but most of the warm colors in nature get their start as colorless phytoene: it is the first step in the creation of a number of yellow, orange, and red pigments.

carotenoid-fruits

Carotenoid-containing fruits and veggies, that all get their start as phytoene (source: Carotenoid Society)

The next step is important too. This is phytoene ‘desaturation’—a word that contains multitudes. It is also the step that results in color. How does this happen? The 40 carbons in the chain link not only to their neighbors along it, but also manage to hold on to 64 hydrogen atoms besides. In this step, the chain relinquishes 8 of those hydrogen atoms, and 8 carbon atoms hold on to their neighbor doubly instead. This is why this is known as ‘desaturation’—it now has unfilled slots that used to be occupied by hydrogen atoms.

It also changes how it interacts with light. Phytoene can only absorb high-energy light from the UV spectrum that is invisible to us. Since it lets all visible light through, it appears colorless. But after desaturation, almost all visible light except the low-energy red gets absorbed; hence what we have now is a deep red compound known as lycopene.

In fact, it is exactly the deep red we know of from tomatoes.

We are almost there. The next step that happens is a looping of the ends the 40-carbon chain. Once again, this step changes how it absorbs energy from visible light; this new form mostly absorbs the blues and cyan, so it appears orange to us. This, finally, is beta-carotene.

The genes

I called out two steps above as having special significance; one was the creation of phytoene, and the other was its desaturation. This is because these are exactly the two steps where rice needed intervention in order to create yellow grain.

In truth, it isn’t as if the researchers had to create the beta-carotene assembly line from scratch. Like we went over before, rice is not a stranger to beta carotene; it is synthesized in all green tissues that photosynthesize. But the assembly line in the starchy part of rice was broken in two key steps.

Faced with a broken assembly line in a modern factory, one frequently needs to tinker with the computer systems that run it, rather than mess with the nuts and bolts; and so it is with the plant cell. The problem lay in the genes.

Researchers had noticed that the starch did accumulate plenty of the 20-carbon Lego blocks I mentioned earlier, but no phytoene. This step happens under control of a particular gene whose name—psy—seems to come out of a spy novel, but really just stands for what it does—control the synthesis of phytoene.

Rice does have a psy gene, but its function is turned off in the starchy grain. But, siblings of the rice psy gene are found in other plants as well. Let us pause here to appreciate a fact that, while it has completely swept the biological sciences since Darwin and Mendel, is still not well understood by lay-people.

There is deep unity among different life forms—whether an ant, a sea urchin, or a palm tree—on the level of the genes. My cells may not make chlorophyll, thus I am not green. But my genes speak the same language as the genes of the palm tree: they just choose different sentences. Among close relatives long snatches of the genetic code are often much the same.

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Daffodils

So when it came to seeking a psy gene to fix the broken step, researchers could turn to the vast library of psy genes available in other plants. They chose the psy from a paragon of yellowness, the daffodil, whose psy plays a part in the lovely color of its petals.

They announced in 1997 that their experiment had been successful. Close to six hundred seedlings of a Japonica rice variety were bombarded with the daffodil psy gene using a gene gun. In the end, they had 47 that contained phytoene and were fertile enough to propagate.

Remember, no color yet, because phytoene is colorless. The second key step—that of desaturation of phytoene, the step that produces the color—had yet to be done.

For this, they turned to an experiment that had been performed by Peter Bramley earlier on tomatoes. He had found that tomatoes could be induced to be twice as red by splicing in a desaturation gene from a bacterial species. This is because twice as much phytoene could be desaturated, producing twice as much red-colored lycopene.

The researchers, Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, relied on this same bacterial gene, crtI, in their experiment. It worked—once again, speaking to the unity of three very different life-forms; rice, tomatoes, and—bacteria.

However, instead of becoming red due to accumulating lycopene like Peter Bramley’s experiment with tomatoes would predict, the rice grains seemed to be turning yellow, showing the presence of beta-carotene.

Remember, turning red lycopene into yellow-orange beta-carotene involves the additional step of looping the ends of the 40-carbon chain. Who performed that step?

It turns out that the researchers caught a break. Some parts of the defunct assembly line in the grains still functioned; when molecular robots detected the presence of lycopene, they kicked in and looped the ends, thus producing beta carotene on their own.

They had yellow rice.

