Asian lessons in food waste

The first thing that struck me was the abundance of fruits and vegetables. I hadn’t stepped into a North American supermarket in over a decade, and had expected it to feel familiar and comfortable, but somehow it didn’t. There was something here that made me feel uneasy – which is an odd thing for fruits and vegetables to do. Against the backdrop of the bizarre food experiences I’d had living and traveling in Asia, how could a stack of onions not feel normal? From a food perspective, Asia had been such a strange ride, right from the beginning…

* * *

 It was August, 1998 – the evening of the 22nd, to be exact — and Bonnie Lee and I were heading out for a special meal. The town had no street names, and we had only a Japanese map to guide us. If we were concerned about anything at all, it was that we’d be late for our reservation, or not find the restaurant at all. We had no idea what to expect when we got there; no idea that we’d soon be greeting our long-anticipated celebratory meal with horror; no idea that this was one of the countless Asian experiences that would change our relationship with food forever.

There was a lot we didn’t know.

We were fresh off the boat. We’d been living in Kitakyushu for just over a month, and it wasn’t at all what we’d expected. The apartment we lived in was old and run down, and it had a squat toilet. The bugs in Southern Japan were like something out of a science fiction movie, and the fauna in our apartment included dani (little red biting critters that live in tatami mats) and mukade (venomous, armored centipedes). The river that ran through Kitakyushu was brown, and its basin was lined in concrete – the only legal construction material in the area, it seemed. The exotic rural charm we’d been expecting wasn’t really what Kitakyushu was known for; it was more famous as center for toilet manufacturing.

Oh, and it was hot.

The temperature had been hovering around 90℉ since our arrival; the humidity, around 85% – which was a challenge given the lack of air conditioning at home and at work. We weren’t at all sure we’d made the right move in coming to Japan for a year, and as the guy who’d suggested the move, I had a lot riding on this dinner.

We’d just gotten our first paychecks, and this was our first indulgence. Food was one of the things that had drawn us to Japan, and the restaurant had been recommended by a coworker. His English was bad, and my Japanese was worse – so I hoped that I had managed to communicate just how special I needed this night to be. I wanted something purely Japanese, something extravagant that we could never find elsewhere, something with air conditioning.

ようこそ ようこそ

We found the place easily (though we had to double and triple check the Chinese characters on the door to make sure), and it seemed perfect. The building was made of dark wood, not concrete, and the dining area was small, quaint and well appointed. There were white table cloths, and the waitstaff was attentive a very professional. The menus were in Japanese, of course, and none of the waitstaff spoke English, but that was no surprise. We were very likely the first non-Japanese who had ever entered the place – perhaps the only ones who ever would. And although we couldn’t read, we knew a few phrases, the most important of which was, Osusume wa …? – “What do you recommend?” We didn’t quite understand the whole answer, but it contained a few words we did know: sake, oki and ebi – rice wine, big and shrimp. Perfect. Local wine and jumbo shrimp. We ordered that.

The sake came along with a few small, beautiful starter dishes, and it was lovely. It was served cold, and complex – nothing like the pure, harsh ethanol they call sake in North America. We were excited to see what would follow. It wasn’t long, however, before that excitement turned into something quite different.

The oki ebi – which was actually lobster and not jumbo shrimp – came out in a small basket. On some level, it was beautiful. It was served on a bed of shredded daikon, and decorated with wasabi, a couple of slices of carrot, and a few fresh, bright green shiso leaves. But all that freshness and beauty were juxtaposed with something else altogether. The lobster meat, which was uncooked, was garnished with the head and thorax of the mutilated but still-living lobster, which sat upright in the daikon in obvious distress.

Now, many people would argue that a lobster’s capacity for pain is minimal, if not nonexistent – but here’s what I know for certain: whatever that capacity is, this lobster was feeling the extent of it. It was having as bad a day as any lobster can have. Its eyes were wiggling back and forth frantically at the end of their little lobster eye stalks. Its antennae, which were long and fell outside the basket, were in constant motion. If its legs were still attached, it would have been trying to get away – but those legs were impotent now, and arranged neatly in front of it on a bed of daikon.

We were a little taken aback.

Although neither of us was (or ever became) a fan of raw shellfish, we felt that we had to eat our new tablemate. To not eat it at this point seemed like far too great a waste – though there was no way we wanted to eat it while it was still staring at us. Our initial plan was to wait until it stopped moving, but after 15 minutes it became clear that the creature was determined to live despite its obvious challenges. We placed it face down in a (clean) ashtray, and ate its flesh while it died.

* * *

Despite the disturbing meal, despite the concrete, despite the bugs, despite everything, we ended up enjoying Japan that year, and for the next twelve years after that. In that time, we traveled both in Japan and in the rest of Asia, and our notions of food were constantly challenged. Some images that stand out: buckets of silk worm pupae sold as snacks in Seoul, bright purple meat topped with the disembodied dog heads in a street market in Hanoi, fried grasshoppers in Bangkok, perfectly bronzed Peking duck served with bill and all … well, you get the picture.

