Monday, February 28, 2011

The Centre of the Plate

'Meat being the centre of the plate...'
 Hormones? No hormones? John van Tiggelen, Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, February 26th

I had finished one of my Sri Lankan cooking classes this morning and had had my usual rant against the practice of running menus with an overwhelming preponderance on meat dishes as opposed to vegetable dishes by South Asian restaurants as I've encountered them in Australia. I do this because (a) it's so clearly an unbalanced representation of the balance of food at any meal in most South Asian households in my experience and (b) it usually means that the veg options are limited to 'Western-friendly' vegetables - potato, peas, eggplant, dhal, spinach, and tomato - which again is vastly underepresentative of the vegetables that appear in home meals in South Asia - beetroot, melons, bitter gourd, pumpkin, beans, and greens, greens and more greens.

I once did a survey of some 64 South Asian restaurants in Australia, mostly in Sydney where I live, using for this latter menus of all restaurants listed in the 2005 Good Food Guide and the SBSGuide (in its day the only useful guide to eating 'ethnic' in Sydney) adding in menus from restaurants in the same local areas as those in the two main lists. In all but a handful, the proportion of vegetable dishes to meat dishes (counting both entrees and mains) was never more than 50:50, with some as low as 30:70. [You can read the full article I wrote on the status of food in South Asian restaurants in Sydney at Friday Night at Faheem's

But it's not only in these restaurants that this re-balancing is happening. Economic writers - food oriented and otherwise  - point to the demand for meat, meat and more meat by the growing middle classes in India and China as a significant factor in the rise in food prices in the last years. This, the writers say, is just another round of the typical progression in diet as one progresses up the class ladder in any society (wow, how old is that term!). With this shift also come diet-related health issues like obesity and higher incidences of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, granted not all, and no only, related to shifting to a higher proportion of meat in the diet.

Now, I am not a vegetarian or vegan, as past blogs will have shown. I enjoy eating meat, but I have never believed that a meal to be satisfying has to have meat at its centre. As I read more about where putting meat at the centre of a plate is leading in terms of its impact on foodways generally (for example that 55 square feet of tropical rainforest is consumed in every quarter-pound of rainforest beef, or that 80% of all the corn grown in the US is eaten by livestock, or that nearly half the water used for all purposes in the US is used to water livestock - see for more of the same) the more I accept that those of us who are committed to food sustainability and security ought to argue for downsizing that hunk of steak and pushing it out to the margin of the plate, and even off it entirely more meals than not.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gut Germs Update

Further to the earlier blog on gut flora, this just in from my bro and sis-in-law who happily fulfilled my mother's wish to have medico-scientist types in our family.

In the womb the gastrointestinal tract is sterile. So the baby is born without any gut microflora. This is why they are given a vitamin K shot at birth:  your gut microflora provide the body with vitamin K. With  all tracts in the body with one or more openings to the external environment (the GIT, the respiratory tract and the genitourinary tract(s))  the regions closest to the openings have a rich microflora. (The inner regions e.g. the stomach and small intestine; the lungs; the bladder and the kidneys) are sterile (blood is also sterile). So once the baby is born the openings of his or her tracts (mouth, anus, external urethral orifice, vagina) are accessible to environmental organisms. It may also be the case that given the proximity of the anus to the vagina in a woman, the baby may acquire some of their microflora during the passage through the birth canal.

In some herbivores, gut microbes are important aids in digestion. So that in some cases the babies perform coprophagy: that is they will eat their parents faeces.

BTW: a significant part of your faeces is comprised of expelled gut bacteria.

This whole thing just gets ickier, don't it!. But, it's clear that since we humans seem to have given up eating our own shit  - well, except for the intentional and unintentionl coprophagists among us - it looks like there's a place of a little bit of 'dirt' in our lives, at least our early ones, and from the research being done, in our later ones as well.

