Why I Eat Unprocessed

This post is part of my series commemorating October Unprocessed, a month-long initiative to commit to eating only unprocessed foods.

A few years ago, I was attending a health talk when I overheard a fellow attendee say to her friend off-handedly, “Oh, I never eat anything from a box.”

When I heard this I thought this lady sounded quite holier-than-thou. “Does she live on Mars?” I wondered.

At that time I thought avoiding packaged foods was impractical and silly. But as I learnt more about the various artificial ingredients commonly found in processed and packaged food and their detrimental effects on our health, I began to understand why this lady had made the commitment to avoid processed food.

Today I’m very conscious about the packaged and processed food I buy. I’m not looking to ‘convert’ anyone into going unprocessed, but food is something I’m really passionate about and I think it’s vital that we eat well. So here’s why I think it’s so important to eat unprocessed food as much as possible.

  1. Most processed, packaged foodstuffs can no longer be considered real food as they’re so far removed from their natural ingredients. Often they’re laced with various additives, artificial flavours and colours, preservatives and flavour enhancers like MSG. Some artificial ingredients and additives are suspected to cause various health issues such as weight gain, digestive problems, and hyperactivity in children to name a few. Personally, I’d rather avoid having questionable ingredients in my food.
  2. If you find reading labels and ingredient lists confusing, it’s actually easier to just avoid processed food altogether as much as possible. A simple way to peace of mind.
  3. We can’t always rely on regulatory agencies to prevent questionable ingredients from appearing in our foodstuffs. Food standards vary across countries and sometimes it can take a long time for a questionable ingredient to be banned or phased out. Instead, it is up to us as consumers to take responsibility for our own well-being, which starts with switching to unprocessed foods.
  4. Unprocessed food tastes better. Yes, it’s not as handy as heating a frozen dinner or opening a foil packet, but once your tastebuds get accustomed to homemade food prepared with wholesome, high-quality ingredients, you’ll naturally never go back to the boxed version.
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October Unprocessed 2012

October Unprocessed 2012 Logo

This morning, I posted the following tweet on Twitter:

I think it’s time we re-learn how to prepare food from scratch so we know EXACTLY what’s in it, instead of relying on packaged products.

A few hours later, I saw a tweet by Andrew Wilder of the Eating Rules blog mentioning that 5,000 (yes, 5,000!) people had already signed up for his October Unprocessed challenge.

Now in its third year, October Unprocessed is a challenge to eat only unprocessed food for the entire month.

When I saw this, I knew it was no mere coincidence. The Universe was asking me to walk my talk. Over the past two years, I’d already been switching to foodstuffs that are mostly unprocessed, but I saw the October Unprocessed challenge as an opportunity to really examine consciously what I put into my mouth.

So I signed the pledge and my intention for this month is to prepare my meals using only raw whole-food ingredients and unprocessed foods. I won’t be 100% unprocessed when I eat out as I have no idea of ensuring this, so instead I’ll minimise dining out this month.

So what is ‘unprocessed?’ Andrew’s definition of ‘unprocessed’ is:

“… any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with whole-food ingredients.”

Andrew goes on to state that here’s no need to make it yourself as long as it can theoretically be made at home.

Now my definition of unprocessed is a bit more hardcore. Unprocessed to me means either a single whole-food ingredient, or a food condiment made wholly with whole-food ingredients, like soy sauce. To me, any foodstuff that comes in a box or packet and factory-made by machine is ‘processed’. In short, home-made from scratch using raw ingredients. However, if I were to use my own definition I’d be unable to use many pantry items I regularly use like tahini, nut butters, soy/almond milk as I currently lack a blender to make it at home.

So Andrew’s definition of unprocessed it is. I’ll be making exceptions for select items like puffed rice cakes, which are nearly impossible to make at home. However, these will have to be made from whole-food ingredients without any artificial or non whole-food ingredients.

If you’d like to join the October Unprocessed challenge, head over to Eating Rules for more information and to sign up. During October I’ll also be posting about what unprocessed means to me, and sharing my tips and experiences in making the switch from processed foodstuffs to unprocessed and whole foods.

And so it begins – why not join us?

