3. 9. 2020

Lifestyle | Gourmet: hope at the table

by Nuno Miguel Dias


Of all the evils that came into this world, few were the ones that Humans could not overcome. This greater good that follows only exists because hope never came to die (it is always the last one to die, remember?). And mankind is already old enough to know that health lies in what we eat. There are countless cultures that know it. We are the ones that know little about these cultures.


I know you will accuse me of being arrogant, but I am too old for false humility. Because I have, in fact, a very specific talent. A gift, really. Something I am very proud of: no one knows, better than I do, how to get insulted. Doubt it? Pay attention to the following sentence, my own. Better yet, give it to a friend from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or from the southernmost Brazilian states even: “Bahia is the Best Brazil”. Now abstract yourself from every name you are calling me right now and imagine the aromas and flavors (if you have already smelled or tasted them), these Snacks have: fish stew, shrimp bobó, octopus rice (yes, with onion, garlic and rosemary), acarajé, abará, vatapá, tapioca (beijú), hauçá rice, aberém, lamb minico, oxtail and, in the sweets world, mungunzá, cocada, quindim, manioc cake, fried banana, pé de muleque, rapadura and sweet pamonha. Then, add the worst heat that is softened by a sweet breeze that shakes the foliage of the coconut trees that line a coast with a sea at a desirable 24oC, which allows you to repeat the feijoada and still take a dive in the sea right after. Then, add a simple, modest, good and sweet people, soft even when it comes to pronunciation, languid in gestures and knowing how to act to make us want to stay. The time when our history was spoken with vainglory and some presumption is over, the times have come when we already assume that not everything in 16th century Portuguese was that perfect. Worse still, when exploitation made us rich and, at its worst, slavery, instilled suffering and pain. We are left with the possible consolation... The Portuguese, this miscegenation of Visigoths, Moors, Castilians and French from the hordes of Napoleon (yes people with blue eyes, yes) created the Bahian, miscegenation of African slaves with local Indians and, of course, Portuguese who stayed there until the ‘Grito de Ipiranga’.

Paradoxically (or not), the Bahian man has unparalleled pride in his history, which he sees as inseparable from his unique culture, made up of absorbing others, which is little more than merely embracing them. If Rio emanates magic, if the Amazon overflows with mystery, if Sampa is cosmopolitan as few in the world, Bahia mirrors Brazil's most authentic and, therefore, the most passionate of all the “Brazils” that fit within one of the largest countries in the world. “Gave birth to” people like João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethânia, Jorge Amado, Raul Seixas, Gal Costa and, in my opinion, the greatest of the greatest, João Ubaldo Ribeiro. It was this one that made me fall in love with a place as specific as Itaparica, the island on the opposite bank from Salvador in the Bay of Todos os Santos, even before I knew, in loco, all the human warmth that emanates from each member of the community. I hadn't been able to see each of Ubaldo's characters (even more passionate than Jorge Amado's, almost all of them transformed into soap opera icons from Globo), ordinary people, like you who are reading me and me, but with all the Bahian idiosyncrasies, and I wouldn't be the boy I am today. With all that good and bad. It was there, at the window of my temporary apartment, overshadowed by a huge rosewood that housed a gigantic cicada in strident competition with the songbirds bem-te-vi and sabiá-da-praia, that the most wonderful aroma in the world reached my nostrils. The neighbor next door was cooking, in a roaster in everything identical to the one we use for cashew nuts. It wasn’t just me who noticed it, because a few more neighbors quickly arrived, attracted by the smell, each with their “contribution”, that is, a bottle of Bohemian beer. “Won't you, Patrício? Get down here”. And there I went, with a little kid enthusiasm, to try what I still say today is one of the best things in life: freshly baked cashew nuts. But I was soon forced to curb my spirits, with a warning from those who understood the thing: “Don’t eat more than two or three. If you abuse it, you won't see the toilet for a week.” I got to know, then, that constipation plagues the whole world, for a lot of mango, papaya, papaya and little wheat flour that is ingested. What matters is that for all food ailments there will always be an eatable cure: “Don't worry. ‘You go to the forest and find some berries that will cure you on the spot”. That “on the spot” didn't look too appealing to me. I decided to stay for the two cashews. And some beers.

Let's start with the bad... Mexico has a “problem” of obesity and diabetes. The reason is simple. The survival of El Pueblo de Maíz (The Corn People) depends on that cereal closely linked not only to its culture, but with almost ten thousand years of history that link Mexico today with ancestral cultures that fascinate historians from all over the world and lovers of tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, tlayudas or elotes, to their genes. Today, as always, all Mexican cuisine is grounded on maize, which is also its economic, cultural and social base. Fields and fields of ears, not only yellow, but also white, red, blue and black, constitute much of the country's landscape with the greatest number of varieties of this cereal (64 in total, 59 of which are endemic, among the 220 varieties existing throughout the whole Latin America). For the Mayans, man himself emerged from corn, as described in Popol Vuh, the sacred book of that people, where it can be read: “From yellow corn and white corn their meat was made.” But behold, in the mid-60s, transgenic maize, created in the USA to resist pests and weather and intended for the production of corn syrup (fructose, the most dangerous sugar in the world and, unfortunately, the most common), it has been the most economically viable option for producers (a misleading notion, since transgenic corn is hybrid, that is, the seed resulting from production does not germinate, forcing the purchase of seeds for cultivation). Although it is banned in the country, it has been invading family and traditional cultures, made of a careful preparation of the land and careful selection of seeds, ending up inevitably serving as food. According to some modern scientific trends or, let us agree, by common sense, in a place whose genetics has been used, for almost ten millennia, to a certain type of food, Mexico as the world champion of obesity (only surpassed by the USA), it was an unavoidable disaster. The desirable photos of the paradisiacal islands of the Pacific hide a harsh reality. In Nauru, Micronesia, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Samoa, Palau and Kiribati, the percentage of obese people is 94%, 91%, 90.9%, 90.8%, 81%, 80%, 78% and 73%, respectively. In Nauru, 31% of its population is diabetic. In Tonga, the average life expectancy is 64 years old and the king, who died in 2006, holds the Guinness record as the Heaviest Monarch Ever (200kg). In Fiji, heart attacks have become common in patients between the ages of 20 and 30. We are talking about a region where, for millennia, its people have mostly eaten fresh fish. Grilled. But behold, processed foods of the worst kind arrive on supermarket shelves, such as spam and corned beef (leftover meat - mostly fat - canned) and mutton flaps (mutton breasts), the worst scrap meat for any kitchen in the world, imported from New Zealand. 