Gut Germs

Let's hear it for our gut microbiotica - rah, rah, and another, big, rah! Whence comes this enthusiasm? Well, I have always been one in avidly pro the notion that kids and adults need to get bugs into our systems that may help us fight off diseases, and one of these ways is through eating food that hasn't been sterilised to a point where any bugs that might be useful for us have been nuked. I've wrote an article about this some years back in Divine magazine, which you can read also here. The article mostly looks at health regulations on the production of food borne of an over-concern for litigation from people who get a touch food poisoning.

And there I'd left it till I read a recent article in New Scientist 22nd January 2011 - Bugs from your gut to mine. The article is about emerging links between gut flora - bugs. microbes, greebies, germs - and a number of life threatening illnesses like Parkinson's disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and rheumatoid arthritis, and, wait for it, obesity. For example, Thomas Borody, a gastroenterologist at the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Sydney has used faecal transplants now to alleviate chronic constipation. Yes, folks, this does mean taking faeces from a person who isn't suffering chronic constipation and them into the gut of a person who is, thereby changing the gut flora in the recipient. Borody found that some of his patients post faecal transplant have shown improvements in Parkinson's. The possible reason is a line of inquiry that Parkinson's may be caused by a gut bug that 'breaks through the mucosal barrier of the GI [gastrointestinal] tract and enters the central nervous system via the vagus nerve'. Restoring the gut floral balance via the faecal transplant may lead to a reduction then in Parkinson's symptoms.

Equally startling is a study by Alexander Chervonsky of the University of Chicago that showed a link between gut microbiotica and type 1 diabetes in mice. In a test group of what the article describes as 'a particular breed of engineered mice' that were kept 'germ-free' (visions of John Travolota-esque mice-in-the-bubble occur at about this point), 80% developed type 1 diabetes. But when they were given a dose (the article says 'cocktail' and now I have very strange visions indeed of mice with a martini glasses in paw lounging on velour couches) of bacteria similar to those living in a human's gut, only 34% developed type 1 diabetes, suggesting that some human gut bacteria are a good thing.

Finally, Geoffrey Gordon of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, has shown differences in the gut flora of obese people and 'lean individuals'. Their analysis suggests 'the microbes in obese individuals are releasing nutrients from food that would have remained undigested in lean infividuals'. Even more telling, transferring microbiotica from obese mice into lean mice led to the latter putting on weight. Gee, you mean it ain't McDonalds after all? Well, we don't know yet and won't till the results of a study that is going to do - yes, you guessed it - a trial where some obese people get a faecal transplant of their own poo and others get the poo of healthy, lean donors and we see what impact this has on gut germs.

But apart from the obesity link, and hey, we don't really want to let the fat food franchises entirely off the hook, what has this got to do with a food blog and dirty food? Well, I have been set to wondering how our gut flora get in there in the first place and to what extent they come from food we eat. Here's what I found on Wikipedia about the origins of gut flora in infants:

The gastrointestinal tract of a normal fetus is sterile. During birth and rapidly thereafter, bacteria from the mother and the surrounding environment colonize the infant's gut. Immediately after vaginal delivery, babies may have bacterial strains derived from the mothers' feces in the upper gastrointestinal tract.[Hmm, so that's where they got the idea for faecal transplants! And I thought it was just a bunch of researchers thinking up ever new ways to irritate funders]. Infants born by caesarean section may also be exposed to their mothers' microflora, but the initial exposure is most likely to be from the surrounding environment such as the air, other infants, and the nursing staff, which serve as vectors for transfer. The primary gut flora in infants born by caesarean delivery may be disturbed for up to six months after birth, whereas vaginally born infants take up to one month for their intestinal microflora to be well established.After birth, environmental, oral and cutaneous bacteria are readily transferred from the mother to the infant through suckling, kissing, and caressing. All infants are initially colonized by large numbers of E. coli and streptococci. Within a few days, bacterial numbers reach 10 to the powe of 8 to 10 to the power of 10 per gram of feces.During the first week of life, these bacteria create a reducing environment favorable for the subsequent bacterial succession of strict anaerobic species mainly belonging to the genera Bifidobacterium, Bacteroides, Clostridium, and Ruminococcus.Breast-fed babies become dominated by bifidobacteria, possibly due to the contents of bifidobacterial growth factors in breast milk.In contrast, the microbiota of formula-fed infants is more diverse, with high numbers of Enterobacteriaceae, enterococci, bifidobacteria, Bacteroides, and clostridia. After the introduction of solid food and weaning, the microflora of breast-fed infants become similar to that of formula-fed infants. By the second year of life, the fecal microflora

