The Relativity of Slow Food

There are three main reasons to dine out in my view. These are a) convenience, b) to eat something that you could not attempt to make yourself at home given lack of access to ingredient or inadequate culinary skills, and/or equipment needed etc, that is food that is inaccessible by other way, and c) food that is relatively technically simple with easy access to ingredients but so time consuming and laborious that you'd rather go out, i.e. slow food. Examples would be a) McDonalds* b) El Bulli (technically difficult) and c) Abla's (easy home made Lebanese food)

Since I now live in Bangkok and not in Carlton Melbourne where I was once within striking distance of Abla's, from time to time I will make some of her recipes, like her chicken and rice, pictured below. Whenever I make traditional home made meals like this one, it never fails to strike me as to how simple yet time consuming they are. When I make Abla's chicken and rice I always have the same day dream while I meticulously shred the chicken breast into fine threads of meat, of Lebanese women all sitting around at a kitchen table gossiping and cooking the whole day. Since traditional home made foods in so many parts of the world require more than one dish, indeed they are usually comprised of several, I always think that traditional foods are explicitly designed to keep women busy.


Of course these categories overlap somewhat, technically difficult food is also time consuming and depending on who you are and how culinarily challenged you are (new word culinarily). If you are for instance a teenaged boy you may consider a hamburger to be slow food, especially if you have to cook it yourself. If for instance you are to some degree immobilised in some capacity and tend to execute physical activities like cooking at the pace of a sloth all food would be for you slow, but perhaps this is more a case of you being slow rather than the food per se. For some people anything beyond microwaving a meal for 10 minutes is considered a chore. Thus the idea of time and therefore the degree to which food can be considered "slow" must be relative. Of course I realise that the term slow food is not merely literal but figurative too, it is supposed to engender a commitment to seasonality, social justice and good taste (by whatever standards). An unpacking of David Harvey's "time-space compression" imposed upon us by the unrelenting demands of modern life, where a day passes in a second and 100 kilometers can be compressed into an hour long car ride. It is for many a contrived effort to return to a time less complicated and above all slower.

To which I say fuck that. I've lived in Cambodia and had to put up with inadequate transportation systems, where a 100 kilometer boat ride to Battambang took ten hours and nearly killed me. Where food is seasonal and a large majority of the population goes hungry at night because they have yet to untether themselves from the boundaries imposed by nature. The food doesn't necessarily taste that much better in fact, in my view it tastes worse because the subsistence orientation of most vegetables means that quality standards are low, most vegetables in Cambodia are used for soup and there is a reason for that. Most vegetables are only good enough to use in a soup (although some argue the rice is superior). This is changing mind you, but only because of "time-space compression" not despite of it.

In this case, constraining people to slow food seems more like a premature death sentence than a socially just "option". Furthermore, can slow food really claim to be more ecologically sustainable? I have nothing against seasonal eating just so long as its not my only option. If it were my only option, as it is the case for many subsistence farmers unable to afford the surplus luxuries of the market, there is a high likelihood that I would have to either a) venture into the forests or find some other way of utilising natural resources to support my survival or b) migrate to work in a poorly paid low skilled job. I'm not saying that modernity is all that great for the environment, put its well established that neither is poverty. And yes I equate the championing of slow food as a delusional romanticism of poverty.

Thank god I have options.

From the way I see it, slow food is above all a middle class urbanite hobby elevated to the status of "movement". Not that there is anything wrong with that. Middle class urbanites need their causes too, not matter how vacuous they may seem to others. I myself am a middle class urbanite who probably fits in with many of the slow food movement ideals without being a card carrying member. I cook a lot and a lot of time consuming dishes. I consider it a hobby and would never frown upon another who decided to do something else with their time.

I've been thinking about this a bit lately since there has been a lot of talk amongst the Bangkok food media about the death of real Thai cuisine and I learned of a proposal to begin a branch of "slow food" here in Bangkok. The proposal is being arranged by chefs, the newly self-appointed guardians of food heritage and history everywhere these days it seems as women leave households in droves in search of careers, money and independence. Concomitantly, foodies start to bewail the death of traditional cuisine, which inevitably drives an increased demand for "traditional" home cooked food. Where do traditional dishes go when they die? Slow food restaurants, if they're lucky. Which is all fine and great for restauranteurs. What I can live without is the posturing and lecturing that goes along with it by people who are trying to elevate the cooking of female enslaving traditional dishes to the level of social movement. Give me a break. So you're into preserving culinary traditions, fine, some people are into collecting and preserving antique dolls, a fine service indeed to doll appreciators of the future. Yes, I agree that food is important, but more than that I value the freedom that a diversified industrial and above all modern society gives to me. This means having the option to spend all day making Ablas chicken and rice, or eating a burger and sleeping off a hangover. In my view there is a place for both and I don't need a badge to tell people that from time to time I like to make my own organic pasta.