The sequel

This is where things stood in 2000, when Time Magazine announced the breakthrough of golden rice. But the amount of yellow in the rice, while of momentous importance in showing that it could be done, wasn’t quite enough to actually help with VAD. As Michael Pollan framed it in the New York Times, an 11-year-old child would have to eat 15 pounds of golden rice in order to meet her daily requirement of Vitamin A. Although this was based on incorrect assumptions (golden rice does not have to provide the entirety of the daily requirement, since no one is at zero or they would be dead), it compellingly relayed the fact that this version really didn’t have sufficient beta carotene.

In reality, the product as it stood then was merely an alpha—a proof of concept—as the software industry calls it, or a pilot, as the television folks might.

The rice they created was a pale yellow in color; if the beta-carotene content had been more substantial, that fact would have advertised itself as a deeper orange hue.

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Golden Rice versions 1.0 and 2.0 (source: “The science behind golden riceThe Golden Rice Project)

A follow-on team from Swiss biotech giant Syngenta achieved this by using the psy gene from corn (maize) to replace the one from the daffodil. Not only is their version of golden rice a deep orange color, it also has enough beta carotene for the child of Michael Pollan’s imagination to meet his or her daily requirement by eating a bowlful.

While the gene from maize met their scientific needs, it is also a perfect choice for illustrative purposes.

Both rice and maize are grasses, so their psy genes are more closely related to each other than the one from daffodil. Perhaps this is why the maize psy was considerably more effective in creating phytoene.

But beyond that fact lie other similarities. Much like the ancient form of rice, the ancient form of corn (teosinte) is not eaten. Much like rice, maize has seen a number of changes over thousands of years to turn it into a crop: the kernels increased in size and number; the yield improved; the kernels lost their husk. Much like rice, beta carotene is not physiologically needed in the kernels of corn: hence the plant never produced it.

(In fact, as Dr. Peter Beyer told me over the phone, nor is beta-carotene physiologically needed by the very vegetable that its name derives from—the carrot.)

But here is the difference: for poorly understood reasons, maize turned out to have a very malleable genome. The Native Americans bred it into astonishing colors and sizes; the maize genome today is massive and has come a long way from the genome of the ancient, inedible teosinte.

In 1779, Europeans came across a yellow, sweet variety that had been bred by the Iroquois tribe. Clearly, an Iroquois farmer at an earlier time had succeeded where Peter Jennings had failed: he or she had discovered yellow kernel plant somewhere out in the fields; which they then decided to favor and breed. This type of chance mutation could very well have turned up for rice, but the fact is, it didn’t.

Though just as absurd from a plant physiology perspective, corn and rice both had the potential to create beta carotene in their grain. Yellow corn was found art. Yellow rice, on the other hand, had to be intentionally sought and created.

(I want to thank Dr. Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg for his invaluable help in reviewing and checking my facts.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. Follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or email me at aneela -at- theoddpantry.com. You can also subscribe to this blog here:

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[Not about food] What Katherine Anne Porter taught me about Trump’s America

We here in the United States have been riveted by the spectacle of Donald Trump, who made his billions in NY real estate and has no policy experience nor knowledge, about to win the nomination for the Republican party based merely on attitude. Many have suggested similarities with the Weimar period in Germany before the Nazis came to power. People forget that Hitler, too, was a long shot to win and often a figure of fun before he did. I recently read a novel based in those times, and startlingly, a lot of it applies to today. The novel is Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. Here is an article I wrote about it.  I would love to know your thoughts, here or in the comments section of the article.

(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

My Thanksgiving Recap

Rerunning my thanksgiving post from last year, because it is that time again….

The Odd Pantry

IMG_3855Thanksgiving is one of my favorite American holidays, because — well, that’s easy. It involves cooking!

It took me a long time to warm to the taste of turkey. But having married into an American family that loves their annual turkey dinner, I didn’t really have a choice. It was a love-it-or-leave-it type of deal…well, maybe never quite that harsh. But I was certainly scared straight. I began to not only enjoy that once bland, inscrutable meat, but also crave it. And on the years that we are away from family (like this one), my husband demands a ‘proper’ American turkey meal. In other words, no garam masala in the pumpkin pie, like the White House chef once did¹. No chilies in the cranberry sauce either!