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To Market, To Market: Farmers’ Market, Collingwood Children’s Farm

I used to think that visiting a farmers’ market meant travelling to a country town, or driving across the city to a hard-to-find spot on the city fringe. And since I don’t own a car, getting to a farmers’ market seemed more trouble then it was worth.

Then I learnt of the Melbourne Community Farmers’ Markets collective, which co-ordinates markets every week in various inner-city locations. Better still, they’re quite accessible by public transport.

So yesterday morning, I forgoed my usual Saturday morning sleep-in (if you consider getting up at 8am early) and made a trip to the Collingwood Children’s Farm’s market.
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A Visit to Singapore

This May I decided to take a long-overdue holiday and made a trip to Singapore, where I was born and raised. It’d been nearly two years since my last visit and I wanted to spend some time with my family there.

And of course, I was missing the local hawker cuisine dearly.

Oh, the food. Yes, there are a handful of Singaporean and Malaysian restaurants here in Melbourne, but somehow the taste is not quite the same. And it’s a lot more expensive — an average of $10+ for a main here, compared to $3 at a Singaporean hawker centre (albeit a smaller Asian-sized serving).

So after landing in Singapore, I made sure to visit a nearby hawker centre to get my fill. And the day after. And the day after that, until my holiday was over and it was time for me to board my flight home to Melbourne.

For those who’ve never been to Singapore, the local hawker centres are a gastronomic paradise. Rows upon rows of food stalls under one roof, each offering a different local ethnic specialty at a very economical price – it rarely gets better than that. These hawker centres came about in the 1970s when the government decided to relocate the street vendors into purpose-built open-air centres where hygiene standards could be enforced. Indeed, today each hawker stall is assigned a ‘hygiene rating’ resulting from their annual food safety inspection.

Now an integral part of Singaporean food culture, just about everyone has an opinion of which hawker centre is ‘better’, whether it’s the widest range of food available, to which hawker centre has the best Chicken Rice. In fact, it is not uncommon for die-hard foodies to drive to the other side of the island just to visit their favourite food haunt.

I think no visit to Singapore is complete without a trip to the nearest hawker centre. Eating the way the locals do is always an experience in itself. There’s no air-conditioning, so you’re sweating away if you order spicy food. Then there’s the noise of a hundred conversations going on around you. And the arduous hunt for seating, especially in the popular hawker centres. But at the same time, all this creates a unique atmosphere, one that isn’t quite the same in the air-conditioned food courts.

For me, there’s nothing better than being spoilt for choice and being able to eat like a king for under $10.

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I’m Still Here!

Oops, I did it again.

I said I’d create more content for this blog last November, but before I knew it, six months came and went. It’s now mid-2012, and it’s kind of scary that half the year is almost gone. Where did all that time go?

I’ve had some readers leave comments over the past few weeks, and I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to do so. In case anyone was wondering, I haven’t abandoned this blog, I’ve just been busy with the day job, moving house, blah blah.

Meanwhile, there’s so much to write about. I moved into a new place in late 2011, and have been busy settling in while establishing a small kitchen garden in my backyard. Having my own garden is a dream come true and I’m hoping to finish the garden in time for the spring planting later this year.

I’ve also just returned from a 3-week trip to my native Singapore, soaking up the sun, spending time with my family there and eating plenty of the local hawker fare. Coming back to a cold, wintry Melbourne was quite the shock to my system, but it also gives me the opportunity to cook comforting winter stews and soups – and blog about it.

Got to go now, but I’ll see you around!

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Food Snob

Recently, a commenter on an earlier blog post wondered why I drew attention to the fact that the noodle dish called ‘Singapore Fried Noodles’ actually doesn’t exist in Singapore. “I find food snobs amusing,” the commenter added.

Hmmmmm. Does this mean I’m a food snob? I mean, I’m really, really, passionate about food and cooking, but does this make me a snob? And what is a ‘food snob’, anyway? I’m not sure, but I’m going to assume it refers to someone who’s really fussy about their food and demands nothing but the best.

