Written by the wonderful, Emily Dwyer
There are so many shows and documentaries at our fingertips these days – how do we know which one would be most beneficial to watch? I’m here to tell you about a few I recently indulged in. Hopefully, you can catch a couple of them so we can all get a bit more inspired from food!
The first doc I watched is called Cooked, hosted by Alex Gibney, which is available on Netflix. Cooked breaks down food elements – fire, water, air and earth, and explains how these elements create the food we eat. These episodes are about an hour or more, but definitely keep you intrigued.
This episode begins in Western Australia and follows a group of aboriginal people known as the Martu. The Martu people continue to carry out their traditions of hunting and cooking meat over fire for food. They believe that it is important to understand where your food comes from to truly appreciate it. Fire is used in many ways to create amazing food. This episode demonstrates how the Martu people create foods with this element – some that you may recognize, others you may not…
Water is set in Mumbai, India. Here, it is tradition to have a proper meal in the home every day, and pot cooking is considered to be a daily ritual. The Mumbai people pride themselves on eating food that are locally grown and in season, and they believe that food has medicinal value to heal. In busy places especially here in the U.S., time is crucial when planning your day, we want everything as instant as possible, and sometimes that can mean sacrificing nutritious home-cooked meals to make time for other things we feel are more important. In Mumbai, they consider time to be the missing ingredient in cooking. They too work long days like Americans, however, they ensure they have homemade nutritious meals prepared for them by chefs; who prepare these meals at home and deliver them to those at work. This is a much healthier option than eating out for lunch every day, and also could be more cost-effective.
Around the 1950’s there was a shift in food culture, from fresh to industrial cooking. Canning, frozen foods, freeze-dried foods, and hyper-processed foods such as Spam became popular. Fast food restaurants came shortly after, with KFC being one of the first to be looked upon as a dinner resolution. Although fast food is a convenient option, ingredients are inexpensive and nutrient-stripped. Industry uses added salt, fat, and sugar to these foods to boost flavor and extend shelf life. Because these foods are cheap to make, they are also some of the least expensive to buy – appealing to low-income families who consume these foods regularly, suffering the adverse health effects of poor nutrition.
In Mumbai, this is not an issue – their community members pay into a pool to feed those who cannot afford it, and they also cook for others. They believe that “no one should feel proud in being rich, and no one should feel shame in being poor.” The people of Mumbai are hoping for a “renaissance of cooking”, so cooking will become a choice rather than a chore. Some believe cooking can get in the way of life, when these small tasks are actually what keeps us alive and nourished.
Can you think of a food that is a favorite among so many, and popular throughout the entire world? If you thought of bread, you are right! This episode is based in Morocco, where bread means “life”. Bread is taken so seriously here, that community members are not allowed to use a knife with bread because it is thought of to be too violent. Bread began about 6,000 years ago in Egypt, and now there is more wheat grown in the world than any other crop. Bread is a way of connecting everyone in the world – it is considered to be a landmark food, where its price matters to everyone. A dramatic increase in price could create economic disaster such as during the French Revolution.
Making bread is thought to be one of the first technologies of food. when we consume bread, we are mostly eating air. The gluten in bread is what holds bubbles of gas in place during the rising process. Traditional bread is made with three ingredients – wheat flour, water and yeast. However, today, packaged or processed breads can have up to 30 or more ingredients. This is because bread has been industrialized to make it less expensive to make. About 30% of Americans today are trying to go gluten-free, however, most do not need to avoid gluten unless we have a true allergy such as Celiac Disease. So, why are we cutting out gluten completely if we don’t need to? People of Morocco have the right idea in keeping traditional recipes and only using real simple ingredients from nature.
The Earth is an amazing planet that allows for several means of cooking using naturally occurring tools. This episode of Cooked focuses on fermentation and how this method of cooking can be used to create some of our favorite foods today including ketchup, chocolate, kombucha and even cheese.
Fermentation is the process of creating food or beverages with bacteria and fungi from the Earth, there is no applied heat used for this method. In Chatzuta, Peru, the Yuca root is fermented to create a traditional alcoholic beverage called mesato. This is done by taking the yuca root and chewing it – the saliva in our mouths breaks down the starches of the root and turns them into sugars, and naturally occurring yeasts in our mouths turn the sugars into alcohol, therefore chewing acts as a natural fermentation process. Chocolate is a somewhat surprising food that is fermented – it is a product of a bean found in the Amazon. Chocolate is created by cocoa beans – the seeds are extracted from the bean and are left to ferment in a white goo from inside the seed. The seeds reach optimal fermentation after about 7 days, and then they go through a drying process. This episode of Cooked depicts several powerful examples of fermentation to make yummy food.
Flavorful Origins, a short series (episodes are only about 15 minutes each, easy and interesting to watch!), and also available on Netflix. This doc breaks down Chinese food staples that are popular in America and ties these foods back to their ancient roots in Chaoshan cooking. Olives and what is known as guo (lard), marinated, and raw crabs are a few examples of foods that are discussed in this doc. The marinated raw crabs were my favorite to watch – these are generally consumed as “late-night dining” but originated back in the times of the Shang Dynasty. These crabs were prepared by piling live, raw crabs in a bucket, adding lots of sea salt, and letting soak for 6 hours, garlic is then added as well as large amounts of rice vinegar which kills germs and removes the salty flavor. Throughout China, there are late-night food stands selling raw, marinated crab that are considered an “instantly addictive poison”.
Chef’s Table, directed by Abigail Fuller has been my favorite documentary so far. This doc has 6 seasons, with more to come, and is available to watch on Netflix. Chef’s Table dives into the lives of well-known chefs throughout the world and describes their lives in the profession – the struggles they have endured, and the successes they’ve encountered. The episode titled “Jeong Kwan” has been my favorite so far – Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist Monk living in Korea who cooks with her soul and is very much connected to food spiritually. She cooks beautiful vegan temple foods from ancient recipes and only uses local, natural and fresh ingredients that she gathers daily.
There are several episodes that describe the passions of some of the most well-known chefs in the world. The episode titled “Alex Atala” was another one that really stuck out to me – he is a Brazilian chef who owns D.O.M. in São Paulo, which is rated the 4th best restaurant in the world. Chef’s Table is a doc I would absolutely recommend to watch, it opens your eyes to the stories and struggles behind great successes, and leaves you feeling inspired to create! Although the episodes are a little longer, they are a commitment worth making!
I hope this might inspire you to watch some of these documentaries and learn more about food. How food’s prepared and where it comes from – there are so many options of shows and documentaries available today that it can be overwhelming. Why not take some time out of your day to get your creative juices flowing to create and eat something amazing!