I’ve had a lot of learning to do, but now I can pull off a decent-sized turkey meal with each item made from scratch…

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Going to explore GMO in these pages for a bit

Dear readers, I have been remiss in posting recipes and reading all of your wonderful blogs. It’s just that a new bug has taken hold of me. I’ve become obsessed with learning as much as I can about genetically modified food. What is it? Is it healthy? Does it matter? What is the firestorm about? 

As I write this, one American state — ONE — Vermont, has passed laws requiring labeling of GMO foods as such. There have been reports of increasing farmer suicides in India over seed lawsuits. How much is hype, how much reality? What do I think about these issues?

Until about a month ago, I didn’t know what I should think, let alone what I did think. I have my biases. As my readers might have guessed (if nothing else, from the title itself) I love food, odd, wonderful, strange, bio-diverse foods. I don’t want to live in a world that is blanketed by one single strain of wheat across the all the temperate farmlands. 

I also love science. I don’t care a fig for politicians, CEO’s, football stars, movie stars, rock stars, even novelists and poets (very few exceptions to the last two). But when a scientist speaks, I listen. 

So I been on a journey to understand this complex debate. Being a writer, as I explore, I have been writing. What better way to understand? I am hoping that my following posts on GMO may interest some of you, maybe help clarify your thoughts too? 

I would love to hear in comments. Should I stick to recipes? I’d like to hear that too, if so. I will be doing posts on GMO hopefully interspersed with recipes. First up is my exploration of the world of Roundup Ready crops from Monsanto.

All about dals in one place

Apologies to anyone who might be expecting a fun and interesting new post about kitchen antics from me…instead what I have to offer today is a dry, pedantic review of some dals. I updated my page about dals, and I plan to keep adding to it with other dals I have not yet covered, and of course adding links to more dal recipes. This page is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all dal-related information on The Odd Pantry. Dull, yes, but someone has to do it.

Check it out

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A pair of awards….

I just got a blog award!

I just got a blog award!

Do you know why this guy is happy? He just got a blog award!

Actually it was me that got it. And I got two…from my lovely blogger friends.

The WordPress family award from Chef Divya from Divya’s Indian Cookbook. She has lovely homey recipes, each one of which I want to try. You must check out her blog. Thank you chef! Here is a chef’s hat for you to show my gratitude.

Chef's hat from http://www.chefwear.com

Chef’s hat from http://www.chefwear.com

And a Sunshine award from Apsara of Eating Well Diary. Her focus is vegetarian food. With each recipe she has an eye to its nutritional properties. A true Apsara! Here is a traditional Cambodian Apsara dance for your enjoyment Apsara!

Then, I get to display these proudly on my blog….

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I am supposed to answer 10 questions…

1. Why did you start blogging?

I cook a lot and experiment a lot and I thought putting things on a blog would help me remember what I did last. It hasn’t.

2. Sweet or savory?

For food, people, experiences, travels, books and children: savory. For music: sweet.

3. If you were to go on any reality TV programme, what would it be and why?

The Apprentice, so that I could be fired personally by Donald Trump. No wait — it is because that is the only reality tv show I ever watched.

4. What was the last thing you Googled?

“Blog awards”

5. Night out or night in?

Depends on who with.

6. What has been your favorite blog post to write?

The one that is yet to come. It will blow your mind. Hold on to your hats.

7. What is the one thing you never leave home without?

My heart. I have heard songs like ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ and I can’t imagine a worse fate. Even though I live there.

8. Where would you most like to travel to?

The Amazon rainforest.

9. If you could have any super power, what would it be?

To be a fly on any wall I choose, spy on people’s lives, then write stories about them.

10. What can we expect to find on your blog in the future?

Posts.

There, that’s taken care of. Now to pass on the award to my fellow-bloggers…how exciting! In no particular order:

1. Kitchen Counter Culture. Annie has an interest in fermentation like me. Maybe some day we will have a transcontinental collaboration and lob microbes at each other across the ocean. She writes often about the politics surrounding food. This is important.

2. Creative Cravings. Ramya pays attention to ingredients and shares that knowledge. This is important too.

3. Mohabhoj: The author dispenses with the traditional recipe format in favor of descriptions. And to be honest, who always needs recipes? Sometimes all you need is an idea.

