I am old enough to remember the UK before the first McDonalds opened up here, and I believe the arrival of the global fast food chain to our shores coincided with a pivotal shift in our attitudes to food.
To me, with the benefit of hindsight, it seemed to herald two things.
Firstly, a gradual onslaught of fast, cheap, energy-dense food, a trend continued subsequently with the seemingly irresistible rise to prominence of the supermarket “ready meal”. Secondly, the increasing dominance of the global food market by a small group of huge, profit-hungry corporations, who now heavily influence what we eat and how we eat it.
The result has been that, unlike in previous generations, obesity and poverty are no longer at opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum. More often than not they now sit hand in hand, because it is the poor in our society who have been most targeted by this surge of cheap, fat and sugar rich, highly processed food.
Back in those days of the first UK McDonalds “fat” people were a small minority of the population. Thirty odd years later a staggering 64% of UK citizens are now either clinically overweight or obese.
I am not claiming that McDonalds alone is responsible for this grotesque transformation, but what they do to their food is symptomatic of what is wrong with the processed food industry.
A key ingredient underpinning the McDonalds menu is corn. It can be found in big percentages in a variety of McDonalds products (over 50% of a chicken McNugget is corn, for example), but it is the high-fructose corn syrup in much of McDonalds output that is of most significance. A cheap, highly processed alternative to sugar, high fructose corn syrup is implicated in a growing body of research as linked to appetite suppression and obesity (I will be writing more about this pernicious ingredient and how it has inveigled its way into our food in a future post).
Certainly, compared to those pre-McDonalds days our diet now contains far more processed fats, sugars, oils and animal products and significantly less fruit, cereals and grains.
If there is a solution to this spiral of decline then it may lie in our willingness to change ourselves and, consequentially, to change the way our food industries work, although change may also be forced upon us as a result of intensifying pressure on global food and fuel resources.
Whether that change ultimately comes from ourselves or from overwhelming economic necessity, I like to think it may help finally to expose the sheer rapacious greed and recklessness of the global mass-production food industry and the precariousness of the natural resources it has squandered in order to bring vapid, passionless, highly processed, cheap and harmful “food” to our plates. If so, it might just allow us another chance to truly appreciate and fall in love with real, locally grown, unadulterated food.
Kale is a wonderful vegetable on the allotment or in the garden vegetable patch as it is so hardy that it can survive the winter weather beyond the endurance of most other vegetables. It is also highly nutritious, and has been hailed as a “superfood”. I usually grow one of two types – the dark, brooding Tuscan variety Cavalo Nero or the paler, fringe-leaved Pentland Brig, and it’s the latter that I’ll be using in this recipe.
I came up with this restorative soup when my wife Sara was ill recently, and it was so good I knew it had to go on the blog. Tom yum is a hot, sour and spicy soup, from Laos and Thailand, traditionally including prawns or shredded chicken. In this vegan interpretation iron-rich kale and tasty shiitake mushrooms combine to make for a powerful, vibrant and truly life-affirming soup.
kale and shiitake tom yum
200g kale (I used cavalo nero), tough stalks removed, shredded
150 g shiitake mushrooms, cleaned (halve or slice any big mushrooms)
6 spring onions, white and green parts, finely sliced across the diagonal
3 red chillies, seeds in, thinly sliced
2 cm piece ginger, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed
zest and juice of 2 limes
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
2 litres vegetable stock
1. Bruise the lemongrass stalks by placing the flat blade of a big knife across them and pushing down until you hear or feel them crack.
2. Place the stock in a large pan or cauldron over a medium heat. Add the spring onions, chillies, ginger, garlic, lemongrass stalks and lime zest (but not the lime juice). Bring to the boil then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook for 10 minutes.
3. Add the kale and the mushrooms, stir and cook for a further 5 minutes before adding the lime juice, soy sauce and coriander. Give the soup a final stir and then ladle into bowls. Serve immediately.