All the larvae you eat

Sparkle

So what was it about this supermarket in L.A. that I could possibly find so disconcerting? Well, for one thing, the celery. In Japan, celery is sold by the stalk, and each stalk costs about a dollar. Over the years, that had come to seem normal. When you spend a dollar or more on a stalk of celery, you don’t do it casually. You buy it because you have a use in mind. You don’t just slather it in Cheese Whiz and wolf it down. You prepare something that highlights its crunch and flavor. You savor it, perhaps over two meals … or even three.

On some level, I’d been looking forward to buying bunches of celery again, but now that I could, it seemed wrong. The bunches were huge – much bigger than I remembered – and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would use a whole bunch in a week. Images from childhood popped into my head – images of wilted, unused celery stalks finding their way into garbage cans by the dozen. After thinking in terms of individual stalks for so long, that was a level of waste I couldn’t comfortably be complicit in.

Not far from the celery, I saw something that surprised me: yamaimo, mountain yams indigenous to Japan – and a food which I have a personal connection to. My first year in Japan, Bonnie Lee and I had headed into the mountains in search of yamaimo with a friend. We had dug waist-deep holes for hours in hard dirt, and had emerged from the day exhausted, with one, tiny, misshapen yamaimo to show for our trouble – and our friend was thrilled with the haul. He turned that one six-inch root into three dishes that celebrated the elusive tuber’s raw earthiness and glutinous texture. He turned one little yam into a feast for three, and a precious memory.

Understanding the amount of effort that went into finding one yam, the whole notion of wasting even a gram of it was out of the question. But what did an exotic yam with a slimy texture represent to the typical shopper here? Perhaps just an experiment that could easily be discarded if it didn’t work out. On some level, that was at the core of what I was feeling in the market that day. It was as if all the food had been stripped of any intrinsic value. It was cheap, plentiful and robbed of all history, of all connection to labour and life.

In China’s Guangxi province, there is a village called Ping’an, which sits in the heart of some of the most impressive terraced rice fields in the world. The town houses about 180 families, and their ancestors carved the terraces out of the surrounding mountains over a period of about 300 years. The slopes are steep, and the only way to get there is by foot. It’s well worth the walk. From Ping’an, the terraces spread out as far as the eye can see. When the rice fields are flooded, the landscape is made of giant mirrors — and during the growing season, the mountains are ringed with bright green contour lines.

Ping'an village from above

In Ping’an, people get the value of arable land – they had to build theirs from scratch – and they get the value of the food that grows on it. We were fortunate enough to have a meal there, which was a tribute to the valley that spread out in front of us. Our lunch for two consisted of six bite-sized pieces of chicken fried in a glutinous rice paste, a light soup made from the wild mountain vegetables that grow between the terraces, and a small bowl of rice – and it was served with an 8 ounce glass of sweet, smooth, weak rice wine.

Everything was from the land, and the portion size was enough to thoroughly satisfy, but not enough to stuff – designed to virtually eliminate the possibility that guests would leave something uneaten. Nothing was wasted. When you waste food in Ping’an, you see what you are wasting: the effort that went into building the very land, and the effort of those you can see working in the fields.

Out standing in his field

Not so in our local supermarket. Here, it seems that the relationship we have with food is broken. Half the aisles are filled with chemical experiments that our ancestors would barely recognize as food. We’ve transformed produce and meat into an industrial products, and commoditized them, removing all our connection to them. At least dog heads on piles of meat are honest. They remind you where the meat came from. They remind you what was given up so you could eat. They remind you not to waste. And, although I didn’t enjoy watching that one lobster suffer, that memory serves as a constant reminder of where I chose to stand in the food chain, and of the connection I have to the living things that are affected by my choices.

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22 thoughts on “Asian lessons in food waste

  1. I am speechless. You changed my mind on ever visiting Japan. The lobster story was barbaric. I teared just reading it. I cannot even drop a lobster in a pot of boiling water, which keeps me from ever buying them. And eating man’s best friend? This is a culture, not matter how honestly perceived, ecologically sympathetic, carefully frugal will ever see me as a tourist. You wrote a very honest and moving account of your travels, so no reflection on you, but I am off that boat!

    • I’m sorry to hear that, because Japan is well worth exploring – and there is much to learn from its culture. Virtually every country has accepted practices that are just as horrifying as anything that I described in this essay, and I think that travel exposes those practices to unbiased eyes, and allows the traveller to see his or her world with new eyes. Both the visitor and the visited benefit and learn.

      As you point out, we’re not particularly kind to lobsters ourselves. French geese are not to be envied, nor are animals that suffer ritual slaughter for religious reasons. Cats (a couple of whom are amongst my best friends) are on the menu parts of Switzerland, and the way most livestock is treated in North America in no less barbaric than how lobsters end their lives in that restaurant in Kitakyushu; male chicks not destined to be food (the brothers of the egg layers) are electrocuted, suffocated or ground at birth – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What is different in North America is that we practice our cruelty behind closed doors, and eat meat whose history is hidden from us. My travel made me question these things in my own culture – and my time in Japan taught me a lot about respecting the value of food in many ways.

