Saturday, November 28, 2020

Thoughts on Sugar, Two Sweet Treats and a Book Report

Nicola Twilley recently had a fascinating article in the New Yorker on the race to redesign sugar. "In 1800, an average American would have lived and died never having encountered a single manufactured candy"...or sweetened yogurt/cereal/drink etc. etc. with added sugar. Well, that certainly changed in a big way and very quickly! The article talks about corporations taking on the challenge of designing a better sugar, "to continue selling countless sweet things in a world that is increasingly wary of sugar".  

Artificial sweeteners have not solved the problem. They don't taste the same as sugar and don't behave the same way as sugar in baking and cooking. The other issue with artificial sweeteners, even for people who don't mind the taste, is that they are not the get-out-of-jail-free-card that they seem to be. Our metabolism is complex and not easily fooled. One of the food scientists quoted in this article says "Anytime we think we've got one over on our biology, there will be collateral damage somewhere"

"The problem is that sugar isn't easy to replace" so the new race is to redesign sugar, and Twilley describes attempts to do so, by restructuring sugar crystals, embedding silica in sugar crystals, and manufacturing rare sugars (rare in nature) commercially that taste sweet but are unable to be digested by the human body. 

And this is what Twilley writes at the end of her article after taste-testing foods made with high-tech forms of sugar-

"As I cleared away the uneaten treats, I thought about all the money and the scientific ingenuity that had gone into creating them, and I started to wonder: "Couldn't we just eat less sugar?" BINGO!! 

"Just as the only good substitute for sugar is sugar, the only way to eat less of it, sadly, is to eat less of it."

As it happens, I've been trying to eat "less of it" for a while now, partly because everyone would be better off eating less sugar but also because of a strong family history of type 2 diabetes and a personal history of gestational diabetes. 

Why not go the whole way and just quit eating added sugar altogether? Many people do just that and are very much happier for it. And depending on my future medical needs, it is absolutely a step I am willing to take. the moment, I am choosing the route of moderation rather than abstinence. Because...well, a bit of sugar does sweeten life. In most cultures, it is a symbol of celebration and festivity. It is fun to make and give and receive and share sweet treats. 

And when I say moderation, I mean true moderation, which takes a bit of sustained and intentional effort in today's sugar-saturated world. Sugar is a good servant but a terrible master. Over the years, I've made my own rules around sugar to "enjoy responsibly" as the booze-makers like to say. 

For one thing, I trained my tastebuds to go without sugar in everyday drinks. I now prefer drinking tea and coffee without sugar. Try this one weird trick to save yourself countless lbs of sugar consumed over the years! I never drank much soda and juice anyway.

The other biggie is not buying cookies and other sweet treats on a regular basis. Amazing how little willpower is required to avoid something that is not in the house. I used to buy cookies "for guests" and then sneak into them. Now I avoid temptation altogether.

When I do make treats, I make them with whole ingredients, using good recipes that I like, and make no effort to look for low-fat, low-sugar, or diet recipes of any sort. But I do cut down the sugar in recipes because I prefer them that way, and I make treats in controlled portions (mini, bite-sized) and share them generously so lots of people can get a taste but no one has a pile of sweets that they feel compelled to over-eat. I avoid cooking or baking with artificial sweeteners- they don't taste good to me and I don't care to have them around. 

But what about self-care and treating yo'self? I have three treats on hand always- (a) fresh fruit, (b) flavored herbal tea, (c) dark chocolate. For this last one, I buy a Pound Plus (half a kilogram to be exact!) bar of Belgian dark chocolate from Trader Joe's and chop it into small bits and stick it in the fridge for use in baking and rare evening treats. 

The nice thing about getting older is that you know your own preferences. I get my joy from quick and simple bakes (see two recent examples below) and it frees me from having to do anything different or more complicated. I can admire confections and baked goods (on blogs, Instagram, bakery windows, baking shows) for their art and creativity without feeling any desire to make them or eat them. 

Perhaps the best thing about eating very little sugar on a regular basis is that when you do eat it, it feels special. And you don't crave it all the time so you are in control. Being trapped in a cycle of cravings and guilt is no way to live. 

* * * 

Years ago, while visiting my sister, I bought a sweetheart rose muffin pan from the Nordicware factory tent sale in Minneapolis. As adorable as this pan is, the nooks and crevices can make it a nightmare to turn out cakes. I used it once, had a frustrating experience and put the pan away. 

Then I stumbled upon a DIY cake release paste- you mix equal parts (say, 1 tbsp) shortening, oil and flour, whisk it into a thick paste and brush the paste thoroughly on the inside of the cake molds. I decided to try this trick on the sweetheart rose pan, and the outcome would decide if the pan stayed or went into the donation pile for some other baker to wrestle with. 

A close family friend turned 78 in October; she was recovering from a double fracture and I wanted to drop off a birthday treat. Here was my chance to try the rose pan. My daughter used a silicone pastry brush to paint the cake release paste thoroughly on the mini rose pan. Meanwhile, I made the batter- my favorite Lemon Bliss Bundt cake recipe from King Arthur Baking. I replaced 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup almond flour. 

The batter perfectly filled this mini rose cake pan plus 12 regular cupcakes. And the cake release formula worked like a charm! A bit of glazing and the baby cakes were ready to be shared with the birthday gal. She was delighted and so was I.

Greased rose molds, and fresh from the oven

A bouquet of rose muffins

* * *

For Diwali, I managed to make one single mithai. I have very little mithai-making experience but also did not have the bandwidth to research this recipe with a busy work week. So I just put a few ingredients together that I had on hand, went for a simple coconut burfi with my daughter's help and hoped for the best. This loosey-goosey approach is not recommended for mithais but I guess I had some beginner's luck.

Coconut burfi in mini muffin cups

1. Heat 2 tsp. ghee in a pan. 
2. Add 1 packet sweetened coconut flakes and stir around on fairly low heat until aromatic (watch carefully because coconut burns easily)
3. Add 1/2 cup almond meal and most of a can of sweetened condensed milk
4. Cook together, stirring often, until the mixture thickens, 10-15 minutes
5. Turn off heat and add 1 tsp. cardamom
6. Let the mixture cool a few minutes. Scoop half the mixture into a lined loaf pan and pat it down
7. Into the other half, put in a few drops of food coloring (totally optional; my daughter enjoyed this) and stir well. Add the dyed mixture into the loaf pan as a second layer
8. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight
9. Cut into small slices or blocks

The mixture looked fairly sticky when we made it, but after a day in the fridge, the two-tone burfi was solid and looked pretty legit. I'm going to make these again for Christmas gifts. You could have fun with the flavors and colors, such as a pistachio layer and an orange layer.

