Alright, I am writing on a topic that is way out of my league, but is a topic I have grown a lot curious about.
Here’s the theory I am posing: I believe food habits in cultures are shaped by economics*. Religion and beliefs — contrary to what we may think — comes last when it comes to the Darwinian process of food selection. After all, evolution of man goes back much farther than the times complex concepts such as religion were invented.
I base most of these observations based on my personal experience living in few different places. I come from (almost) the southern tip of India — very temperate weather, if a little warm. It wasn’t until 15 years of age when I first tasted cheese. Most people in my neighborhood were used to buying vegetables and even milk on a daily basis, with the exception of grains which were bought, stored and consumed in long-term, presumably because of the harvest cycles. Almost everything on the dinner plates were created from scratch — just one step away from the ultimate source of the ingredients and definitely not more than 100 kms from where it was actually grown. Reusability was a key factor — leftovers from breakfast became dinner menu (albeit in another form) and leftover dinners became next day’s meal. This aspect was perhaps influenced by financial economics. With the exception of oil, I almost cannot think of anything that was not lean. Sources of cholesterol were limited to butter and its by-products, but butter wasn’t accessible to everyone — it was expensive. I was raised to be a vegetarian — but this is not reflective of my entire geography. I had schoolmates and much less commonly, neighbors who ate meat, but that was mostly limited to the once-a-week ritual, using freshly slaughtered and cut meat, bought and cooked the same day — usually on a Sunday which does not bear any religious significance. In summary, the food system was very sustainable is every aspect (environmentally, financially and logistically) and ultimately promoted good health.
There are other parts of India which went for other ingredients through the natural selection process — cottage cheese was more common in the colder parts of India, so was foods with generous amounts of sugar and milk-fat. Another concept very native to economics is “supply and demand” — eastern India, specifically Bengal, considered fish to be applicable to everyone — even the most conservatively religious. Coconut was ubiquitous in dishes prepared in areas associated with Travancore, I argue, because of cheap access to it. Varying levels of adaptation to what I consider the three cornerstones of food — meat, sugar and milk-fat — but as a whole India was — and still is in many ways — way leaner compared to Europe and the Americas.
Western parts of the world had other challenges — they needed a food system that had longer shelf-life — critical to sustenance to beat the challenges of weather, distance and agricultural viability of the land. They also needed — in absolute terms — more fat to survive the extreme climatic conditions. Processed and cured meats, aged cheese, distilled liquor and more recently, packaged foods with preservatives and additives. Some things changed over a period of time — cheese was considered to be a premium commodity — so much so that people who can afford a wheel of cheese were considered affluent.
What are the aspects, dimensions I am missing? Why do westerners have less salt in food? Why do Chinese eat pork, given they also have an evolved and advanced food system like India? There is a 2000-page book on history of foods, but this topic is not that important to me. Any smaller books you are aware of?
*Economics is a overarching concept, of which finance is only a component. Please don’t confuse yourself and most certainly, please don’t blame me if you do.