So, my interest here is in that second last sentence in particular - the one that talks about how the introduction of solid food and weaning makes the flora resemble that of adults. Hmmm, this is where I have to do some digging that may take me some time, but ain't it fascinating that somehow, somewhere, we apparently need to externally get some germs into our gut if it is to function as it needs to for both digestion and for some key intervention in the body's immune response.

If you have anything that can shed light on this please add a comment or email me at

Thursday, February 10, 2011


As you avid followers of this blog will know, the passionfruit vine has been heaving with yellow-green globes (yes, this is a different, sweeter, smaller variety than than the more usually sighted purple types). We've had passionfruit ripple through vanilla ice cream, passionfruit with yoghurt, passionfruit spooned out of its skin standing at the kitchen sink, passionfruit comfort parcels for everyone who has dropped in over the last weeks, passionfruit-for-Calabrian-pastries exchanges with Charlie across the road, and still the fruit drops with the slightest breeze.

So I have hit the web in search of other things to do with passionfruits (yes, I know, I haven't done the pavlova yet). The two recipes below have firmed as favourites for this and coming seasons.

Passion Fruit Iced Tea
2litres          black tea*
2/3 cup        caster sugar
1/2 cup        lemon or lime juice
3/4 cup        orange juice
50ml            passionfruit pulp

When the tea is made, add in the sugar and dissolve well. Then add in the passionfruit pulp and the fruit juices. Store it in the fridge till cold and refreshing. You can add some mint leaves or slices of lemon and orange to each glass when you serve it.

*I make my own chai style black whole leaf mix as my everyday tea. Get a packet of good quality, large leaf tea. Add to it a couple of sticks of cinnamon, a teaspoonful of cloves, a dessertspoonful of fennel and coriander seeds, some slices of dried ginger, a handful of cardamoms. Mix well and store for use.

You can make your own dried ginger. Just get some fresh ginger root, slice it thin, leave it on some kitchen paper to dry.

Passionfruit Syllabub
A either a drink made of sweetened milk or cream curdled with wine or spirits,or a cold dessert with sweetened cream thickened with gelatin and beaten with wine, spirits, or fruit juice. The drink version was popular in Britain from the 16th to 19th century, says Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food. IT was the foam created by the curdling that was the point of the drink version and gradually became the main point of a syllabub in its dessert form. There is fascinating material on the origin and history of syllabubs at This version for a non-alcohol based syllabub I sourced and adapted from

Seriously delicious, this is also seriously rich.

250g          passionfruit pulp
2tbsp         lime or lemon juice, I prefer the lime
80g            icing sugar
500l           double/thickened cream, whipped till peaks form
2                egg whites beaten till stiff

Warm the passionfruit pulp in a saucepan on low heat for 2 -3 minutes. This helps the pulpy skin to separate from the seed. Now push the pulp through a sieve. Save some of the seeds for decorating the syllabub.

Add the lime or lemon juice to what is now passionfruit juice.

Add the icing sugar and stir till well dissolved.

Fold in the cream, and then the egg whites.

Now, at this point you can leave the syllabub till some of the whey (the liquid from the cream) separates out. Or you can put it into individual serving dishes straightaway and put it to cool in the fridge. If you do this, the whey will separate anyway over time and from a little pool at the bottom of the dish - and that's not a problem.

