Saturday, October 11, 2014

You are what you eat is incorrect. You are what your mother ate when you were a fetus!

When we were kids, more often than not, the typical breakfast at home was idli or dosai.  One day, my brother, who was perhaps seven or eight at that time, stuck a hand-written note on the kitchen wall to voice his protest.  The note read: "இட்லி தோசை ஒழிக" (No more idli, dosai.)

Every time we get together, the family has a good laugh recalling that.  He vehemently argues that it was my father who put the thought in his head and that as a good kid he carried it out.  We laugh about that too.

Idli and dosai were all what most of the kids in that part of the old country ate back then.  When we went to grandmas' homes, it was mostly idli and dosai.  That was the culture.

What we eat, especially when we are kids, is so much culturally determined.  Almost always, that also sets us up for the rest of our lives, unless we consciously make choices about what we eat.

Bland, salty, savory is the tradition, not only in the old country culture but in old cultures practically anywhere on the planet:
“The idea that children should have bland, sweet food is a very industrial presumption,” says Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University who grew up in India. “In many parts of the world, breakfast is tepid, sour, fermented and savory.”
Years ago, I told my grandmother that in her cultural context, idli every morning with yogurt is the healthiest way to start the day, and no wonder the old cultural belief is that idli plus yogurt is the best food even for the sickest patient.
Children begin to acquire a taste for pickled egg or fermented lentils early — in the womb, even. Compounds from the foods a pregnant woman eats travel through the amniotic fluid to her baby. After birth, babies prefer the foods they were exposed to in utero, a phenomenon scientists call “prenatal flavor learning.”
What an easy excuse then for chocaholics: "hey, it was my mother's fault that she ate all that chocolate when she was pregnant with me!" ;)

Actually, chocaholics don't need to blame their mothers at all:
Sugar is the notable exception to “food neophobia,” as researchers call that early innate fear. In utero, a 13-week-old fetus will gulp amniotic fluid more quickly when it contains sugar. Our native sweet tooth helps explain the global popularity of sugary cereals and chocolate spreads like Nutella: Getting children to eat sugar is easy. Teaching them to eat slimy fermented soybeans, by contrast, requires a more robust and conservative culinary culture, one that resists the candy-coated breakfast buffet.
Every once in a while, I get frozen idlis from the Indian grocery store up the highway.  A few weeks ago, when I had the urge for it, I stopped there only to find the idli shelves all empty.  "We haven't had any supply of idli packets for a while" the guy at the counter said.  A couple of days ago, I swung by again.  Yes, they had idlis.  I bought them.

But, idlis are no longer a breakfast item for me.  The thought of idli that early in the day does not appeal to the oatmeal eating American that I have become.

Thanks to the growing up experiences, and perhaps even more because of the healthy food habits of mine that have resulted from conscious decision-making, it is a rare morning when my breakfast is sweet.  No packaged cereals, no donuts, no nothing.  It is bland breakfast day in and day out, and I am happy with it.  I don't paste any protest signs in my kitchen! ;)


Idli for dinner sounds awesome.  Maybe tonight, eh!


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