Diwali on the porch

* * * Book Report * * *

Since I wrote my last post, I've more or less stopped watching TV in the evenings in favor of retiring early with a book. The time change throws off my kids' sleeping schedule every single time. Our toddler, already an early riser, started breaking his own records and waking up at about 4:30 AM since the switch to standard time. So I have given up on evenings spent with TV and crafts and instead I just go to bed at some bizarrely early hour and read for a bit before passing out. 

(But I did watch a documentary last month which I absolutely must recommend- My Octopus Teacher, streaming on Netflix, or watch it online here. A burned-out filmmaker dives into kelp forests off the coast of South Africa and forges a beautiful friendship with an octopus. I am not one for animal documentaries but this one was stunning, touching and I hope you get a chance to watch it because it is the perfect antidote to 2020.)

Starting with three novels- At a good friend's recommendation, I read Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Pinto is a humorist and journalist based in Mumbai; I grew up reading his articles regularly in the papers and was happy to read this short novel written by him. Em and The Big Hoom is set in the Western suburb of Mahim, Bombay, and narrated by a young adult son who tells the story of growing up in a nuclear Goan-Christian family with his parents and sister in a typical 1-BHK (one bedroom-hall-kitchen) apartment. The big thing looming in their lives is the mother's mental illness, the latter being an almost taboo topic in Indian society. The family sips endless cups of tea and the children grow up as they chart their way through the mother's bipolar disorder and repeated suicide attempts. This is a wryly touching and unexpectedly funny novel. 

For Task #14 in the Reader Harder challenge (Read a romance starring a single parent), I read One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. This book was a pretty good weekend read, considering that romance is my least favorite genre ever. A single mom in England is juggling two jobs and barely scraping by, trying to do her best to care for her quirky stepson and math wiz daughter. Then the whole family (including an oversized dog) somehow end up on a week-long road trip with her wealthy housekeeping employer. Adventure and romance ensues. If you're willing to overlook the implausible situations, this book is a light and fluffy read. 

Another heartwarming novel that I read last month- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor is a survivor of horrific childhood neglect and abuse. Somehow she finds it within herself to live independently, hold down an office job and go about daily life, even while dealing with extreme loneliness and coping with it in less than ideal ways. Over the course of the book she encounters kindness and friendship and starts repairing some of the trauma.

Over on the non-fiction side of things, I read Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Hans Rosling, who passed away a couple of year ago, was the mind behind the interactive website Gapminder, which is also home to his daughter-in-law Anna Ronnlund's brainchild, Dollar Street. Both these websites are well worth a visit. The idea of this book is to debunk common misconceptions that people have about the state of the world, and the take home message is that things are better than we think, and getting better all the time. The problem with this book is that Rosling can be condescending and some of his conclusions are rosier than what I believe the reality is. But the book has many great examples of global health issues and is insightful, inspiring and fun to read. 

Right now, I'm reading another great non-fiction book, The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson. There is something soothing and escapist in reading about particle physics and universal truths which puts our everyday lives and woes into perspective. Plus nothing can beat quantum physics for sheer wackiness. 

My daughter picked up a book called Diwali Festival of Lights by Rina Singh from the seasonal library display shelf. On first glance, it looked like a generic non-fiction book written for children, with informative text descriptions and stock pictures. But I leafed through it before putting the book into the return pile and loved it. Rina Singh's book is off-beat and written from the heart, and from the perspective of an Indian immigrant celebrating Diwali. There is a chapter on the history of Indian immigration to North America, and how Diwali was celebrated invisibly until very recently. There is a chapter on how Diwali has evolved- from traditional to noisier and more commercial, but also from religious to cultural and secular. Singh writes about a village of widows in North India who upturned tradition and started lighting diyas and celebrating Diwali. About Diwali celebrations in the slums of Mumbai. And yes, the book is sprinkled with colorful pics of diyas and rangolis and burfis and laughing children. If you're looking for a meaningful Diwali book for school-age kids, I would recommend this one. 

We put up this sharing library in our
front yard to swap books with neighbors

Happy Thanksgiving
weekend to everyone in the States! Wherever in the world you are, tell me what you are cooking, watching and reading. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Texas Caviar, Brown Rice Pilaf and What I'm Watching

Summer days have given way to cooler temperatures and darker evenings. We continue to take life one day at a time. My new job leaves me pretty frazzled at times, and the rest of the day is spent in putting dinner on the table, parenting and chores. We try to get out and walk on trails and in parks every chance we get.

My daughter and I have started doing "cozy evenings" and those are the highlights of our days- we draw the curtains and turn on the lamps in the living room, then snuggle under blankets on the couch with mugs of herbal tea (she's partial to the fruity flavors) and play a rousing game of Scrabble. 

The other cozy thing that we do once a week or so is a baking project. We have a new favorite cookie recipe- jam thumbprint shortbread cookies. I used this recipe which calls for all of 6 simple ingredients. The dough is mixed in a bowl, then goes into the fridge to chill for an hour. Dough balls are imprinted to make a little well, jam is spooned in and the cookies are baked. This is an easy recipe to make with kids. 

We get around 28-33 cookies from each batch and each one is scrumptious. Fruit preserves or jams that are loaded with fruit taste the best. The cookies are classic, sweet and simple- they taste like the popular Pepperidge Farm cookies or the Indian jam biscuits that I so loved as a kid. 

The kitchen churns out simple meals of the beans and rice variety but I haven't had the bandwidth to try anything new or different. Speaking of beans, while I remain an ardent fan of the Instant Pot, I have been trying and failing to determine the right amount of time to cook beans so they are just-cooked and tender, not mushy and falling apart. Mushy beans are fine for dal and soups, but I like tender, intact beans for salads. Suggested times on Internet recipes (even well-tested ones) have been no use at all. 

I wanted to make black eyed peas salad (known more colorfully as Texas caviar) but knew that the IP would turn the black eyed peas to mush, so I chose to soak the black eyes peas (chawli in Marathi, lobia in Hindi) and cook them in a pot of salted water right there on the stove-top. They took all of 25 minutes to cook to perfect tenderness.

The salad itself has a few fresh vegetables and herbs and a warm dressing which serves to flavor the beans well. Texas caviar is one of those great recipes- easy to make, holds in the fridge for a few days and pairs with simple sandwiches or pulaos or casseroles to make a complete meal. 

Black-eyed peas salad/ Texas caviar

(I used this recipe as an inspiration)

3 cups cooked black-eyed peas

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 small can of corn, drained

1/4 cup minced red onion

1 minced red bell pepper

Dressing: Make the dressing by heating together in a small saucepan

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. juice from picked jalapenos

1 clove garlic, grated

Salt and pepper to taste


minced pickled sweet and sour jalapenos

minced cilantro

Toss all the salad ingredients together into a big bowl. Add warm dressing and mix together. Add minced jalapenos and cilantro. Chill and serve. 

