Eat Well, Think Better
Fuel for the brain
With many students gearing up for school exams, Chef Lance Seeto explains that there are special foods you should be eating to maximize your brain’s power and health. It has long been said that the people of Lau seem to be smarter than their mainland brethren because of the higher concentration of past Presidents, Prime Ministers, Attorney Generals and business leaders that have hailed from the southern islands. So what has been their secret? They ate more brain foods, or more specifically, foods that help enrich the brain. The ancestral diet of the Pacific islands is an enviable diet high in the freshest, omega-3 rich fish, and less of the processed and refined factory foods eaten in the urban cities. If you’re currently studying for that big exam or just want to improve your memory or cognitive skills, the diet of Fiji’s ancient people is exactly what you should be following to fuel your brain for maximum performance and long-term health.
BRAIN IS MAJORITY FAT
To understand why foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids is so important for the brain we need to understand what the brain is made of – 60% is fat. Not just any fat like a fatty piece of pork belly or lamb chop, but special lipid fats that can be found in high concentrations in fish but also in many vegetables like seaweed (lumi and nama), leafy green vegetables (moca, bele, ota, Chinese choy sum, spinach) , avocados, tofu, cauliflower and even walnuts. The electrical wiring of the brain relies
on these fats to maintain fast connection within the brain to transport messages and instructions, much like how a computer needs clear wiring to a portable hard drive to retrieve and save data. The healthier the connection, the faster the memory recall and retention. So with the brain’s 100 billion cells made up mainly of fat, it’s not hard to understand why we need to eat more of those foods to maintain a healthy brain structure.
FOODS HIGH IN OMEGA-3
Fiji is blessed with so many sources of omega-3 fatty acids that have long sustained the Pacific island ancestors. Generally, the darker and fattier the fish flesh, the better it is for a brain enriched diet but any white flesh fish will also do. Smaller sardines, tuna (especially the belly!) and Spanish Mackeral (walu) are high in omega 3’s, as well as imported salmon and herring (fresh, tinned or smoked). Fish eggs or caviar, is also rich in the good fats but if you can’t stand to eat fish then there are other alternatives, although they are not as high in omega 3’s as fish. For meat eaters, grass-fed beef (without the hormones!) contain high levels of the fatty acid because green grass is rich in it. Overseas, you buy chickens that are fed a diet rich in flaxseeds, grass and nuts, so just like the cows, if their diet is rich in omega 3’s, then eat the animals to gain from their brain enriched diet! For vegetarians, one of the richest sources of good brain-happy fat is from seeds and nuts, especially walnuts and tofu (bean curd) which is made
from soy beans. Fresh tofu is now widely available in the larger municipal markets of Nadi, Lautoka and Suva thanks to Chinese vendors who make it fresh from home. At some Chinese shops and overseas supermarkets in Fiji, you can find the omega-3 rich seeds and nuts including chia seeds, flax seeds, soy beans, Japanese natto, cashews and hazelnuts. Of the leafy greens you can buy in Fiji there is a multitude of choices (especially at Suva municipal markets) provided by the local Chinese market gardeners, as well as plenty of nama sea grapes and lumi seaweed, and look out for kale; a miracle green vegetable that has taken the world by storm for health conscious eaters. And if you don’t have time to find or cook any of the above; visit your local pharmacy to pick up some salmon or cod liver oil to supplement your diet.
BENEFITS OF OMEGA RICH DIET
Apart from the obvious benefits of feeding our brain the foods it needs to maintain structure and cohesion, the omega-3 rich ancestral diet of the iTaukei (minus all the rubbish foods high in sugar, unnatural fats and artificial chemicals) also helps to stabilize blood sugar levels, reduces muscle and joint pain, helps balance cholesterol, boosts immunity and has been shown to dramatically improve skin health. If you are not eating many of the foods listed above then you are putting your body – and brain – under much strain and duress. Apart from starving the billion of cells in your brain of the fatty acids they need and preventing them from doing their job, you are essentially opening the door to many diseases and disorders as the human body cannot manufacture omega-3; you need to eat them! Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need each day, but suggestions range from 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily. So how easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3s in one can of tuna fish and a whopping 7000 milligrams in one cup of cooked mackerel.
FISH FOR BABY BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
Now that we know that a large part of the brain is made up of omega-3 fats, there are very interesting international studies that suggest that omega-3 fats are also essential for healthy brain development both in the womb and in early childhood. About 75% of brain cells are in place before birth and the other 25% are in place by the age of 1 year, making omega-3 fats an essential nutrient both for pregnant mothers and young children. Omega-3 fats were found to be so important for early brain development that they are now automatically added to baby milk formula overseas and some countries recommend that pregnant women eat two servings of fish every week. Eating fish while pregnant may have benefits that go beyond early brain development. These studies have found that the children of mothers who eat fish while pregnant had better social and verbal skills at age eight compared to the children of mothers who never ate fish. But the benefits of eating fish go beyond the early years. Researchers have found that many brain-related conditions may be prevented or even treated by good intakes of omega-3 fats, including problems like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. It is not difficult to understand that if we keep our brain cells healthy and well fed, and we remove excess sugar and artificial chemicals, we may just avoid many of the brain diseases as we age. So if you’re studying hard for that school exam and feeling a bit sluggish or feeling like your brain isn’t functioning as best as it could; consider what you are eating and make the change in diet to include the good fatty foods. Who knows; a good and a regular intake of omega-3 rich foods might not just snap your brain into action; you could be on the path to become Fiji’s next President or super smart genius.