4. Feeding the Sonis. Sanjana has an entertaining style, and oh yes, recipes too.

5. Yummy Mummy’s Kitchen. Ostensibly a food blog, the author tells stories about her life that I enjoy reading.

6. Sham’s Kitchen. Home-based South Indian cuisine. Northern too. If I could make everything on her blog I would be an expert.

7. Vegetarian Nirvana. I like her sense of style in her photographs. I could learn from that since I sorely lack any.

8. 1861: A blog in the true sense of the word…a log of events and thoughts on the web. About food.

9. The Garden Pond Blog. No, not about food. But we have a garden pond and I found it useful.

As for which award goes to which blogger…both go to all. How persnickety do you think I am?

15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently

I think about food a lot. I don’t have a huge appetite, and I wish I could grow it so I could think about food even more. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about food anyway.

So you can imagine that out of the first 24 years of my life, which I spent in India, and the next — well, many years — that I have spent and am spending in the United States, a good part of that was spent thinking about food. The flavors; the ingredients; the cultural differences.

So my point is — there is not much I can claim expertise on, but this is probably it. It’s inconsequential, it’s fluff, but I’m an expert in it. How do eating styles differ between India and America? Sorry — I meant to say that in a more catchy way. The 15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently. Looky here, BuzzFeed!

1. Carnivorous v/s herbivorous:

This is no secret but Americans are more carnivorous than Indians. Way more. Way, way more. Ten times more, as a matter of fact, per person.

Global meat consumption per capita

Clearly the fact that India is not as economically developed as the United States is big a factor, and all experts agree, meat consumption in India will go up with GDP. But not as much as you would naively expect. You see, there were these guys some time ago — you might have heard of them, or might not — by whose influence Indians gave up meat almost altogether. One’s name was Siddharth, he was a prince, but you might know him better by his other title: The Buddha. The other was an emperor. His name was Ashoka, but most people know him better by his symbol, the wheel in the middle of the Indian flag. And then there was another prince, Mahavir by title, who created the Jain religion, about the strictest in the world in its edicts to cause no harm to other creatures.

2. Sugar and spice:

Another non-secret is that Americans consume a lot more sugar than Indians.

Global sugar consumption per person

A typical breakfast for an American might include pancakes, maple syrup, jam, or muffins. A typical breakfast for an Indian might include a number of different things depending on the region, but would include chutney or chilies. Indian desserts are very sweet indeed, but one has less of it, and not with every meal.

3. Industrial grease v/s elbow grease:

Good old fashioned American ingenuity extends to food: Americans eat way more processed food than most other countries. I had never heard of recipes that included Campbell’s chicken soup and Dorito chips as ingredients before I came to America. Factory-made cheeses in America must by law be called ‘cheese food‘ to distinguish them from the real thing.

4. Ingredient List Length:

In America a typical ingredient list is about four items long. This includes the main item — say fish. The four ingredients might be, fish, salt, pepper and olive oil. The typical Indian ingredient list for say, fish, to compare apples to apples, is about 15 items long. About half or more items might be spices.

5. Time Spent Cooking:

Because of the above, in America dinner is ‘prepared’ or ‘fixed’: doesn’t that give a sense of some pieces being put together? The fish is dressed simply and put under the broiler; meanwhile the bag of green beans is snipped at the corner and nuked; the dinner rolls are wrapped in a napkin and stuck in a still warm oven. Stuff is brought to the table. In India, food preparation starts in the kitchen at least an hour before the meal, possibly the night before, with the soaking of beans. I’ve often spent two hours before dinner chopping, sauteing, stirring.

Life is harder in India, but somehow we have more leisure time; a lot of that is spent in the kitchen over the minimal two-burner stove. In America, kitchens are palatial and magnificent and six-burner stoves are a maintstay of the foodie (we have a four burners ourselves), along with two ovens and a microwave, but we don’t seem to have much time to spend in food preparation. This is true especially for lunch, which in America always seems to be a quick meal. In India, there is hardly any distinction between lunch and dinner — both are equally elaborate.

6. Who does the cooking:

In India: mothers, grandmothers, the Brahmin family cook, or maids. In America: sometimes mothers and sometimes fathers. And sometimes no one.