I serve it up in martini glasses, dotting the top of the syllabub with some of the reserved seeds. You could add a couple of leaves of spearmint, or sliced strawberries as garnish too.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Rosalind and Her Kind

If you've been reading my blogs, you will know that I have been posting recipes from the cookbook of my Burgher grandmother, Ada de la Harpe. A couple of years ago, I delivered a paper about her cookbook to a seminar on cookbooks put on by the much missed Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink, Adelaide University. While writing the paper I realised that missing from Ada's cookbook was most of what I actually ate during an ordinary day in Sri Lanka. Where were the recipes for the pol sambols, mallungs, fish curries, vegetable curries, stringhoppers, pittu and the banquet of other dishes that I ate with such relish regularly?

What I had forgotten was who actually put this food on the table. Ada, my mother, my Burgher female relatives who managed households, did not do most of the day-to-day cooking. It was the household cook. When I realised this, I also realised that I had to honour the labour of these women and men in the paper I was writing.To do this, I had to know something about them. I have some memories of Rosalind who was our cook for most of my life in Sri Lanka, but they are memories about events in our family's life in which she was involved - the everyday events, the celebratory, the out-of-the-ordinary, the sad. I knew nothing about Rosalind herself, or about the cooks in the households of my cousins or neighbours. So I asked my mother, aunts, uncles and cousins to tell me about them. Here's what I found.

In my families’ households cooks were as likely to men as women; Rosalind and Appuhamy are the two cooks I remember; my uncle Anton at different times had a Tamil woman, and a Sinhalese man, Nonis; Anne-Marie Kellar, a Burgher whom I also correspond with, remembers her grandmother’s cook Jane (a Sinhalese woman) and also a Tamil man.

Their ages were quite varied. Rosalind was in her mid-thirties when she became my ayah. Nonis was 16-17 years old when he began working for Anton, and the ayah Anton employed to look after his first child was 60, a Tamil woman who came looking for work she could not find in her village. Anne-Marie Kellar describes cooks in her families’ households as being ‘very young’. Sometimes they could be very young indeed, as my Uncle Anton recalled..

‘All of the servants I had came looking for work or were brought by parents wanting to know if we required ‘home help’. I recall one man, he had a little girl (about 9-10 years old). He was told by a family up the street that we had a new baby and could possibly use the girl. The girl was neatly dressed and was carrying a bundle of clothes. We employed her to look after Carinne [his second child]. I think she was offered three meals a day and Rs 15 a month. Premawathie (the girl) slept on a mat in the children’s room. It was usual to protect young female servants from prowling males!’

They came into Colombo looking for work from villages either at the borders of the city or in remoter rural areas. My family doesn’t recall any of the servants making regular visits back to whatever their families were in their home villages. At the most, if they were Sinhalese they may have returned there for short stays during the Buddhist New Year.

Some who came when young, returned to their village as adults. Anton said, 'Premawathie returned to her village when she was ‘grown up'. That seemed to be the usual trend of events especially if they were very young girls. She went back to her village and we never saw her again’.  My father's cousin Patsy Alvis suggested this was common practice; ‘Women usually left in their mid twenties to marry having worked for ten years or so & accumulated a small sum of money. And then if the marriage didn’t work out they went back to the relative security [as a servant] of a roof, meals & a monthly wage.’ 

More often, they stayed in service most of their lives. They moved between households when circumstances changed for the Burgher family. When we left Sri Lanka, Rosalind was employed by my uncle for a short time. When Anton migrated, Nonis went to Anton’s brother, and Gunadasa, his brother, to work for Anton’s sister-in-law. They moved between generations of the one family. ‘My grandmother's cook, Jane, came to work for us when my Dad got married to my Mum' said Anne-Marie Kellar. 'She was already trained by Nanna, and knew exactly what Daddy liked to eat!! Nanna made sure of that!’  They may have left service if their circumstances changed. My aunt Marie said ‘One of our ayahs had a daughter who worked with her for us.The daughter was quite good looking & learnt English while with us. She left to be a nannie with some well-to-do- family & married a Sinhalese gentleman’.

This last is one of the few recollections of any of the servants’ families other than those who may have been servants in the same household. My mother does not recall any family for Rosalind or Appuhamy. The Tamil ayah Anton hired did have a husband and children, but Anton never saw them. None of the servants in the Kellar household were married.