* * * 

After making and eat the Texas caviar, I still had some cooked black-eyed peas in the fridge. So I paired them with brown rice pilaf for another meal. Brown jasmine rice has a nutty flavor and nubby texture and we have come to love it. 

Brown Rice Pilaf

Soak 1 and 1/2 cups brown jasmine rice for a few hours.

Heat 1-2 tsp. oil in the instant pot on saute mode. Saute minced onion for a few minutes. 

Add ginger garlic paste, salt to taste and spices- turmeric, Kitchen King masala, kasuri methi.

Add 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes, soaked and drained brown rice and 2 cups water. Turn off saute mode.

Cook on high pressure for 15 minutes. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then do a quick pressure release. 

* * *

I found a new sitcom to watch last month- Derry Girls on Netflix- and it was a fun way to end the evenings. Each episode is only about 20 minutes long, so chances of falling asleep on the couch are lower. 

The series is set in the 90s and revolves around five friends in an all-girls' Catholic high school. Hey, I went to an all-girls' Catholic high school in the 90s too, and was part of a group of five close friends! Therefore nostalgia is a big factor for me in liking this show. 

The series is set in the city of Derry (or Londonderry) in Northern Ireland. The teenagers are up to the usual teenage shenanigans against the backdrop of "The Troubles", the struggle and violent conflict over whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or the Irish free state. I vividly remember references to the Irish conflict in the news from the 90s- Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, the IRA.

Derry Girls also made me very nostalgic for 90s music, which always and forever will be my comfort music. Snippets of dozens of iconic 90s songs liven up the scenes. One of my favorite supporting characters on the show is Sister Michael who definitely reminded me of some of the nuns who taught me. (To this day, if I see a nun, I am on my best behavior.)

One thing that I didn't really care for is the weird dynamic between the grandfather and the father where the former bullies his docile and decent son-in-law. But apart from this, a fun show and highly recommended. Rated Mature. If you want to watch just one episode as a trial, I suggest Season 2, Episode 3, "The Concert". 

From Ireland, I took a virtual flight straight to Bihar. Having finished Derry Girls, I was looking around for something new to watch. Something similarly light and heartwarming. An old friend (who I hit up on Instagram for media recommendations) told me about the Hindi series Panchayat on Prime. I enjoyed this series so much- only one season has been released but I hope there will be more. 

Panchayat features Abhishek Tripathi, a city boy and recent graduate who fails to land a lucrative job. He reluctantly accepts the post of panchayat (village council) secretary in the tiny village of Phulera in Bihar. There he finds himself living in a room at the back of the council office, and his coworkers consist of the council head, his deputy and an assistant. Secretary Abhishek navigates the comedy and drama of rural government and village life while desperately trying to study for his MBA exams so he can get out of there. With haunted trees, family planning slogans and a dramatic flag hoisting, this slice of life series is definitely worth a watch. And I was thrilled to see a very well-known actress playing a prominent role.  

A series I started watching with my daughter- Worst Witch on Netflix. Fun and recommended for the 8-12 year old set. The episodes are all about friendship, the struggles of growing up, fitting in, etc. all with some magic thrown in. It will appeal to fans of Harry Potter (which she read over summer) because it is a fantasy drama about a group of young witches at a school of magic- although to be clear, Worst Witch is based on a book series that predates Harry Potter by a couple of decades. 

Quick link: Chatting on Food Waste Day.

What are you cooking, eating and watching these days? 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Big Idli Post

My idli recipe was requested, and I am happy to have a reason to note it down here in as much detail as I can. Idlis- those fluffy, savory, fermented rice cakes- are an iconic food of Southern India. I grew up in Southern-adjacent Maharashtra in Western India. Idlis are very popular in Maharashtra too. My guess is that they were introduced locally by the ubiquitous cheap and cheerful Udipi vegetarian restaurants that dot the  urban landscape. 

It is easy to see why idlis would be widely embraced beyond their native lands. The batter is made in vast quantities and idlis can be steamed in batches, ideal for feeding hungry hordes. Warm and hearty, idlis are traditionally eaten for breakfast. They hold well at room temperature and can be packed for picnics, trips and lunch boxes. Being plain and bland, kids like to eat them just as they are, but idlis can be served with a variety of chutneys and sambars and other sauces to dress them up in all sorts of flavors. Edited to add: Idlis also happen to be naturally vegan and gluten-free. 

I grew up eating idlis not only in these restaurants but also ones made in Maharashtrian homes. While idlis are easy to find, fluffy, meltingly soft homemade idlis can be far more elusive. Unlike cooks in Southern India, Maharashtrian cooks are not steeped in idli culture and lore and skills from the time they are toddling around gumming a ghee-smeared idli. We did not grow up eating idlis for breakfast Sunday after Sunday, and with a vat of idli batter sitting in the fridge at all times. Making good idlis is something I've had to work on and figure out for myself. As it happened, I married a man of Southern Indian ethnicity and have picked up some idli tips (and a grinder!) from his family members along the way. (He's not a big fan of idlis. Whatever.)

There is quite some method and mystery to the idli making process. It is a little bit like making sourdough bread. The number of ingredients are deceptively few, and the method seems straightforward enough. But breads and idlis seem to have a mind of their own. Ingredients might be few but the factors are many- TIME is a big ingredient and then there is temperature, humidity; even the microbial activity in the kitchen comes into play. It is far easier to make a curry with 17 ingredients and get it right the very first time. Making good idlis takes some persistence and tinkering and luck. I've written posts about idlis before but these days I no longer need to add poha to add fermentation. 

1. The ingredients

Idlis need only three ingredients but those ingredients are very specific ones and cannot be substituted, not if you're going for classic idlis. All of these are sold in Indian grocery stores and last for months in a cool, dry pantry. 

1.  Gota urad dal is urad dal (black gram/ matpe beans) that has the black skin removed and so appears white in color. I only use the variety that is round and whole, not the variety where the two halves of the dal are split. The special culinary property of this dal is that when ground or cooked it has an unusual thick, sticky texture. This makes it a key ingredient in idli and dosa batters. 

2. Idli rice is a specific variety of rice optimized for use in idli and dosa batter- it is a starchy, medium-grained rice and is processed/parboiled to reduce the soaking time needed before grinding and to gelatinize the starch. 

3. Methi or fenugreek seeds are ground into the batter to aid in fermentation and to obtain a good batter consistency. 

2. The equipment

Idli batter is traditionally made with sheer muscle power and a manual grinding stone. The modern version of this contraption is the electric wet grinder where large conical or cylinderical stones churn together to pulverize the rice and lentils- an advantage of stone grinders over machines with steel blades is that less heat is generated in the grinding process. A wet grinder is one of those single-use kitchen appliances- not to mention a very large and heavy one. Many cooks rightly question whether it is worth investing in one of these. 

