There is a lot of talk about obesity and healthy eating in the West. There is also a lot of talk about rising food prices, food banks, unemployment, benefits cuts and other austerity measures sparking dubious claims from millionaire, silver-spooned Tories that they could survive on £53 a week, while maintaining a reasonably nutritious and varied diet.
Now comes the news that a staggering 500,000 people in the UK - the seventh richest country in the world, it’s worth remembering - are relying on food banks to survive as welfare cuts bite and food prices continue to rise (having already soared by 35% over the past five years, far outstripping wage increases).
And the way things are going, it’s only likely to get worse. As John Harris wrote this week in The Guardian about the growing use of food banks in Britain, there is a perception that “hunger is something that happens only to the poor and unfortunate overseas. It’s now here: outside everyone’s door, gnawing away, ruining lives.”
Overseas places like Cambodia, for instance, where I am currently working. A third-world country ranked as one of the poorest in the world, where many villagers struggle to get by on less than $2 a day.
There is no doubt that even the poorest Britons live a much better life than the poorest Cambodians. But it makes sense that the hundreds of thousands of Britons now struggling with “destitution, hardship, and hunger on a large scale”, as key poverty charities warn, could learn a thing or two from SE Asia’s most vulnerable - who for years have had to cope with extreme hunger, and have become skilled at getting the most out of the little food they have.
A good start would be removing the ‘meat and two veg’ mantra and embracing an Asian diet and Asian cooking techniques - none more so than the wok: an extremely versatile cooking pot that can be used to fry, steam, and braise, and is very useful for serving up tasty, nutritious food on a tight budget.
Asian cooking, in general, uses more fish and has a higher ratio of vegetables per serving - and vegetables are often overlooked in the meat-obsessed West as an excellent way to naturally boost flavour. Likewise, wok cooking uses little oil, making it healthier. It’s also blindingly quick - meaning it takes less of a chunk out of gas or electricity bills. And I say this without sarcasm or irony in these days where you can’t switch on the telly without hearing the word sustainability - something that may help save the planet.
As food and fuel become more scarce, populations grow, and climate change pushes up temperatures and leads to more flooding, making traditional staples like rice less and less of a staple, people will be forced to eat less meat and more vegetables, fruit, and perhaps insects - which happen to be a very good source of protein and nourishment. It’s unavoidable - there aren’t enough resources to go round as it is.
People in the West could do themselves a lot of favours if they simply ate less, and saw meat as less of a main ingredient and more of a flavouring, as it is in SE Asia. When I arrived in Cambodia in 2011, I tipped the airport scales at a whopping and technically obese 93kg. I’m now 77kg, and feel a lot better for it.
Yes, I miss meat feasts and dirty kebabs. But after a while your stomach and appetite changes, it takes less food to fill your belly, and the endless discussions about double cheese burgers and monstrous steaks leave you frankly bored, if not a little disgusted, by the gluttony so often espoused on foodie havens like Twitter.
Read any interview with someone surviving on food aid in the US or Europe and they will say the same thing - that they have been forced to abandon, or heavily cut down on, meat for cheaper ingredients like pasta, rice, noodles, pulses, cereals, and vegetables.
Over the next few blogs, I’m going to post a few recipes I’ve picked up on my travels through SE Asia - not gourmet meals, far from it, but delicious all the same. They are meals that can be made in minutes and are extremely cheap to make.
It’s one of the many things people in the West could learn from the far flung East, along with swapping toilet paper for bum guns, the importance of families and spirituality, and being less obsessed with celebrity, to name but a few.
The first is a dish that comes from a great Chinese-Cambodian street food stall in Phnom Penh. It’s called char trey cor compong (fried tinned fish). Doesn’t sound great does it, but it’s a wonderful meal. All you need is a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce (or tinned pilchards or sardines), tomato ketchup (tuk peng pong - the Hong Kong influence in the dish), onions, chillies, rice, and a few minutes with a wok.
CHAR TREY COR COMPONG
400g tin of mackerel in tomato sauce
1 large or two medium onions
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 spring onions
1 teaspoon fish sauce
Salt, Pepper, Sugar
Juice of two limes
Two red bird eye chillies
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
As with all wok dishes, it’s important to prep the ingredients first - the best cooks over here say 90% of the cooking is done on the chopping board, and 10% in the wok. But they also say the blacker the wok, the better the chef, so knife skills are very good by that stage.
Open the tinned mackerel, and carefully fork out the fish and put on a plate. Half fill the tin with water, and using a wooden spoon scrape up the tomato sauce from the sides and bottom. Chop the onion in half, then finely slice. Cut the white part of each spring onion into two pieces, then finely chop the green part to use as a garnish. Finely slice the chillies and put in a small saucer or dipping bowl. Cut the limes into six pieces, and squeeze each piece into a bowl.
Heat the wok over a high flame until the metal begins to smoke, then add the vegetable oil. Toss in the sliced onion, and stir continuously with the wooden spoon until the onion is soft but not browned - this will take about two minutes. Then throw in the liquid from the tin, and the spring onion whites, and boil for a minute.
Add the ketchup, lime juice, and fish sauce, and boil for another 30 seconds, topping up with a little more water if necessary, until you have a sauce about the thickness of double cream. Add salt, sugar, and ground black pepper to taste.
Turn off the flame and put the fish in the wok, and cover with the sauce. Put the lid on the wok and then leave for a minute. The fish should be warmed through but not hot. Tip the fish on to a flat serving dish and scatter with the spring onion greens (the stall uses chopped Chinese chives as a garnish - so use those if you’re lucky enough to have them). Serve with sticky rice and the saucer of chopped chillies.
:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.