Recruitment of servants varied. They may have come door-knocking independently, or been brought as Premawathie was. More often, though, they were recommended by someone else in the family, were handed down through the family, recommended by other Burghers, or very occasionally by the other servants. My Aunt Marie said ‘They were the answer to a Housewife’s Prayer. When a young lady was to be married, her mother and mother-in-law looked out for a cook woman for her'.  

Whatever the recruitment process there was a fairly standard interview conducted by the Burgher householder. 'The cook was selected after an interview during which they had to give an account of what they could cook, especially for the dinner menu and they would rattle of a litany of all their accomplishments, eg. beef steak, stew, pot roast, roll cutlets (or rissoles as they are commonly known here), chops etc' said my cousin Dirk. My father told me that the three dishes they had to show proficiency at were ‘istu, istek, and cutliss’ - stew, steak and cutlets. However, they don’t appear to have had to show they could do this, and there was usually no written recommendation asked for or offered. The capacity to turn out the inevitable trio of dishes was not always entirely appreciated. ‘I remember my mother throwing her hands up in exasperation when once interviewing a cook who, when asked what "issaraha kaama" ( European food) she knew, replied "Istew, Bistake, Cutlis"!!  Mother exclaimed "that is all they know to make", said Anne-Marie Kellar.’

The cooks, along with the other servants, had free accommodation and meals, may have had their bedding provided (camp cots or mats usually) and had their medical expenses met. Some received gifts of clothing on birthdays or Christmas. They were paid varying amounts. When Nonis started work for Anton at 16 years old, he was paid R40 a month. My mother thinks she paid Rosalind R30 a month. Both of them said this really just ‘spending money’ as most of their material needs were met. Anne Marie Kellar recalled, ‘Salaries of course varied with the times, but were usually not very much. These people were so very poor and had next to nothing in their villages, so it was a huge privilege to work in our homes and live comfortable lives. They were paid monthly, and were given holidays usually for the Sinhalese New Year, when they went home having spent a lot of their earnings on new coloured cotton fabrics for the women’s' "cloths" and jackets and also on men's sarongs. They would return from their villages with a box full of Sinhalese sweetmeats!’

Where did they learn their cooking? The Sinhalese and Tamil dishes they generally brought with them from their homes. Cooking the istu, istek, cutliss and other European dishes were learned either from the Burgher householder or from other cooks in Burgher households. Most of the servants were not literate in English, though many were literate in their own language. Rosalind would write up the daily accounts of her spending in Sinhalese and read them in Sinhalese to my mother. In the room she shared with Appuhamy there were always Sinhalese newspapers and magazines. Nonis was taught to read and write in English by Anton, but that appears to have been rare. Ada certainly was not writing her cookery book for the instruction of the cook.

Most women spoke with their cooks in Sinhalese, or English if the cook was Tamil. Some servants while not being fluent in oral or written English did understand it. Anne-Marie Kellar said ‘They never spoke English, and considered it very rude to do so, but for sure they understood the language very, very well! Our old cook from the plantations, Arumugam, spoke English in a quaint way’.

The Burgher householder would meet with the cook and go through the menu for the day, the dinner meal in particular. The cooks were trusted to take what was needed from the goods in the house and tell the householder when supplies were running low. It was generally the cook or other servant who would do the food shopping for vegetables, meat, and fish on a daily basis from nearby markets.

Servants often had separate quarters, but they were likely to be a room in the house near the kitchen. Men sometimes slept just inside the front door as a security measure. Ayahs often slept on the floor of the room of the children’s room. Many are recalled as sleeping in the kitchen. Rosalind was allowed independently to discipline us, both verbally and with a good smack across the face or body when needed. They ate separately, but they ate the food they prepared for us. In Anne Marie Kellar's childhood household ‘the children in the family were closest to the servants, and next the lady of the household, but last of  all the master. He would have little or nothing to do with the servants except maybe the driver.’  I recall spending many hours sitting in the room Rosalind and Appuhamy shared, playing cards, or Sinhalese childrens’ games or pouring over their Sinhalese magazines.

