It’s back-to-school time – hope­fully food is on the cur­ricu­lum, and not just the menu

Friday - - Contents -

From the kitchen to school cur­ricu­lum: Fri­day’s food cul­tur­al­ist Arva Ahmed be­lieves it’s time food made that jour­ney.

Afriend once told me that we should fo­cus on teach­ing chil­dren about the ‘con­stants’ in life be­cause much of what they need to know to be suc­cess­ful twenty years from now has not even sur­faced yet. I couldn’t agree more; I never knew how to use a mo­bile phone un­til my se­nior year of col­lege (yes – I am re­ally that old), but I have al­ways known the need to eat.

Our schools need to have a for­mal les­son called Food. This is not a glut­tonous re­quest for cakes and snick­er­doo­dles, but rather a class that bro­kers con­nec­tions be­tween other sub­jects and the plates of food be­fore us.

It would in­clude cook­ing, but must also go beyond the stove to make as­so­ci­a­tions with science, history, lan­guage, cul­ture and art. This is im­por­tant at a time when our re­la­tion­ship with food is cycli­cal ‘love-hate’, when ev­ery other per­son of­fers ad­vice as though they are a qual­i­fied nu­tri­tion­ist, when food com­pa­nies are fund­ing ‘stud­ies’ that sup­port their prod­ucts, when many young adults suf­fer from eat­ing dis­or­ders, when para­noia about health causes us to gen­er­alise and over­sim­plify com­plex bod­ily re­ac­tions. And when we no longer just live to eat, but where we live to eat for In­sta­gram.

Our un­der­stand­ing of the body will con­tinue to evolve, but the more ad­vanced we are get, the more we re­alise that there is a health­ier, hap­pier truth in ‘back to ba­sics’ food. In a world of con­flict­ing nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion and skit­tish trends, we can no longer as­sume chil­dren will learn those ba­sics.

I was priv­i­leged in that my mother was a Mas­ters grad­u­ate in Di­etitics and Nutri­tion, so the nag­ging ba­sics were rapped into us by a qual­i­fied nu­tri­tion­ist at the din­ner ta­ble ev­ery evening. The word ‘qual­i­fied’ is key; it is light years beyond Googling the top ten rea­sons why fat will make you die or make you live longer, de­pend­ing on the trend of the day.

My mother is a woman who has truly lived her pro­fes­sion rather than merely ap­ply­ing it when she clocks in for work at the hos­pi­tal. We grew up learn­ing the im­por­tance of eat­ing meals at meal times – sadly a dy­ing cause with many cul­tures that linger with young chil­dren at restau­rants far past 9pm.

We were taught to sit to­gether as a fam­ily at the ta­ble, to turn off the tele­vi­sion be­fore din­ner, to have a square meal with lentils, veg­eta­bles, bread and rice – meat and dessert be­ing oc­ca­sional in­dul­gences. She never de­cried any­thing as be­ing killers, en­e­mies or other sen­sa­tional terms we ap­ply to foods today. Mod­er­a­tion over ab­sti­nence was our pol­icy.

There are par­ents and schools that suc­cess­fully teach chil­dren to grow and har­vest pro­duce, to com­post waste and to even use knives or bake bread un­der su­per­vi­sion. Bring­ing chil­dren closer to their food builds a foun­da­tion that does not sway with the lat­est health fad of the day. It po­si­tions them to be­come health­ier eaters who ap­pre­ci­ate the artistry and science of bring­ing a bal­anced meal to the ta­ble. It helps them con­nect food with their en­vi­ron­ment, health and life­style, a con­nec­tion many of us make late in life, usu­ally sparked by a health scare, or never at all.

Over the past five years, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how food is a lens through which to learn about history and cul­ture. History was one of my most hated sub­jects in school be­cause I could not re­late to the events. Today, I am an avid reader of history, even though my mem­ory has de­gen­er­ated to that of a Sty­ro­foam cup, only be­cause I am cu­ri­ous about how cer­tain foods have reached my plate. For in­stance, a plate of Filipino adobo in­vites dis­cus­sion around the Por­tuguese coloni­sa­tion of the Philip­pines; a bot­tle of pick­led In­dian ‘achaar’ will spark a con­ver­sa­tion about Aztec ‘axi’ and the Colom­bian ex­change; and a plate of ke­babs can thread et­y­mo­log­i­cal con­nec­tions with the an­cient Me­sopotamian em­pire of Akkad. History feels far more har­mo­nious through the lens of food than the lens of war.

Food is an ex­cit­ing man­i­fes­ta­tion of chem­istry and bi­ol­ogy. A child can learn about how pro­teins and sug­ars work to­gether un­der heat to cre­ate a beau­ti­ful brown crust on a juicy piece of steak, or dive into the bi­o­log­i­cal struc­ture of seeds while com­par­ing whole­wheat flours with re­fined ones. Harold McGee is the guru of food science – his nearly 900 page book, On Food and Cook­ing, is the most rel­e­vant ap­pli­ca­tion of science to one of our most ba­sic needs of life. If a class on Food must in­clude bak­ing cup­cakes, then I vote for that prac­ti­cal ‘lab’ ses­sion to be ac­com­pa­nied by McGee’s chap­ter on the chem­istry of bak­ing.

Pro­gres­sive school cur­ric­ula around the world have al­ready started in­clud­ing Food Tech­nol­ogy as a for­mal course cov­er­ing health and di­etet­ics, global food sys­tems and ex­er­cise and fit­ness. It is a for­mal recog­ni­tion of the fact that new chap­ters will be ap­pended to history books and new method­olo­gies in­cluded in com­puter science – but when it comes to food, some of the most rel­e­vant lessons are as ba­sic and un­chang­ing as the al­pha­bet.

Bring­ing chil­dren CLOSER to food po­si­tions them to be­come eaters who AP­PRE­CI­ATE the ARTISTRY and science of a bal­anced meal

Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

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