Several years ago, my husband's cousin replaced her large Ultra Grind wet grinder with a more compact and newer version of the same machine. We happened to be visiting her and she offered to hand down her older machine which was in excellent working condition. I jumped at the generous offer and packed that beast up and nonchalantly checked it in at the airport on the flight home. TSA was baffled at this ridiculously huge and weird appliance with literal granite stones inside it; they opened the package and examined and X-rayed it from every angle, then apparently gave up and sent us, and the grinder, on our merry way. 

Owning this grinder, and giving it precious countertop real estate, was THE thing that allowed me to be a regular idli-maker. It has been the gift that keeps on giving. The grinder has a large capacity and makes enough batter at a time to make 48 or more idlis. Even with the grinder being electric, just lifting the stones out and cleaning out the container needs strong arms. 

(I have successfully made dosa and adai batter in my hi-speed Vitamix blender. However since I've owned this grinder, I have never attempted idli batter in the blender.)

3. Soaking

In separate bowls, soak the ingredients for 6 hours. Some people soak the dal only for an hour. I get best results with longer soak times. Everything in my idli recipe is standardized, simply because of doing it dozens of times, and I tend to start soaking at noon, and grind the batter at 6 PM (after dinner) to be able to make idlis the next morning. 

  • 1 tbsp. fenugreek/methi seeds
  • 4 cups idli rice
  • 1 cup gota ural dal

4. Grinding

Methi first: I start by adding the soaked methi seeds and the soaking water into the grinder. Grind it for 10 minutes or so, until the methi seeds are pulverized and frothy. 

Dal next: Then add the soaked urad dal all at once, and 1/2 cup of so of the soaking water. Let the grinding commence. As the urad dal breaks down, keep an eye on it and add water 2 tbsp. at a time to help the grinding process along. In 20 minutes or so, the urad dal becomes a frothy smooth paste that is almost the consistency of whipped cream. 

At this point, I scoop out the dal/fenugreek paste into a large container (I use a lidded stock pot), as much of it as I can without worrying about getting all of it out. 

Rice last: Then I add the soaked rice to the grinder and start grinding it. Again, adding a little water when needed, I grind the rice down to a paste, only it won't be as smooth as the dal paste and retains a grainy texture. Stop and scrape down the sides of the grinder as needed. 

Now I open up the grinder, remove the stones, scraping down as much batter from them as possible, and then empty out the batter into the container where I previously added the dal paste. 

I add about 1/2 tbsp. kosher salt to the batter and mix it in (a spatula will do; no need to use your hands unless you prefer to).

The idli batter you're going for is of the Goldilocks variety- not too thick and not too watery, about a cake batter consistency. The "feel" for this comes about with some trial and error. The best idlis come about when the fermented batter is the right consistency to begin with and when you don't need to add water the next day before steaming the idlis. 

A peek into the grinder

Before fermentation

5. Fermentation

The batter in its lidded container is ready to nestle down overnight for its natural fermentation. What you need is a cozy warm spot. Depending on location and season, that can be tricky in North America. 

In homes with full size ovens and where the ovens have a light, the most convenient place to ferment the batter is probably in the oven (turned off!) with just the oven light turned on to generate some warmth. (I don't even keep the oven light on all the time, I do it for 3-4 hours, then turn it off overnight, and the next morning may give it a few more hours with the light on if needed.)

If the oven doesn't have a light, the oven can be turned on at the lowest setting for several minutes, then turned off and the batter placed in the lukewarm oven. 

Other ideas are to find a warm corner of the kitchen (near the stove perhaps) and drape the batter container in a quilt. 
After fermentation

The next morning i wake up to this, batter that has risen and is frothy and bubbly and ALIVE. 

After fermentation and a stir

6. Steaming the idlis

Idlis are steamed in special molds with concave depressions. Mine are made of stainless steel with 4 plates that stack together so I can steam 16 idlis at a time. I spray the idli plates lightly with oil spray and ladle the batter in, being careful not to over-fill the batter. 

I use the instant pot for steaming, because my idli stand fits into the instant pot container perfectly, and I can use the steam setting for 10 minutes for perfectly steamed idlis. But any lidded pot will do, and steaming can be easily done on a stovetop too. 

Once the steaming is done, lift the idli rack out carefully and set it aside for 2-3 minutes. Then the idlis can be lifted off one by one with a spoon with minimal sticking. 

Enjoy freshly steamed idlis as soon as possible. But they are good at room temperature too. If idlis get cold, they are very easily refreshed by popping them in the microwave oven for 20-30 seconds with a sprinkle of water. 

Freshly out of the steamer

What do you do with the dozens of idlis you just made? Win friends and influence people by sharing them around. On the slim chance that there isn't an ongoing pandemic, invite loads of friends for brunch. You can freeze idlis easily- they reheat beautifully in the microwave. You don't have to use the batter for idlis; refrigerate the idli batter and use it for dosas and uttapams on subsequent days. 

With refrigerated idlis, you can make a quick idli fry by cutting each little idli in thirds and pan-frying the idli fingers in a teaspoon or two of oil until golden on all sides. 

I like to make hybrid dosa-adais. Adais are savory pancakes made with mixes dals and grains, where the batter usually isn't fermented. My family prefers dosas to adais; I like that adais are nutritious and made with a variety of things in my pantry that don't get lots of use, like millet grains and chana dal. So I make adai batter and mix it 50-50 with idli/dosa batter made above, and then make dosas that are the best of both worlds. To all the mamis out there who are raising their eyebrows, I take full responsibility for this non-traditional concoction, but do give it a try. 

The idlis I describe here are the traditional, original ones with rice and urad dal. Of course, idi variations abound. I flipped through my little cookbook called 100 Tiffin Varieties by Mrs. S. Mallika Badrinath and found a wealth of idli options including Kanjeevaram idli, rawa idli, green gram idli and bajra idli, to name just a few. 

As a cook, I have my bucket list of dishes that I want to get just right. And I can honestly say that making soft idlis is a huge source of joy for me every single time. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Rediscovering Short Stories

Modeling clay Ganpati bappa made
by my sister and nephew! 

I started to write a post about my idli recipe- and it was getting so long-winded that I removed the book portion to post here separately. Idli post to come in a couple of days! Meanwhile let's talk about books.