SAUTÉED KALE WITH LIME PICKLE
This is not your usual garlic-and-oil sauté as the delicious lime pickle from FRIEND’s brings a spicy and pungent kick. If you can’t find kale at the markets, substitute for moca, spinach or watercress or any dark leafy green vegetable.
3 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter 1 small onion, thinly sliced into rings 2 bunches kale (or other green vegetable), stems removed, leaves torn into 2” pieces 2 tablespoons FRIEND brand lime pickle, chopped Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat ghee in a large frypan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Working in batches, add green vegetables, tossing and letting it cook down slightly before adding another handful or two, and adding a splash of water if pan looks dry. Add lime pickle and cook, tossing often, until green vegetable is wilted and tender, 5–8 minutes; season with salt and pepper.
MACKEREL WITH SMASHED POTATOES AND OREGANO
The Fijian ika vakalolo is an obviously way to eat more mackerel (walu), but if you want a change this recipe will change your mind about the fishiness of this strong fish. And if nothing else, you’ll love the crispy potatoes. If you can’t find fresh oregano, substitute with thyme, basil or dill.
500 grams potatoes (or any root crop vegetable) Sea salt 1 cup plain Fiji-made Greek yogurt 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar (or plain white vinegar) Freshly ground black pepper 4 cloves garlic peeled, crushed 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive or coconut oil, divided 4 pieces skin-on mackerel fillets (walu) 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves (or basil, thyme or dill) 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest Place potatoes in a large pot, add water to cover, and season with salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until tender, 10–12 minutes. Drain; let cool slightly. Meanwhile, preheat a BBQ or oven grill to roast the potatoes. Whisk yogurt, lemon juice, and vinegar in a small bowl; season with sea salt and pepper. Set yogurt sauce aside. Prepare the potatoes by placing them on a baking tray, squashing them with a small plate or cup until they flatten. Sprinkle the potatoes with garlic and drizzle with 4 tablespoon of oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast potatoes until golden brown, 10–12 minutes. Rub skin side of mackerel with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil; season with salt and pepper. In a medium-hot frypan, cook the fish skin, side up, until fish is cooked thru, then turnover and cook until skin is crisp, another 2-3 minutes. Spoon yogurt sauce onto each plate and top with potatoes and fish; sprinkle with fresh herbs, lemon zest and a pinch sea salt.
Tofu (made from soy beans) can be quite bland but pop into the Chinese shop to buy a bottle of the malty Chinese black vinegar called Chinkiang to give this dish a zing. It is like an Asian balsamic vinegar and delicious in stir fry and salads.
cup Chinkiang black vinegar or Italian balsamic vinegar 2 large blocks fresh tofu (or packet silken tofu), drained, each sliced crosswise into 4 pieces 3 tablespoon brown sugar 2 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 small knob ginger, peeled, cut into thin matchsticks 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced cup light soy sauce Fresh coriander leaves, garnish Place tofu on a baking sheet lined with several layers of paper towels; place several layers of towels on top and press gently to remove excess nliquid. Place tofu in a shallow baking dish. Bring vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour over tofu and turn to coat. Let stand at least 1 hour to marinate. Heat oil in a large nonstick frypan over mediumhigh. Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, about 1 minute. Drain tofu, reserving marinade; pat tofu dry. Add tofu to frypan and cook until golden on all sides, 5–7 minutes (remove ginger and garlic if they are in danger of burning). Add reserved marinade to frypan and cook until marinade is reduced and glazes tofu, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer tofu to a platter, spoon pan juices over, and sprinkle with coriander.
LANCE SEETO is an award-winning international food writer, author, television presenter and executive chef based on Mana Island Fiji. Follow his culinary adventures in Fiji at www.lanceseeto.com Tuna belly (left) is rich in good brain fats compared to tuna loin
Belonging to the seaweed family, nama sea grapes are a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids
Grass fed beef is an alternative source of brain fat Mackerel including walu, is one of the richest sources of omega 3
Flaxseeds are also known as linseed and available at some Chinese shops
After mackerel, salmon is the second best choice as a brain food
Sauteed kale with lime pickles
Walu mackerel with smashed potato, yoghurt and herbs
Ginger garlic tofu in black vinegar Don’t forget that you can cut out and keep these recipes!