7. Doneness:

Steak doneness chart

Steak doneness chart

This is a concept that I learned only after coming to America. People are such connoissuers of meat here, and meals are simple so that each ingredient matters more, so there is a lot of stress on when exactly food is considered ‘done’. Ten seconds too early, and it might be too rare and could kill you. Ten seconds too late, and the meal is rubber. Finicky, finicky. I never used the thermometer while cooking until I came to America.
In India, warmth is felt on the wrist; steaks are never eaten, so the question of rare or medium doesn’t arise; most other meat is prepared in the pressure cooker with spicy gravies around it; and it is ‘done’ when you hear two whistles. Possibly three, or four.


8. The Sandwich:

The American sandwich

The American sandwich

The Indian sandwich

The Indian sandwich

The American sandwich is the Incredible Hulk while the Indian sandwich is Tintin. It’s no wonder that sandwiches are a staple lunch food in America, while they are considered a snack in India.


9. The Salad:

This is another area where the typical American ingredient list is way longer than the Indian one. Americans have taken salad to a high art; can we say, also a high-calorie art? The variety in dressings alone is enormous. About fifteen types of premixed dressing are available on any typical grocery shelf; another fifty can be concocted at home. The variety in greens has exploded to include reds (radicchio) and bitters (endives). The American salad welcomes any type ingredient, be it chicken or bread or beans.

The Indian salad on the other hand may be a few leaves of lettuce or some sticks of cucumber. There you go, there’s your salad. If you get lime juice on it you’re lucky. Remember to spit out the stems!

10. Attitude towards chili heat:

Another quirk of Americans is to get into a bit of chest-thumping over being able to eat hot chilies. This may be a misconception on my part (I am a furriner after all) but it seems like in America the hotter the food you can stomach, the more macho you are. While in India I have seen old, frail grandmothers chomp on fresh green chilies straight with only raw onion as an occasional crutch. In my family it is the women who can eat hotter food (in fact, they need heat, without which they can taste nothing); and the men who shy away. Without feeling like their machismo has been questioned.

11. The Convenience Racket:

Have you ever opened a coconut to pry the flesh out? I had occasion to do this yesterday. This is not easy. Breaking it requires a hammer and a hard floor. While prying the flesh out I feared gouging my palm several times. When it splits, if you haven’t had the presence of mind to sip out the water, which by the way needs a screw-driver, you have a wet mess on your hands. Meanwhile, the counter is covered with brown coconut fibers, and the floor needs sweeping too.

Now think about how things would be different if the coconut was an American fruit. They would have engineered a shell that came with a zipper that neatly opened. The shell would be shiny smooth, there would certainly be no fibers — they would have been harvested for cattle feed already. The flesh would peel out in neat portion-sized strips by a mere touch of a finger.

Do you get my gist? Somehow Americans manage to genetically or otherwise engineer food to be incredibly convenient. Rough edges are smoothed out. Fruits like custard-apple (cherimoya) or pomegranate that serve a hefty dose of seeds with each bite don’t catch on.

Dirt — dirt is washed out at the farm. When we purchased lotus root at home, there was no mistaking the fact that someone had to wade into a muddy pond to get it. Garlic cloves were so small that you needed to peel about a hundred for a meal.

What is the problem with convenience, you ask? Nothing! If you had asked me yesterday, when I was struggling over my coconut, I would have said, I love it, bring on the magic zippered coconut! If you ask me on the days when I desperately miss the starchy, small-grained Indian corn that one roasts over coals to a char; or when I miss the crunch of seeds when I bite into watermelon: I say, perhaps we lose something in the Convenience Racket?

12. The Squeamishness Differential:

Americans are squeamish about fruits and vegetables they have never heard of; spices; textures of food. Pulpy — no good. Slimy — no good. Too mixed up together, ingredients not separate enough — no good.

Indians, on the other hand (including me), are squeamish about pungent cheeses, and meats that are prepared too plainly.

13. Health advice fads:

Food and health, of course, are intimately related; there have always been dozens of oughts and ought nots thrown around in any culture. Health advice also tends to run in fads. One year beans are a hit, another year they are the worst thing you can eat, filled with toxins. I tend to like Michael Pollan’s advice on this, to eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.

But then the giant health food industry would grind to a halt, and we can’t have that, can we! In my years in America I have seen two sea-changes in health advice: from low-fat to low-carb; and innumerable other food-villains have been first villified and then, reluctantly, brought back to the plate. Eggs are one. Butter is another. I think gluten will return too, or perhaps that is my love for bread talking.