* * * 

Image: Goodreads

Something that really brightened up my week was this book- Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due. Sinking your teeth into a well-written book is just so delicious. The Read Harder challenge continues to force me to read new authors and explore new genres and when I reluctantly do so, I am sometimes richly rewarded. The prompt was "Read a horror book published by an indie press" and I drew a blank. Horror is not really my favorite genre. And honestly, I wouldn't know an indie press from any other kind of press. On the community forums, this book kept popping up as a suggestion so I requested it from the library with a let's-check-this-box attitude. 

But Tananarive Due's book is SO GOOD! She knows how to tell a story and I am here for it. As a nice bonus, many of the stories are set right here in Georgia and Florida. The stories fall into 4 sections; "Gracetown" features three ghost stories set in Florida, the "Knowing" had 5 stories of uncanny events, 3 of which I loved; "Carriers" has 5 stories all with pandemic themes (!) and "Vanishings" ends the collection with two stories. I was blown away by several stories in this great little collection.

It has been a while since I read a book of short stories. They were my very favorite genre as a teenager and young adult. Several of the short stories that I loved and still remember decades later are available to read online in their entirety, like O. Henry's iconic The Gift of the Magi and his hilarious story of a kidnapping gone wrong, The Ransom of Red Chief. Roald Dahl is best known for his children's books but his short story Taste is outstanding. Edited to add: I just remembered another one of Dahl's classics- Lamb to the Slaughter. Other memorable short stories: the futuristic There will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, the moralistic The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, the highly unsettling The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and Truman Capote's poignant A Christmas Memory

A few collections of short stories that I have enjoyed over the years- Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan, No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov and Tales of Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry. 

* * *

Two pieces of inspiration- a child of the slums becomes a food scientist, and this young ballet dancer from an unlikely dance academy

Tell me what you're reading, and what's inspiring you these days. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Impossible quiche

We're halfway into August and the pandemic summer goes on and on. It is Friday now and this week has been a routine and uneventful one. But last week felt very anxious and discombobulated. There was a COVID scare in our household, then one of our kids fell and dislodged a front tooth and needed urgent dental care. We heard from three people close to us who have all lost family members either to COVID or other illnesses. 

Most of the cooking since then has been in the form of soups, soft scrambled eggs, khichdi and smoothies because of the aforementioned dental misadventure. But one evening I took over some dinner to friends as a condolence offering- tortellini vegetable soup and quiche.  

To make the quiche, I adapted this recipe, looking through the pantry and freezer to come up with some ingredients. I found a box of frozen spinach and a container of fried onions and somehow that odd combination worked out really well. This is one of those "impossible" quiches which is crustless, but a small amount of flour in the mixture settles and magically forms a crust of sorts for the quiche. Instead of making a large quiche, I made two smaller ones, one for our family and the other, in a foil pan, to share. The quiche mixed up quickly and turned out beautifully- it sliced well and held its shape. I knew I had to jot down the recipe so I can make it again.

Impossible quiche

Preheat oven to 400F.

Lightly whisk 6 large eggs and set aside.

Grease 1 or 2 baking dishes. In the baking dish(es), divide 1 package chopped spinach (thawed in the microwave and squeezed somewhat dry), 1 scant cup shredded cheddar cheese and about a cup of fried onions

In a large bowl, mix together 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1 tsp. baking powder

Stir in 1.5 cups milk, 2 tsp. dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste, whisking to make sure there are no lumps. 

Pour the mixture in the prepped baking dishes. 

Bake for 20-30 minutes or until the mixture is just cooked in the center (test with a knife tip). 

* * * 

What else have I been doing? I've surprised myself by keeping up with an exercise routine since my beloved gym classes and pools shut down in mid-March. The classes and the gym have always been a crutch for me as I maintained that I could not and would not exercise if left to my own devices. Well, now I have learned to do just that. Four or five mornings a week, I either go for a 30 minute run or do a 30 minute workout on YouTube- my favorites are Fitness Blender (there are dozens) and workouts by Lita Lewis (there are 3, and I have done each one many times over). My approach to exercise is to do it consistently and enjoy the process without any expectations. 

I've been watching a few movies that are leaving Netflix at the end of this month- Groundhog Day, which I highly recommend because it is funny and feels topical, and United 93, which tells the story of Flight 93 which was hijacked on 9/11- a hard-hitting and very well-crafted movie. 

And, tomorrow, Aug 15, 2020- Happy Independence Day, India. After many decades, I watched this video today- the original and superb Mile Sur Mera Tumhara.

How is August treating you?

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Birthday pancake & cake, and an improv chutney for idlis

Our son turned 4 this month- our little guy with the big and boisterous personality. He loves water play, books and watching "scary and creepy" shows, can't recognize alphabets yet but knows the names of about 40 different Pokemon, insists of wearing only muscle shirts in summer, competes ferociously with his big sister and declares "I need something sugary" a couple of times a day. So he got two sweet treats for his big day.

We kicked off the birthday with an early morning pancake breakfast- the pancake in this case was a skillet pancake adapted from this recipe, with 3/4 of all-purpose flour replaced with whole grain atta, sugar reduced to a scant 1/4 cup, and a handful of chocolate chips instead of berries. The grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins all joined in on Zoom to sing happy birthday. Just don't be like me and place candles into a hot skillet pancake; I had to pull them out hastily after this picture was taken because they started to melt! 

Later in the day, his sister and I made an official birthday cake. When asked about the flavor and type of cake, the birthday boy had one singular request- he wanted sprinkles, lots of them, inside and out. Done! 

We made a sweet little funfetti cake using this recipe. I just realized that the recipe has been updated since I used it. I made the old recipe, which is in the notes in the linked recipe. My only changes were to use 1/4 cup granulated sugar instead of 3/4 cup, and to reduce sprinkles to 1/2 cup. Our cake baked up in about 22 minutes, much quicker than what the recipe says.

For the frosting, instead of the buttercream in the recipe, we made a chocolate ganache- warming 2/3 cup of heavy cream, then adding in 2/3 cup of chopped dark chocolate off the heat and letting the mixture cool before whisking to a smooth, thick paste. Big sissy laid on the frosting and the sprinkles. The amount of frosting was more than enough for this cake- and psst, leftover ganache frosting is basically chocolate mousse and can be eaten straight up with a spoon. 

I'm one for easy birthday cakes at the best of times, but at this particular time, there was something very endearing about a little cake with colorful sprinkles hiding in every slice, with a shiny chocolatey frosting and more sprinkles on top. It really captured the simple joys of life and buoyed my spirit, while making a little boy very happy. I never thought a funfetti cake (fake food colors yadda yadda) would be my thing, but I have to admit that a slice of this soft and tasty cake was perfectly delightful with a cup of chai. 

