Having emigrated to (semi-rural) Tunisia, a country quite different from my home of the Netherlands, it’s interesting to observe not only how people have different culinary traditions, but how locals’ experience of food affects their attitude towards waste.
In Tunisia, there are very few convenience foods, no ready meals or jarred sauces, perhaps a few condiments or stock cubes at best. People usually eat two cooked meals a day, and they really put a lot of love and effort into what they cook. Waste is cut as much as possible: fennel fronds are used to make a special kind of couscous, watermelon rinds are fermented.
But the greatest adjustment and amazement probably lay in how every food is valued, no matter what it looks like. The culinary traditions here revolve around “simple foods”, but everything is treated as special.
For example, in Tunisia there is respect for every part of the animals that are eaten. Meat is expensive so not consumed very often, but when it is, nothing is left over. In the Netherlands, most people do no stray very far from chicken fillets, mince and steak cuts, but here I am yet to meet anyone who wouldn’t eat entire organs, including offal, brains and all. Although the availability of meat is unlimited in my home country, we are much more limited by our palate.
Another food that is greatly respected in Tunisia is bread. Finding even a small piece of bread discarded on the streets can be quite offensive for a lot of people! To some extent, bread is considered a “holy” kind of food, so naturally it’s something you just don’t just throw away. If it becomes stale, bread is simply dehydrated and turned into breadcrumbs.
This respect for food can especially be seen with fruits and vegetables, which, by the way, come in the best shapes and sizes I have ever seen. There is no such thing as “wonky” produce here, because everything is wonky.
I have seen courgettes as big as a butternut squash and as small as a finger (the latter being more flavourful, honestly); carrots with multiple legs; onions entwined lovingly with each other; tomatoes with what looks like brains inside; and my favourite, heart-shaped potatoes. As I gawp at the vegetables at the farmer’s market at all these bizarre misfits, I realise that the average local doesn’t even notice. It is just normal to them.
This experience has made me realise what disparity there is in these two countries. Why is it that people don’t mind about shapes and sizes in Tunisia, whereas in the Netherlands, it is almost overemphasised? It is especially baffling when I take into account that the vegetables here are a lot tastier than what I was used to. It is as if in Western countries, flavour has been traded away for good looks.
I wonder why cosmetic standards are still so embedded in the Western food system, to such an extent that it leads to so much food waste. Perhaps it’s rooted in Western culture where we are told that aesthetics is everything. Perhaps it’s that retailers have backed themselves into a corner by only supplying “perfect” produce, and people are now so used to certain shapes and sizes, that stores avoid buying “wonky” produce out of fear it won’t be sold.
What’s clear is that this doesn’t have to be the way. If you take the artificial standards of “perfection” away, people don’t care about wonky fruit and vegetables. What matters is how much love and effort they put in having good, fresh meals and trying not to waste anything. We can learn from countries from around the world in how they value and respect food, no matter what it looks like.
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