And my mind naturally conjures up the kind of snob who looks down on non-Michelin starred establishments as inferior, and insists on cooking only with expensive gourmet ingredients like black truffle oil. These are the people who frown if you bake with cooking chocolate instead of the best couverture made from single-origin cacao beans, and think home-cooked meals aren’t any good unless the recipe came from some celebrity chef’s cookbook. Personally, I think these people aren’t amusing, they’re pretentious.

Good food and cooking should be fun, and we shouldn’t be overly concerned about whether our cooking compares to the gourmet creations features on Masterchef or whether we’re dining at the latest ‘it’ restaurant all the food critics are raving about.

However, I believe that if you care about the food you cook and eat, then you will naturally want it to be as real and authentic as possible. To me, this means that besides tasting great, food should be prepared with the freshest ingredients available, and in the case of ethnic food, be authentic and true to its origins.

So yes, I do find it a bit annoying that nearly every Chinese restaurant in the West features a bland, uninteresting noodle dish on their menus, calling it ‘Singapore Fried Noodles’. That’s like tossing kimchi together with spaghetti, calling it ‘Korean Pasta Salad’, and passing it off as an authentic Korean dish.

And if insisting on authenticity makes me a food snob, well then – I’ll own up to being one. Now, where can I get some black truffle oil?

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Melbourne ProBlogger Event 2011 (The Day I Met Tim Ferriss)

Sometimes I feel like a terrible blogger. I post sporadically at best, and at other times I struggle with writer’s block.

So when Darren Rowse announced on his Twitter stream that he was organising #PBevent (ProBlogger Event), a bloggers’ training day/conference to be held here in Melbourne, I jumped at the opportunity to grab a ticket.

Now, the speakers had not been announced when the event was launched, and I normally don’t sign up for conferences without knowing who the speakers are. But I bought a ticket anyway because a) the event outline/sales page was appealing; and b) my intuition told me to go.

So I showed up at the event on a rainy Friday morning two weeks ago, and it was definitely well worth the time and expense. There was a good mix of keynotes, workshops and panel discussions available, and I think there was something for everyone.

Personally, I found the sessions on the ‘business’ of blogging to be most useful. In particular, Phoebe Montague of Lady Melbourne presented an incredibly useful talk on working with advertisers and sponsors. I have to admit I had no idea what a media kit was until Phoebe’s talk, but I now know how to prepare one when the time comes.

However, the highlight of the day definitely has be meeting blogger/author Tim Ferriss in person (albeit very briefly).

I nearly fell out of my chair when I found myself sitting two seats away from Tim Ferriss during the last session for the day. I did not recognise him at first until he took off the beanie he was wearing, so I gathered he either wanted to keep a low profile or was there as a surprise guest (which turned out to be the latter).

Now, I wanted to take the opportunity to say hi and introduce myself, but how was I to do this without attracting too much attention and coming across like a rabid fan? Finally I leaned over and whispered, “Excuse me, are you who I think you are?”

“Yes,” Tim whispered back.
“Great, I just wanted to say hi- I’m Gilbert.”

We shook hands and went back to listening to the talk that was going on. Not long afterwards Tim was introduced as a surprise guest and gave did a live interview with Darren on what had worked for him as a blogger. Once again he emphasised the importance of writing ‘evergreen’ content, which remains relevant even years after it is created. It’s definitely an approach I’ll be adopting as much as possible for Kitchen Dojo.

Another lesson I learnt on the day was the importance of networking. Many of the other bloggers I met during the networking breaks had come prepared with business cards, and were actively seeking out the high-profile bloggers they followed and wanted to meet. I realised I definitely need to value the networking opportunities at conferences more.

In all, I left the conference with renewed inspiration and fresh ideas for Kitchen Dojo, and I’m looking forward to finally putting them to work.

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On Throwing Food Away

“There is so much food on this planet that we could feed everyone. Yes, there are people who are starving, but it is not the lack of food, it is the lack of love that allows this to happen.” — Louise Hay

Recently some friends and I decided to indulge in an all-you-can-eat buffet. And by ‘indulge’, I really meant we ate until we were too full to move. It’s hard not to go overboard when faced with a cornucopia of mouth-watering food. There was a dizzying array of dishes, from roasts to stir-fries to various soups and salads, not to mention a huge selection of desserts. The food wasn’t exactly gourmet, but still tasty and flavourful. And it was priced nicely for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

For nearly two hours, we ate and chatted as we moved back and forth between our table and the ever-abundant buffet, which never seemed to run out of food despite the fact that the restaurant was packed with hungry diners. I even remarked to my friends that we were getting great value for money because the buffet was still being restocked even though it was approaching closing time.