* * *

A favorite food of both of my kids is idlis. Those fluffy dumplings smeared with ghee, what's not to love? It took me years to nail down my idli protocol and I never, ever mess with the idli recipe now I have it working right. Idlis may be traditional but chutneys have plenty of room for improvisation. This time I had an over-ripe tomato to use up, and lots of onions in the pantry, so I made an onion tomato peanut chutney. To add to the improvisation, instead of regular red chillies, I used dried Mexican pasilla peppers, large wrinkly peppers that have a fruity and smoky taste and are not overly hot. 

Onion Tomato Peanut Chutney with Pasilla Peppers

  1. In a saucepan, heat 1-2 tsp. coconut oil.
  2. Add 2 diced onions and saute until lightly browned.
  3. Add 2-3 rinsed pasilla peppers, with stems discarded and each pepper cut into 3-4 pieces.
  4. Add a large diced tomato and salt to taste. 
  5. Stir fry the mixture until the tomato no longer smells raw.
  6. Let it cool a bit, then add 1/2 cup roasted peanuts and blend to a thick paste using some water as needed.
  7. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, urad and chana dal and add it to the chutney. Mix together.
  8. Taste and adjust salt, adding lime juice if needed to bring out the flavor. 

* * * 
My reading these days is in fits and starts. I started a new job this month, one that is technical and challenging for me. At the end of the day I have very little mental bandwidth to take on demanding books and am usually grasping for an escape. The New Yorker issues arrive in the mail weekly but often I just can't bring myself to read yet another article about the pandemic or corrupt politicians or climate change. It all just weighs on the mind. (When I do pick up the magazine, I always find really interesting- if mostly depressing- articles to read, like this recent one about an online literature class reading the 1866 Russian novel Crime and Punishment and how its larger theme of societal decline resonates even today.)

One book did give a longed-for mental escape recently: The Satapur Moonstone- the second Parveen Mistry novel by Sujata Massey. I picked it up for the Read Harder Task #7: Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. The year is 1922 and we are in British India. Parveen Mistry is Bombay's first lady lawyer, young and plucky. In this atmospheric novel, I joined Parveen in her long journey on a palanquin through dense woods to the rural heart of a princely state, to a circuit house and a palace. A most enjoyable read. 

My daughter worked her way through the whole Harry Potter series this summer. While I never was a big Harry Potter fan, I did read the books when they came out back in the day. I remember reading the last book when it came out and thinking that it was really dark; the scenes with Harry and friends hiding out in a tent, fighting in isolation, stayed with me. I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my daughter- not reading aloud, but reading in parallel with her. I enjoyed the book much more the second time around. Again, it was a good escape into another world and one in which terrible things are happening but everything works out in the end. 

For Read Harder's Task #13: Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before, I read a book of food essays, You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another. It fit the theme because it had an essay about the cuisine of Anatolia, which is something I can confidently say I have never tried before. But there are a dozen really interesting essays in this book. There's one titled, "There is no such thing as a non ethnic restaurant" which about says it all. There's one about how everywhere you go, you can find meat (and other things) wrapped in flatbread, and another about how everywhere you go, you can find food steamed in leaves. A few essays profile immigrants starting restaurants- "Curry grows wherever it goes". The last essay was fascinating, about coffee bean production by small farmers in Rwanda. 

What are you cooking and eating and reading? I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Blueberries, Chanterelles and Noodle bowls

To state the obvious, the summer of 2020 is not like any other summer ever. The present feels dystopian. The future feels ominous. In all honesty, I find myself very dejected and anxious these days while also acknowledging that my family and I are OK and luckier than so many.

I haven't felt like blogging for weeks even though the kitchen has been extra busy. Working at home on my laptop all day long is draining and makes me less inclined to pick up the laptop again to blog after work. But this weekend I felt like posting so here I am.

* * *
"Mountains and Fountains rain down on me,"
"Buried in Berries, what a Jam Jamboree !"
- Jamberry by Bruce Degan (a beloved board book of both of my kids)

Early one Sunday morning we headed out to a farm about 20 minutes away from town for some blueberry picking. I found out about this You-Pick farm where else but on Instagram and jumped at the chance for some socially distanced family fun. The place operated on the honor system. Buckets were stacked on the fence posts of the gate. You grab a bucket or two, walk in and pick all the blueberries you wanted, and slip the payment into the slot of a lock box.

It was such a beautiful morning and a lovely respite- we could marvel at the beauty of nature while looking at gorgeous Georgia skies and rows of blueberry bushes laden with fresh fruit.

Blueberry muffins

When we got home I froze down most of the blueberry haul- freezing them in a single layer on baking sheets for a few hours, then pouring the frozen berries into bags and back into the freezer- this keeps the berries from freezing into a big clump. I eat blueberries most mornings with my steel cut oatmeal so it is nice to have this stash.

Of course my daughter and I also made a batch of jammy blueberry muffins that very afternoon and they were a treat. 

A couple of weeks later, I used some of the frozen berries to make a blueberry almond crisp, using this recipe and dividing the recipe into two baking pans, one for our home and one for friends. It was fantastic. 

The finished crisp

* * * 
Hot, damp weather and frequent thunderstorms and downpours- this is the recipe for chanterelle mushrooms popping up around here. Our daughter is an expert mushroom hunter and now her brother is learning from her. They will happily walk on nearby trails for hours as long as there are mushrooms to be foraged. There is some prep work required to get the dirt and grit off of the mushrooms but it is so worth it for that exquisite wild mushroom taste. I love that our city-bred kids get this small taste of what it is like to forage for food and enjoy it straight from the earth.

Our biggest haul- several pounds

Pan fried chanterelles with garlic and pepper

* * *
For a long while, I've wanted to do a pantry/fridge/freezer series on this blog, listing out the workhorse ingredients that help me produce meals day after day. Over years of family cooking, I have my favorites and buy them over and over again rather than experimenting too much. I'll do a mega post at some point sharing my idea of a well-stocked kitchen but here's a spotlight on one ingredient for now.

Noodles are definitely a pantry staple- we enjoy them in Asian ways or Italian ways or with countless inauthentic derivations thereof. After trying several different varieties of whole wheat noodles and soybean noodles and lentil/chickpea noodles, I found a noodle brand and variety that my family loves the best- Barilla Protein+ or Plus or something- I recognize the yellow box- and that's what I have been stocking up on. (As always, when I mention particular products, it is because I like them and not because the company is paying me!) I cook a whole box of these noodles and work them into 2-3 meals. 

One of the big mushroom hauls was too big to fit into even our biggest pan, so I roasted the shrooms with a bunch of broccoli. Cooked spaghetti and the roasted broccoli-mushrooms went into two quite different meals- 

1. Loaded peanut noodles

a. I tossed the noodles with teriyaki sauce, rice wine vinegar and peanut butter to make quick peanut noodles
b. The bowl had a crunchy salad layer of lettuce, cucumbers and red peppers. 
c. Then came the peanut noodles.
d. Then some thinly sliced baked tofu and the roasted broccoli and mushrooms.