In America these health fads have proper names, and often have books, videos, or meal plans associated with them. I’m thinking Weight Watchers; Atkins; Paleo. I don’t doubt that each one is a profit-making machine in its own right.

India has its health advice fads too, but here is the difference — these fads are mostly hundreds of years old. They never seem to go away. One is the fad of ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’ foods from Ayurveda. This is almost like gender — each food is assigned to be either ‘heating’ or ‘cooling’ by the ancients. Too much of the heating type and you come out in pimples, sort of like a volcano, I guess? Too much of the cooling type and you might have aching bones. Forgive me, this gendering of food has no basis in science as far as I know, and is necessarily vague.

Another is to do with food combinations. One is never supposed to have milk with fish. Or water after eating cucumbers. My mother warned me that if I broke these rules I would get ‘vaaee’.

Hm. I have broken these rules a number of times now, so I guess I am now cursed with the mysterious ‘vaaee’…looking at my situation in life I take it that ‘vaaee’ gives you slowly graying hair and weight in unwanted places.

14. The Vegetarianism Differential:

Vegetarianism is relatively new in America; and tends to be chosen by people who care about health, animal welfare or the environment. More power to them, I say. The braver among them might choose to go vegan and avoid all animal products entirely (including leather).

In India though, vegetarianism is thousands of years old and is often demanded by religion, if not, by culture. Entire families and castes might never touch meat. But here’s the difference — no matter how ‘pure’ the vegetarian family is, veganism is pretty much unknown. In fact, cow slaughter is forbidden partly because we obtain milk from the cow and that makes it a somewhat maternal animal. The pure vegetarians, on the other hand, might avoid onions and garlic.

15. The Backlash!

Americans spent the fifties discovering processed food. Feminism swept over the land at the same time; none of it was inevitable, but the two movements colluded with each other to take people out of their kitchens into the aisles of corporations.

But now — now is a wonderful time to be a foodie in America. All those years of convenience and gradually deteriorating food quality have led to a backlash. America taught me to honor my ingredients like I never did before. There is a huge amount of respect for the craft of cooking as well.

I often get anxious about my home country’s trajectory in this arc. My peers are already cooking less than families did when I was a child. Options for eating out have exploded. Women are working out of the home in larger numbers, but men have not turned to the kitchen in equal numbers. Is the simple act of rolling a roti destined to become an exotic craft? I hope not. Time will tell.

Disclaimers:

This reflects my own experience and your mileage may vary. Please tell me in comments, agree or disagree! Did something strike a chord? Make you mad? Extrapolating from your own experience is always dangerous. But, extrapolate we must.

‘Extrapolating’ — from xkcd

Bloggy Love

In the six months that I have been blogging I’ve found so many unique, interesting and authentic food blogs, that I wish I was the Nobel committee for Food Blogs and I could nominate some of these for the Nobel prize for Food. But alas, I’m not, I’m just a food blogger, and what I can do is showcase them on my front page.

These are the blogs I go to often, to find ways to use unusual ingredients, or for tips from a regional cuisine, or tips from a grandmother, or just for inspiration. I will add more as I follow more. Have a look at the blogroll down the left side. Enjoy and give them some clicks.

A blog award if I choose to accept it

Dear Reader, I am new to blogging, and have now learned that there are such things as blog awards.

How do I know this? I just got one! My sweet blogger friend Tanusree Roy (find her here) nominated me for one. No, two! the WordPress Family award and the Liebster award. How sweet. She has a lovely blog with wholesome recipes that nourish you inside. I don’t mean nourish you just in your stomach and intestines, how gross. I mean way, way inside.

Deep inside. Thank you Tanusree.

Anyway, one part of the award is that I get to show off these medallions on my blog. I don’t think that is a particularly web-savvy term (medallion? What are we, Romans?) but I can’t think of a better word.

liebster-award wordpress-family-award

The second part is I have to answer these questions and pass the award on, which I am happy to do:

Describe yourself in 3 words:

Greedy, envious, lazy. I’m never wrathful though.

What is your favorite time of day?

Dawn.

Name one non-food passion:

I’ll name several. Nature science, any science, gardening, reading Victorian novels. Old Hindi songs. Hating on sports. Knitting. Politics. I also like deep saturated colors. Electric blue. I like it.

If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be?

Some place that has good food. Rome, Nepal, and definitely the English countryside.

Your favorite cuisine?