As closing time drew near, the restaurant crowd began thinning and the staff began dimming the overhead lights over the buffet. My friends and I kept chatting as we finished our desserts since we had another half-hour before we had to leave the restaurant.

During a break in conversation, I watched the restaurant staff clear the buffet while staring wistfully at the delicious food I was now too full to eat. The staff moved quickly and efficiently as they lifted the overflowing trays of food off the warmers and tipped them into a trolley they were pushing behind the counter.

Still lost in my post-gluttony haze, I began wondering what happened to the leftovers. I hope the staff get to take them home, I thought. It was then I saw that the trolley I thought was being to store the leftovers was actually a wheeled garbage bin labelled ‘Food Waste’.

They were throwing away all that freshly-cooked food.

My heart sank. Most of that food being thrown away had left the kitchen only fifteen minutes before. And I began to feel terribly guilty.

As a child, I had been trained never to waste food. My parents used to tell me how lucky I was to have regular meals, because they grew up in poor families and often didn’t have enough to eat. As a result, I dutifully ate everything on my plate. Even today, I keep any leftovers and eat them the next day.

So watching all that perfectly good food in that restaurant being thrown away was incredibly heartbreaking. I already knew that most restaurants throw away their leftovers, but to see so much food being thrown away first-hand was a sombre eye-opener.

Although I wasn’t the one physically throwing away the food, I still felt complicit in allowing this to happen. I thought of the people experiencing hunger in other parts of the world, not to mention the homeless on the streets of Melbourne. And meanwhile I had patronised a restaurant that cooked enough food to feed fifty people knowing it was to be thrown out in fifteen minutes.

I can’t save the food that got thrown out that night, but I see this experience as a lesson to be more conscious about my role in food wastage. So I’ve decided to avoid all-you-can-eat buffets from now on, and I definitely won’t be returning to that particular restaurant.

I’ve also begun to realise the increasing importance of cooking my own food, which I will try to do more of. At least in my own kitchen I can ensure that perfectly good food doesn’t go to waste.

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Going Gluten-Free: The First 45 Days

I shifted nervously in my seat as the man sitting across the desk separating us looked at me with a serious expression on his face. “You need to go on a restricted diet,” he told me. “This means no caffeine, processed foods or sugar, red meat, dairy… and no gluten, either.”

“No… gluten?” I said weakly.
“Nope,” replied my naturopath.

“Oh, OK” I managed to say, but in my mind I was screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!”

If this was a sitcom, the camera would now zoom out to a bird’s eye view of the city, then a satellite view of the country and finally into space looking down at Earth as my anguished cry echoed around the globe.
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Quick and Easy Potato Wedges

When I first moved to Australia, it seemed to me that Australians ate some rather strange things. There was that strange, incredibly salty, unappetisingly-coloured spread called Vegemite. Then there was the funny powder they sprinked over their French fries called ‘chicken salt’. Huh?

So when I was first introduced to deep-fried potato wedges dipped in an unlikely combination of sour cream and sweet chilli sauce, my first reaction was another, “What?” But after the first bite of piping-hot potato chip contrasted with the tart flavour of sour cream and tangy chilli, I was immediately hooked.

I soon learnt there’s nothing more comforting on a cold winter’s night than a bowl of hot potato wedges. Mmm, carbs. Better still, the supermarkets’ freezer section stocked bags of the stuff, ready to be heated up in the oven.

Unfortunately I found the frozen wedges a bit pricey as I was living in near-poverty as a university student. Besides, I reasoned, I shouldn’t be paying that much for sliced potatoes mixed with some flavouring and spices. But what do you do when you need to feed a new-found food addiction?

You get creative. As the saying goes, Necessity is the mother of Invention. Or in my case, re-invention.
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