*hangover healing power of hamburger aside

For more on recent slow food critique click here


    Oh hey, that's interesting that there are people launching the Thai chapter of Slow Food...

    Aren't we happy that we are embracing the post Fordism diversity of choice?

    Besides, that Lebanese chicken rice looks quite impressive. It looks like the Osaka style squashed sushi with vinegared mackerel, or Akita style equivalent made with trout.


    yeah the chicken thing looks yummy


    when I lived in the temple, i was always impressed with the speed at which Mrs M could prepare some pretty complex and fine dishes. it did require galvanising the 3 females of the house, including me, into action with military orders. it would rarely take more than an hour- though some things could be prepared ahead, like pickles in a big jar of rice bran mash.
    Of course she had her home-makers shortcuts like ordering pork-katsu club sandwiches from a local store or just making plain cold somen noodles.

    Ironically I remember the most labour-intensive time was before new year's, after which wives are supposed to have some days free from cooking responsibilities. ironically this means quite a few hours beforehand were spent preparing all the next days' breakfasts of preserved, candied, soaked bits & pieces.

    erik & I often spend an hour (sometimes more) preparing dinner, unlike most people we know who ask us "Do you cook every night??"

    i think the more complex dishes on my own list of favourites, only take so long because I am personally very inefficient in the kitchen. I get dreamy and distracted when washing vegetables. I chop and peel stuff at a snail's pace compared to Mrs M. and I don't have a battalion of females at my command


    I read your post with a heavy heart. I realise that many people miss the point about Slow Food, and sadly - as you say - the custodians of the Slow Food Movement are affluent middle class folk who have time on their hands to volunteer their time. The side effect of this is that to many, they have elevated 'Slow' to a level of pretentiousness rather than retaining its humble principles.

    The point that many miss about the Slow Food Movement is that it is most relevant in the developed world, where Slow strive to retain the many endangered breeds of plants and livestock which have been eschewed in favour of fast growing breeds and hybrids which can been grown quickly, in order to service both supermarkets and the manufacturers of processed foods.

    Why is this important? Fast growing foods are rapidly contributing to the global food crisis in that they require significantly higher quantities of grain and water than heritage and heirloom breeds. At present the planet is not geared to support this trend and it is having catastrophic consequences in countries 'further down the food chain' than the giants such as China, Europe & the USA who are consuming the majority of the grain.

    It has also been shown that these fast growing foods are less filling and potentially less nutritious than traditional foods. The processes required to transport and preserve foods for supermarkets work also to the detriment of fresh foods, killing off flavour and nutrients.

    So the Slow Food movements around the world encourage people to buy from local producers at markets or direct where possible, and to consider heritage and heirloom produce. They strive to support the peopleon the land who have family farms and to help develop a niche for small maufacturers of specialty foods.

    Slow Food also encourage where possible, people grow some basic herbs and vegetables in their yard/balcony/Community garden. Put simply, the philosophy or eating better fresh foods would mean that we are less reliant on paying multinational companies ofr packaged foods with added synthetic vitamins, folate, iron, calcium, fibre etc for our health, and instead invest in local economies.

    I suppose with the increase of celebrity fatigue, chef's taking up the cry for preserving recipes may turn people off in Thailand. It has happened elsewhere too, but the concept should not be dismissed as a hobby for the wealthy.

    The germination of the idea came from statistics showing that increasingly, Generation Y are dependent on processed and convenience foods, and many do not know the simplest and most basic cooking techniques, let alone have the ability to discern basic fresh foods.

    Slow Food really does not aim to deprive anyone of convenience, they are simply looking forwards to the future, to attempt to ensure that we strike a healthy balance when it comes to food. If we were less reliant on packaged goods, perhaps events such as the catastrophe of the Chinese powdered milk poisoning, could have been avoided?

    At the end of the day, is that such a bad thing?


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