Gujarati food. Thali restaurants.

What would you bring to a potluck?

In fact I recently did go to a potluck and brought this: King Julienne, which I made up for the potluck out of whatever scraps I had in the fridge.

Recall special childhood memories about yourself:

I remember trying to hypnotize my cousins and succeeding in making them fall asleep. I remember trying to call spirits with an ouija board at school. I remember visiting a foggy place for vacation and trying to bring back some fog in an empty suitcase. I remember looking forward to going to Taj hotel with my parents just to go up and down in the elevator. I remember how exciting it was when my brother was born. I remember falling down a slide and chipping my two front teeth, which were brand new at the time. I remember my grandfather telling me that crows ate his hair (he was bald).

Some random facts about yourself:

I am five feet tall and love insects but hate cockroaches. I am a Scorpio but don’t think much about astrology. I met my husband because of his love of Raj Kapoor and he could tell I was Indian.

If this was your last day to live, how would you like to spend your day?

Probably on the phone with medical doctors trying to figure out what the heck to do. Oh — and I would desperately try to impart recipes to my husband and daughter so that they know how to fend for themselves. Well, I guess they could just read this blog. It will keep going for a few months at least even without me around to renew it on WordPress. So forget it, doctors win.

What inspires you?

Nature.

Now for my nominations: 

This is the fun part. There are so many wonderful blogs out there, with such interesting things to say, that I feel lucky. Thank you Internet and the bloggers therein.

1. Shoshannah at Crosswalk Confidential

2. Judith at The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

3. Karen at Revolutionary Pie

4. Aruna at Aahaaram

5. Fari and Azita at Fig and Quince

I will leave comments at their sites and hope that they accept it. I guess ‘accepting’ the award means they answer these questions and nominate 5 more blogs, like a chain letter. So — I’m sorry and thank you for your wonderful blogs!

10 kitchen products you do not need

I have had occasion before to comment on the American marketing prowess. I stand in awe of it. I believe that they could sell arugula to a wolf or a pashmina shawl to a sheep. And if the sale seemed iffy at all, they would wrap the product in sepia-toned crepe with a ribbon made of straw, slap an organic label on, and watch the customers fall over themselves trying to get at it.

Some American marketing geniuses

American marketing geniuses

But sometimes, my friends, they go too far. Just a tad too far. A lemon zester? A bagel slicer? Wait — a bagel slicer that isn’t just a good solid serrated-edge knife?

Here are some kitchen products that you Do Not Need. You should run out and not buy these right away. I am doing this as a public service, even though, you realize, my future advertising cash-flow is taking a big hit with this post.

Apple corer/peeler

AppleCorere Applepeeler

Here are some facts that ought to raise doubts in the minds of the apple-corer constituency:

  1. Not all apples are the same size; ergo, not all apple cores are the same size.
  2. Apple cores do not take up the exact middle cylinder of the apple, no matter what size they are, in fact the core is in a rough sphere in the center of the apple. Which means that the corer is either wasting a lot of apple or not getting all the core.
  3. Apples will often have some brown spots, which means you will be reaching for the dreaded paring knife anyway.
  4. The corer cuts through the plastic skin in a perpendicular direction, which dulls the blade. If you use a paring knife, you will notice that you use the point to first pierce the skin, which is way better.
  5. They already make peelers that work for apples, cucumbers, potatoes, what-have-you, and will also shave off parmesan flakes. Meanwhile apple-peelers will only peel apples. Unless you are a maggot you do not eat that many apples. Plus, you should be eating the peel anyway.

Corn cob holder

CornCobHolders

I don’t actually deny that everyone should own a good pair of corn cob holders; otherwise, how would you hold corn-on-the-cob? It’s just that I own a good pair already, and so do most of you.

Corn cob holders

My corn cob holders

Bread machine

BreadMaker

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to make Americans believe that bread-making needs a specialized appliance (other than an oven). Here’s what you basically do. Mix flour, water and yeast. Work off your aggression on the mixture by punching it into a dough. Wait. Roll into loaf shape. Wait. Bake. Basically, that is it. The only machine in this scenario is the Machine that is making you buy this stuff.

The other secret about bread is — it is very forgiving. You may be a complete novice and make seventeen basic mistakes, but you will get good serviceable bread.