2. Faux Chikn Parmesan

Eggplant parmesan and chicken parmesan (breaded, fried, eggplant or chicken smothered in red sauce and cheese and baked into a casserole) are staples of Italian-American comfort food. This was my low-maintenance, semi-homemade version of the same. Unlike the original, it does NOT sit in your stomach like a brick. 

1. Meatless chikn patties (there are several brands that I like and I usually stash a box or two in the freezer)- thawed in the microwave, then sliced.
2. Layer the chikn strips with jarred pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella in a baking dish.
3. If you are short on time, cover the dish and warm in the microwave until heated through and melty. If you have a little extra time, do the same in the oven until bubbly and browned. 
4. Serve with what else but your favorite noodles and roasted broccoli and mushrooms! 

* * * 

If you enjoy medical dramas, I highly recommend the Lenox Hill on Netflix- a documentary/ reality TV series that follows four doctors- two neurosurgeons, an OB/GYN and an emergency doc- their lives and their patients. I just finished watching it and gave me all the feels.

How is July going for you? I hope you are all safe and in good health, friends. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Book Summary: The End of Overeating

A couple times every year, there are big book sales in our town. Great heaps of gently used books are sold for a dollar or two each and the proceeds benefit good causes like childhood literacy organizations and special programming at the public library. I shop these book sales with the wild-eyed enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, trying not to throw myself at the long tables filled with books. It is a win-win-win situation because you get to clear books out of your house and into new hands, find fresh books at rock bottom prices, and raise money for community good. Every time I hit one of these book sales, I buy a few books that look interesting and squirrel them away. But then I usually end up reading library books and these books are always saved for later.

By this time in lockdown, I have burned through my library books, "later" is here, and I have started to read through my rainy day book collection. My attention span isn't very good these days. I started on two novels of the family drama genre- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and neither of me was able to hold my attention. They went into the donation pile and will end up at one of these book sales in the future. The circle of life; used book edition.

This week I grabbed a nonfiction book from the "later" bookshelf and ended up devouring it (no pun intended)- The end of overating: Taking control of the insatiable American appetite by David Kessler, MD. This book was published in 2009- 11 years ago at this point- but everything it says remains relevant. I read lots of books about food and nutrition every year and there wasn't anything in this book that was particularly new but it was a good read all the same. The food industry parts of the book were fascinating in a horrifying, train-wrecky way and the food rehab parts of the books were a good reminder of the urgent need for change in food culture in the US, and increasingly all over the world.

The book is written in easily digestible, bite-sized chapters. While it mentions the research early and often, it is not science-heavy. For more of the neuroscience behind many of the concepts mentioned in this book, I highly recommend Hungry Brain by Stephan Guyenet.

The central question asked in this book is: What drives us to overeat? I would guess that this is a relatable question to most of us. For instance, those bowls of snacks like roasted nuts, chaklis and kettle cooked chips that we might set out for visitors. My dad calls this "veda khaana" in Marathi, which translates into "mad food" or rather, mindless food, which most people will eat almost automatically regardless of whether they are actually hungry or not. And often will keep eating until the bowl is empty.

Many people who are smart, self-aware, disciplined and successful in other parts of their lives are nevertheless frustrated by their loss of control around food. The author blames it on conditioned hypereating- we eat too much (more than what our bodies need) because we have too much tasty food around. Humans are biologically wired to respond to stimuli like nicotine, alcohol, illegal drugs, gambling. "..for most of us, food is the most readily available and socially acceptable stimulus."

Part 1 of the book is titled Sugar, Fat, Salt.

Human body weight stayed remarkably stable for most of human history, but in the last 40 years or so, something has changed and humans are getting heavier. Weight gain is primarily due to overeating; factors like genetics, metabolism and diet composition play a minor role.

More food is available, portion sizes are bigger- true- but just having food available does not mean we have to eat it. What is driving the out-of-control eating?

Our body systems- temperature, blood pressure, etc.- are kept stable through elaborate homeostatic processes. There is also such a homeostatic system for energy balance, that is, weight regulation. But it is not the only system in charge of food intake. A different system called the reward system is also involved. The reward system is a powerful biological force, encouraging us to seek out pleasurable things like food because in the past our survival depended on it." America, in the fight between energy balance and reward, the reward system is winning." 

Salt, sugar and fat make us eat more salt, sugar and fat because they are all highly palatable and we keep eating these foods because of the stimulation rather than genuine hunger. The biological system that is designed to maintain energy balance can go awry when animals (including humans) have easy access to a variety of foods that are highly palatable foods.

The restaurant industry creates highly stimulating foods. Sugar, salt and fat are either loaded onto a core ingredient, layered on top of it, or both. In typical restaurant spinach dip, the spinach only adds a bit of color and health appeal. A high-salt, high-fat dairy product is the main ingredient. Salads use a bit of lettuce as a carrier for ranch dressings and are loaded with cheese chunks, bacon bits and fried croutons. All foods are made more compelling and more hedonic.

There is substantial scientific evidence that rewarding high-fat, high-sugar foods tend to be reinforcing, meaning that they keep us going back for more. Our desire for more is also influenced by portion size (if more food is served, more will be eaten), the concentration of fat and sugar (up to a point) and variety- in the number of foods offered but also in contrasting textures and flavors.

Rewarding foods are becoming increasingly more complex and stimulating. Ice cream used to come in three flavors, then more and more flavors became available, followed by premium, higher-fat ice cream and then mix-ins of candy into ice cream. Similarly, other foods like bagels that once came in a single flavor are increasingly tricked-out with flavor combinations that are loaded with sugar on fat on salt.

Over time, sights and smells, times and locations become cues that lead us to eat rewarding foods. Particular foods become linked to nostalgia and emotion. The opioids produced by eating rewarding foods can relieve pain and stress and calm us down, making us feel better in the short run. We cannot control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains are rewired by eating these foods.

My thoughts on this part of the book: The term "layered and loaded" is going to stick in my brain. As a home cook, I try to cook food that is tasty. But it is oh so easy to overdo it with the sugar, salt and fat in the name of making a dish irresistible. The problem is then you succeed and the food is impossible to resist and you end up eating more than you want to.

The layered and loaded phrase also reminded me of chaat- those tempting Indian snack foods and some of my personal favorite things to eat. They are a good example of how deep fried dough (puris) and contrasting tastes (spicy chutney, sweet chutney) and textures (creamy yogurt, crunchy sev) are all layered and loaded and made completely irresistible. A lot of our favorite foods in every cuisine are fried, salt, spicy and/or sugary even when they start from wholesome ingredients or are made at home.