In order to understand more easily what we are trying to demonstrate here, there is nothing like setting an example that will be as close to us as possible. Portugal occupies an honorable quarter place in European countries with the most obese population, according to the latest report by Health at a Glance [an investigation carried out every two years and which makes a detailed and updated analysis of the health status of European citizens and the performance of European Union health systems] published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in November 2019, that is, long before the pandemic and social isolation dangerously approached us from the slaughterhouse: 67.6% of Portuguese over 15 years are overweight or obese. In fact, it would be enough to do a Google search for “Caparica in the 70s” or “Estoril in the 60s” to admire the slender figures that constituted the Portuguese population fabric until very recently. What has changed? First, food culture. Even for those who did not practice self-subsistence, which at that time was practically impossible in large population centers, the products available in grocery stores (and not supermarkets, let alone hyperlinks from large national and European chains) had another kind of quality. Fruits and vegetables did not come from intensive crops and animals were not fattened with flours of dubious origin. The bread was saltier but the cereals in its origin were not transgenic. The only fast food that existed was the chicken roasted on the neighborhood grill, and even then, our parents only consumed it from time to time claiming that “it takes hormones, it's bad”. Then there was, of course, frugality, perhaps the most important of the factors, which does not invalidate all the others. Can the world reverse what is, after all, the cause of the many other pandemics that plague us (obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart attacks at an early age), in addition to cancer and the latest COVID-19? A lot would have to change. Is there hope?

Let's end this on a good note... In the ancient Jewish tradition, the remedy for a mere cold or the most serious flu is knaidach, a soup made from the water in which the chicken was cooked, to which are added crushed bread crumb balls, lots of mint and a few drops of lemon. Do you remember anything? Of course you do. Chicken soup is the best known "soup for the sick" for those who have the Judeo-Christian tradition as their cultural base. We replaced bread crumb balls with rice and, more recently, miniature pasta, but the principle is the same. It will have come from the east, where the poultry serves the same purpose. In fact, the rare species Ayam Cemani (interestingly, originally from Indonesia), is the real Golden Chicken for the Chinese, whose meat heals everything. It is a completely black bird (feathers, beak, paws, skin and even meat) and it is not even the Golden Egg Hen because even these are black. In China, and beyond what are, for us, abominable beliefs (rhinoceros’ horn and bear bile as a cure for impotence - what is happening with the power of the Chinese?), food has been for thousands of years, inseparable from our state of health. It is assumed that each food has a certain energy. Some heat, others cool. Some elevate, others subtract. Traditional Chinese medicine tries to balance our energy with that of food using the principle of opposites. If the energy in our body is generating cold, food should be consumed to warm it up. Hence the use of honey, ginger and cloves in colds. But if there is a fever, they are automatically contraindicated. In that case, watermelon would come in, highly refreshing, but which should not be consumed in the winter or by people who are very weak or who get cold easily. The reliability of an energy diagnosis is, however, relative. Because it changes quickly with the food we eat, with our emotions and with the external energies that influence us. Today's recommendation may not be viable tomorrow. Bananas, for example, are cold and sweet in nature, toning yin and eliminating heat. It is indicated for asthma, ulcers, jaundice, anemia, constipation, pneumonia, kidney and intestinal diseases, skin disorders and lung disorders. But if it is eaten green, it favors constipation.

In Western medicine, nutrition is a science. More complex than the naivest can imagine, it is no longer governed only by the suspicion that genetics responds to food intake. Right now, there are two very important fields of study in Nutrition, Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics. What are the differences? It is relatively simple. Nutrigenetics uses molecular tools (that "read" our DNA) to evaluate the response of a specific diet in a specific individual with a specific genotype. Basically, it allows the creation of a personalized diet that grants maximum benefits (or minimum harm) to an individual, based on his genetic profile. There are countless cases of obesity cure, and the risks that this entails, in this way. Nutrigenomics, on the other hand, studies the influence of a given diet on the expression of the genes of a given individual, assuming that the nutrients present in food have the ability to influence the mechanisms of the molecules and the physiological functions of our organism. It brings together Nutrition, Bioinformatics, Molecular Biology, Epidemiology and Molecular Genetics. Is this the cure for the food that the world longs for? Perhaps. But perhaps it is necessary not to neglect, adding to the balance that would balance everything and everyone, the ancestral traditions of so many and so many cultures that make up this planet. For that, we would have to be much less prejudiced and much more tolerant. Perhaps this is the great pandemic that is plaguing us. Note that we started social isolation with sentences of hope. We ended up seeing the worst of what the world has seen resurgent. We learned nothing from history, from the stories of our grandparents, from the books we read, not even from the motivational phrases on the social networks that guided the quarantine days. Take a step back in time, please. Just a few months. Do you remember the “hope”? Have it!

Translated from Vogue Portugal's Hope issue, out September 2020. All credits in the original articles.
Texto em português na edição em print