Bisquick

Bisquick

Look, if there was a powder that you mix with water and cook, presto, pancakes, I would get it. I still would not purchase it, but I would understand it. But that is not what Bisquick is. You still need to add eggs, milk or buttermilk. You still need to mix a batter and remove most lumps. So why are you using Bisquick? Why aren’t you using flour? This is a mystery.

Self-rising flour

SelfRising

It’s not that self-rising flour will not rise. All it is is flour with baking powder and salt added to it. But therein lies the problem. How do you know how much baking powder? How much salt? What if the recipe suggests a different amount of baking powder? Or if it wants baking soda instead? Or if it wants no salt, or more salt? You are out-of-luck. You would have to have a set of chosen recipes that you make with self-rising flour and stick with only those. Possibly each bag of self-rising flour comes with a booklet of recipes you can make with it. Why would you cede so much control to your bag of flour? What are you really saving — moving your arm to the pantry and back to the mixing bowl twice?

Lemon zester

LemonZester

I love lemon zest. Theoretically anything that claims to zest lemons should have my full endorsement. Here is why it doesn’t. The standard ‘lemon zester’ tool requires you to apply pressure to a lemon at a very awkward angle. Your thumb is stretched out. You are pressing down with the rest of your hand guiding it around the curve of the lemon. This is not ergonomic.

Then you find that the zest it is able to collect is a mere pittance and it is mostly crushed.

Here is a better way to do it. If you want nice long yellow sheets of zest, you use your trusty vegetable peeler. If on the other hand you want thin shavings, you use a microplane rasp grater. Both of these are true workhorses in the kitchen and I heartily endorse them.

Yogurt Maker

Yogurt maker

You need 4 things to make yogurt: milk; a spoonful of old yogurt; room temperature; time. The last two are free, the third-to-last is almost free. You only need to pay for milk. Hence: yogurt maker.

Bagel Slicer

BagelSlicer

Close your eyes and imagine yourself slicing bread. What do you see? There’s you standing at the kitchen counter. There’s your loaf of bread. A knife in your hand. Yes. The knife is moving. Yes, yes! The knife is slicing the bread. Yes indeed, yes…now. Which way is the knife moving? If you said back-and-forth, you are right. If you said straight down, you are wrong.

This is the thing. Push cuts and straight edge knives do not work well with bread. Slicing cuts (back-and-forth) with serrated edge knives do. The reason for this is two-fold. One, the crust of the bread is often hard, or, in case of the bagel, it might be glazed. You need the slicing action of the serrated edge knife to break through the crust. Two, the interior of the bread is usually soft. Push cuts tend to make the soft thing squish down instead of cut through.

Now the whole idea of the bagel slicer is centered around doing one big push cut through the middle of the bagel. You are not so much slicing the bagel as beating it into submission. What did the bagel ever do to you?

Jar Opener

JarOpener

Next time you get some produce wrapped in thick rubber band, save it on a door knob. Then when you have a recalcitrant lid on a jar, wrap it around the lid and tug — it will open.

Spoon rests that look like big spoons

SpoonRest

I’m not just being dyspeptic here, people. I get that spoon rests that look like spoons are cute. But a thing has to be good at what it is supposed to do, first, then take on any attempts at being cute while doing it. You wouldn’t think much of a coat-hanger that looked very cutely like a coat itself, while only managing to hang on to a single sleeve of the coat.

So what is my problem with spoon rests? They can just handle one spoon at a time! I usually have two pots going, possibly rice and maybe another main dish — so that is two big stirring spoons. Plus you might have a couple teaspoons you use for tasting, or a tablespoon you use to put soy sauce in, and might want to reuse. Plus you might want a waste area to perhaps pick out a bone from a fish, or whole cloves from the dish before serving. All that the ‘cute’ spoon rest gives you is room for ONE super special spoon.

What you really need is a spoon rest for an array of spoons. Absent any attempt by the kitchen industry to think through this problem at all, I’ve had to improvise. I personally use sushi serving platters laid horizontally to bear my array of spoons. These are decorative and you can have fun selecting them too.

Why horizontal? Because if you think about it, it is only the bowl part of the spoon that is covered in food an needs to be kept off the counter, the handle is perfectly clean and can be laid on the counter itself. One sushi serving platter can hold at least four messy spoons laid side-by-side. Problem solved.

Sushi serving platter as spoon rest

Sushi serving platter as spoon rest