It was generally true that the cooks would take the entire responsibility for breakfasts and lunches, while dinner – the nominally European style meal - would be either prepared by the Burgher householder or by the cook under her supervision, and the Burgher householder would reserve cooking specialties for herself, with the Christmas Cake and the Breudher being the most sacrosanct in this regard.‘Of course! the revered Christmas Cake and Breudher were never made by anyone else,' said Anne-Marie Kellar. 'My maternal grandma did much more cooking than my paternal nanna. Granny had her specials. Jewel like marzipans which were laid out to "bake" in the sun, and looked too good to eat! Then she made her famous trotter stew-- heavenly! Then there were her Turkish Delight, Marshmallows, Chocolate Fudge, etc’.  My second cousin said, ‘Talking about recipes, your paternal grandmother did a pol kiri badun to die for & her duck salmi was out of this world’. My mother said of Ada, ‘She used to teach the women in the kitchen. It was a question really of them learning to cook by looking. So she didn’t have to prepare it all the time. She would occasionally cook European meals for the night; stews and roasts and things like that’. My aunt Marie recalled: 'Our mother always cut up the meat for curry – especially as the Sir Lankan meat bought daily (fresh) from the market butchers was full of nervous tissue – tendons, gristle, sinews etc. Occasionally the cook woman was requested to take the meat back to the butcher in exchange for a better portion! It was a delight to watch our mother perform this chore – with a very sharp knife. The meat was unrecognizable after she had finished. Perfect. (The cooks) had a flair for cooking and knew the basics because it was what they ate in their own homes. They boiled rice to perfection & could make sambols, mallungs, curries – vegetable, fish, meat etc (dry fish! – yum). What they didn’t know to cook was the ‘issara kame’ – first course – which we had at night – with bread – but they soon learned. Auntie Nita had a woman  who made an excellent chicken pie – having to make the pastry – decorated with pastry flowers and leaves & tasty! They were also familiar with our breakfast menus – hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, roti, kiribath – because they cooked these in their home.

Let me not make it appear that all Burghers were so relaxed or amiable with their servants. Anton notes ‘Some servants were illiterate, and treated more like slaves’. Patsy Alvis was equally forthright ‘Did you really believe in a democratic society in SL that treated servants in any other way than vassals! That is extreme I know but to this  day that is how a servant is considered in some homes out of the towns & cities. In Burgher homes they were generally treated reasonably well & ate what was cooked for the family but I know of families who had a pot of inferior rice for the servants & the dogs!’

But where the relationships were strong and supportive, when it came to partings, both sides experienced a sense of loss. ‘Nonis and Gunadasa were very sad to see us leave and we were very sorry to have to say goodbye to them', said Anton, remembering the farewell when he and his family migrated to Australia. 'We did not feel bad leaving them as we made sure they went to homes where they would be well looked after. They were so reliable and good that everyone was clamouring for them.’

Rosalind’s story has an unhappy ending. When my granny died, Rosalind had a nervous breakdown, so strong was her love for granny. My brothers and I returned home one Saturday to be greeted at the front door by Rosalind stabbing at us with a knife and hysterically screaming. She went back to her village for three months to rest and recover. My brother Chris says that she had a ‘devil dance’ done over her, a practice we were familiar with from times when this exorcism ritual had been done on people in the tenements behind our house. She returned to us and worked for us until we migrated at the end of 1962. One of my last memories of that day is of Rosalind throwing herself at my mother’s feet crying distressingly and asking to be taken with us. Even had we wanted to do that, it would have been impossible under the White Australia Policy which existed at the time.  Mum can’t remember what happened to Rosalind after this. My maiden aunts and my paternal grandmother moved into our house and brought their own servants with them. Mum thinks Rosalind went and worked for my Uncle across the street for a while. Chris says he remembers hearing that she moved through two or three positions and then returned to her village.