Friday, 15 August 2014

Why bread matters

I appreciate that everyone is probably fairly fed up of farinaceous posts by now, but I want to talk a little bit more about bread as a kind of example.

When you go abroad, there are lots of things you'll read about or hear about that will be New and Different and either Delightful or Hard To Deal With. And in some cases this will be true, although in quite a lot of cases the differences actually make a minimal difference to your life. It's true that people in Japan spend a lot more time bowing and negotiating movements than tends to be true in the UK, but actually I don't find I need to think about this at all - I picked up the habit very quickly and haven't noticed it affecting my life at all. And they use paper tissues rather than hankies and don't blow noses in public, but I spend only a small fraction of my time and energy blowing my nose.

Bread is not something anyone really talks about, except briefly drawing contrasts between countries and cultures, but it has a much more profound effect on my life than I'd expected.

In the UK, bread is almost impossible not to get. Every shop that sells food tends to sell bread, down to corner shops and tobacconists. It's cheap and plentiful. Everyone eats bread regularly. A wide range of breads is available to suit different tastes. There are rubbishy but cheap breads, and luxury posh breads, and seed breads and a pleasingly large amount of healthy wholemeal bread.

The other thing about the bread-based diet is that bread support products are available. Cooked sliced meat is available just about anywhere that sells bread. Cheese comes in blocks well-suited to slicing for sandwiches or toast, or is even available pre-sliced. There is an array of spreads and pastes and p√Ętes for alternative sandwiches. Because there's a market for it, low-priced versions are widely available, as well as the pricier options.

The combination of these things means that it's very easy and cheap to get hold of sandwich/toast-making foodstuffs, and these can easily be stored at home to make a quick, convenient meal. You can make sandwiches in about two minutes, and eat them in a similar time if you want. You can eat them tidily on the go if you're in a big hurry. They make minimal mess, require no cooking and cause little washing-up - I personally tend to keep my perfectly-clean sandwich plates and reuse them for my main meal. They don't require electricity or gas, nor produce heat in the making.

In Japan, bread isn't really a thing and sandwiches definitely aren't a thing. Oh, you can get them, but you can get sushi in England - it doesn't mean life is arranged to accommodate eating sushi.

I've bought a bit of bread here, but most of it is simply not acceptable for sandwiches, being both unhealthy and tasteless. Bread of all kinds is significantly more expensive than in the UK, ranging from twice the price (white bread resembling insulating foam) to around ten times the price (wholemeal sliced loaf), which immediately knocks it out of being a good staple food. Much more important is the dearth of things to put on it - literally the only sandwich filling I've seen here is ham. No other pre-cooked meats seem to be available, and of course cheese isn't an option. You could have an expensive, tasteless ham sandwich every day, but it's neither convenient nor appetising.

But my point here isn't just to gripe about bread, but to talk about consequences. Because it's not really convenient to do sandwiches, I don't really have any options for very quick meals: there's essentially nothing I can make that doesn't require cooking. All meals produce a certain amount of washing-up and make the room hot. Because I have only a single hob, I can't cook a main course and its accompanying carbohydrate at the same time unless I'm doing noodle soup, which means cooking time is extended and more planning is needed (more crucially, I can't make food and brew tea at the same time!). Cooked meals tend to cause more shopping than the equivalent sandwich would, because things need to be fresh, or are shapes that don't pack well in the fridge, or come in bulky packaging, so I have to shop more often.

(I should perhaps mention that although I spent two months in China, lack of bread wasn't an issue. Why? Because I wasn't providing the food - I ate in the canteen at work, and we had a cook in the dorm for evening meals. The only impact I saw was eating different food, and that wasn't a problem.)

The alternative is buying a ready-made bento meal. I've only done this for some lunches at school so far, because it's a bit pricey (though not bad), wastes a chunk of my lunchtime, and isn't as healthy as something I'd make myself. You then have to watch out for leaking sauces as you carry it back, find a place to sit and eat a meal with chopsticks, and potentially queue for the microwave. This is frankly a lot less convenient than cramming a sandwich bag into my rucksack, and then tidily eating it wherever.

The superficial consequence of (Western-style) bread not being as popular in Japan is that I spend more time eating other things. I like eating rice and noodles, so this shouldn't be a problem. The actual consequences are that I need to shop more often, need to be more organised about preparing meals, have no options for a very quick meal, my room gets hot whenever I eat, and I often find myself desperately longing for a decent butty, not just because I am very fond of bread, but because it is just so. much. easier.

I didn't really appreciate the genius of the sandwich as a foodstuff until I moved here. Truly, the queen of foods and perhaps the greatest of British gifts to the world.

Today's lesson is, it's very hard to guess what differences between cultures will actually be significant to you.

1 comment:

  1. I am devouring a pot of instant pasta (wholegrain) and feeling sympathetic about the food issues you are currently undergoing. I agree that life has been much easier ever since the invention of instant/microwavable meals. I had the same struggle about cooking and preparing food in Asia. Like what you described, few things can be shoved in to mouse straightaway. Preparing and cooking food are very important elements in people’s daily life which according to our time use data collection, account for more one third of daily time allotments. You should feel lucky that you are not living in Tibet. Apparent, getting the ‘stove’ on requires half of day’s hard work ;) For now, put your mind about bread aside, enjoy rice and noodles! PS, I don’t think it takes long to have a big pot of sir-fried rice…