The next part of the book talks about The Food Industry.

The food industry has discovered what sells. Chain restaurant entrees are composed of chopped and ultrapalatable components that look appealing, need minimal chewing (refined food simply melts in the mouth) and are very high-pleasure, with very high calorie density. Very little in the appearance or flavor of chain restaurant food would point to just how much salt, sugar and fat it is loaded with, or how easily it goes down.

The development of Cinnabon cinnamon rolls is a great case study of how the industry creates products that are indulgent and irresistible with a combination of visual appeal, aroma, texture and consistency.

Purchasing indulgent food is an inexpensive form of entertainment, so the food industry increasingly behaves like the entertainment industry. Indulging in a premium snack is seen as a small moment of relaxation in a stressful life, a bit of 'me-time'.

Fats and sugars used to be scarce and therefore we developed the biological tools to seek out and appreciate them. Today oils and sugars are among the cheapest commodities because of rapid changes in agriculture and commerce. The food industry has enthusiastically embraced this business opportunity to use oils and sugars for a profit.

Where traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, American industrial food is meant to stimulate. It is mostly composed of easy calories that need little chewing.

We are taking products of other cuisines- eg. Chinese, Vietnamese- and making the dishes distinctly American, usually by adding more sugar and more fat. And also taking American processed foods and sharing them with the rest of the world.

Sophisticated food technology- artificial flavorings- are often used in addition to salt, sugar and fat to make food hyperpalatable. Traditional Italian gelato is made with whole milk, eggs and sugar but most commercial gelato in the US begins with a processed base made with ingredients like milk solids, glucose solids and a gum and emulsifier combination, along with a host of artificial flavors. Flavor chemists can develop any type of flavor to transform a food. "A topping that covers tortilla chips can look like cheese but contains mostly oil and flavoring."

There is constant eating opportunity. "Call it the taco chip challenge- the challenge of controlled eating in the face of constant food availability". Every single day and everywhere you go, foods are available, plentiful and cheap.

My thoughts on this part of the book: It is interesting to get a sneak peek into the food industry but it left me feeling sad, angry and disgusted. Because for large swaths of the US population, processed food is the only food that's available and affordable. You might think you are eating a simple burrito in a chain restaurant, but it is a food-like substance designed to cater to your tastebuds rather than actual food served to fuel your body. It is devastating to think of the millions of people who are heavily overfed and facing chronic health consequences while simultaneously being completely undernourished.

It is SO SO tricky and hard to find wholesome foods in a standard supermarket setting. I'll give you an example of common items that most American families buy regularly- cereal, granola bars, peanut butter, canned fruit, applesauce, pasta sauce. For each of these items, what you will typically find in supermarkets is loaded with sugar and fat. Granola bars are just refined cereal and sweeteners, applesauce is spiked with sweeteners, canned fruit is packed in heavy syrup, peanut butter has added sugar and oils. The list goes on. If you want wholesome versions of these items, it takes careful label reading, and shelling out money for premium brands. Or having the time and expertise to make items from scratch at home without added sugar, salt and oils.

The rest of the book has chapters titled Conditioned Hypereating Emerges, The Theory of Treatment, Food Rehab and The End of Overeating. These chapters reiterate the issue of why we overeat and what we can do about it as individuals and as a society. Some of the stuff in these chapters could have been better organized. I'm pulling out some take-home points below.

Food-related reward learning becomes highly automated and below the level of conscious awareness. The weight loss drug phen-fen worked effectively because it lessened the drive for reward and stopped people from being obsessed with food. It has serious side-effects and is not in use any more but taught us a lot about the biology of overeating.

Why can't we just say no to food that we don't want to eat? The short answer is that high-reward foods engage fundamental neural mechanisms that can interfere with how we rationally want to act.

Conditioned overeating is a biological challenge in our current food environment. Overeating is not a character flaw or a lack of willpower.

The food industry has cracked the code of conditioned hypereating and knows how to manipulate people's eating behavior and get us to pursue the foods it wants to sell. The challenge is knowing how to respond. It is possible to learn to eat the food you want in a planned and controlled way as individuals.

Some specific tips gleaned from this book-

  1. Avoid risky situations (but that may be difficult in a world of omnipresent food cues.) 
  2. Be aware of how food reward works. 
  3. Look at food and see it for what it is- real food or something loaded with sugar, salt and fat? 
  4. Change behaviors: eg. taking different route that doesn't go past your favorite bakery, taking a list to the grocery store and sticking to it. 
  5. Formulate new thoughts to replace old ones: "I'll just take one bite" to "I can't eat just one bite; it always leads to twenty."
  6. Think differently about food, as nourishment rather than reward. 
  7. See hyperpalatable foods as enemies, not friends. Stop thinking, "I deserve this"or "I'll only eat a little". 
  8. Planned eating: Instead of eating whatever, whenever in a chaotic way, have a predictable structure for eating- what foods you will eat, how much will you eat, and when you will eat. 
  9. Just-right eating: Learning to eat the right amount of foods to satisfy until the next meal. 
  10. Choose satisfying, fiber-rich whole foods.
  11. For emotional eaters, choose a different response to negative emotions and stress. 
  12. Know your trigger foods and avoid them.
  13. Purchase high-reward foods in reasonable quantities and eat them in the right settings.
  14. Food can be an occasional reward but when all eating becomes rewarding it is a problem. 
  15. Find alternative rewards. 
  16. Find food that provides emotional reward without driving overeating.
  17. Understand yourself and become your own food coach. 

As a society, we need to rethink our ideas about the right time and place to eat in the home, in a social and in business settings. Redefine norms. Smoking is a great example of how the norms have changed completely. Smoking used to be considered cool and glamorous and widely accepted. Today, smoking is known to be deadly and it is rarely accepted in public spaces.

Some suggestions for policy changes that would help:

  1. List calorie counts of food in restaurants.
  2. Better labeling to see added sugars, fats and refined carbs.
  3. Educate people about "big food" and the way they push food layered and loaded with salt, sugar and fat.
  4. Regulate marketing of food.

The food industry says it is only giving people what they want and that individuals have responsibility for what they put in their mouths. They are designing highly stimulating products that hijack our brain circuitry.  What is industry's responsibility?

My thoughts on this last part of the book: All of these are good and valid questions. This was not mentioned in the book, but I think the government subsidies on corn sweeteners and refined oil are a big part of the problem.

A big reason why this book resonated with me at this time is because I have been consciously changing my eating habits in small ways for the past two years. I have learned first hand that changing habits is hard but very rewarding. Unlike short-term diets, changing my attitude and habits around food is slowly making me more confident about being able to stick to a sustainable and quietly enjoyable way of eating for the rest of my life.

I wish you all a safe and healthy June. How was the month of May for you?