      • Oh, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Our country has many practices that are very disturbing. I find myself eating little meat as a result. I also realize our treatment of cattle would offend those of Indian decent. But even the rest of your trip left little desire to visit. I also realize too that cities are much different and I would most probably stick to the urban areas, knowing I would be missing much culture.

      • Maybe it wasn’t clear in the post, but all the stories except the lobster one are from places other than Japan. Callous indifference to animal welfare is not something I think defines Japan (unlike some of its neighbors), though they do have a blind spot when it comes to sea creatures. All that aside, I think we’re both on the same page when it comes to treating animals with respect, and each in our own way are trying to nudge culture in the same direction. I don’t think anyone can look at your photos and not get a new appreciation of our feathered friends.

  2. I am too stunned by what you have to say, and the achingly poignant way you wrote it to respond as I would wish. If I had the power to make this go viral, I would. your best essay yet. I understand better why you are so passionate about waste.

    • Thanks so much, Kellie. This particular essay is very close to my heart, as walking into a US supermarket after all those years in Asia is what started Bonnie Lee and I down the 222 path. When I spoke about food waste last year, this is where I started, and I draw on these experiences often in this blog and in other writing.

  3. Shopping at the local “wet” market in Malaysia — though disgusting from an American perspective — is more what I think we Americans need to get back to. Having to choose from the live chicken in the cages who would be dispatched and “cleaned” while I did the rest of my shopping, made me eat way less meat during my stay there. We savored every piece of that bird, boiled its carcass and picked its bones clean. It would be another week or more before I could muster up the courage to go again. Needless to say, I could never bring myself to pick from the hanging cuts of meat (the pork was kept behind a wall, concealed for the Muslim population) or from the fresh-caught fish that were still living when they began the gutting and cleaning process while you waited. The stench of that market still haunts me to this day.

    There was a fruit/veggie stand that I could practically walk to from my apartment. I went there more often to avoid the slaughter of the wet market in town.

    If Americans had to shop like this, and if burgers and fried chicken reflected all the hidden costs paid by our fellow earthlings, our planet, our environment, I’ll bet there’d be more veggie-eaters and fewer health problems to boot.

    Thanks for sharing your story. Very moving post.

    • Thank you, Shannon – and I agree. If people were forced to see the price fellow creatures pay for their choices, things would change. Malaysian markets have the same impact on me, and I’m thankful that there is a large South Indian population in KL, and so plenty of vegetarian options.

      It’s hard to describe how unsettling that first Wholefoods experience was, and it took a long time to figure out what made me feel so uncomfortable there. Somehow, I figured with your SE Asian experience, you would get it.

  4. While I was in China I had a few food shocks too – the whole chickens, the tortoises, centipedes on a stick (not very nice) – but it did seem like people would go out and buy little and often, as you previously wrote about Malaysia I think, rather than do a massive weekly wasteful shop.

    And when I thought about the way they sold meat in particular – with parts that we consider ugly on show – or if they had offal dishes in a restaurant I thought it was pretty disgusting. Then someone said “at least it’s real and they’re not hiding the fact that you are eating meat” and that is completely true. Whatever we choose to eat, we should know what it is, where it comes from and how much effort and sacrifice has gone into it and appreciate it properly, respecting all the animals and people involved who enabled us to eat it.

    • Experiencing another culture like China’s certainly makes you think about food in a way that being immersed in Western developed world can’t. Once you get a real understanding of the fact that every piece of food has a history, and that real people and animals and resources are tied up in the process, it’s hard to forget, and be indifferent to all the waste we were raised with.

  5. Greetings from Kamakura, JF! You’ve communicated well one of the essences of food culture shock between east and west, which is the expression of respect. I’m afraid I simply find more of it in Asia, and I think it is a primary reason for less waste here.

    • There’s certainly a lot to be admired about the relationship people have with food in Japan, and industrialized Asia scores better than industrialized nations in the west when it comes to consumer food waste (ref: the 2011 UN study quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_waste). A bigger factor seems to be plain old wealth, though – and the cost of food relative to income. Consumers in richer parts of the world waste significantly more.

  6. Hi JF, Greeting from Taipei!
    Well, on the contrary, there is one thing I leant from North-American culture.
    When I was in America, I was surprised by the portion of the food they serve in the restaurants. Sometimes, I could barely finish half of it. Then, my friend suggested to “Doggie-bag” home. (Nobody does that in Japan, though the portion of food is very small and much easier to finish them all!).
    I think that is also a way to avoid wasting food.
    Chinese are even worse when they eat out with a bunch of people. They just order tons of food which is impossible for them to finish. Just because a person who is paying the bill only cares about his/her face. He/she doesn’t think about wasting food.

    • Hi Eji. Yes, doggie bags are a good practice here that I haven’t seen anywhere else that I’ve lived, even in Canada growing up. It would certainly be a great thing to introduce to China, as you point out. In Guilin’s nice restaurants, Bonnie Lee and I couldn’t even manage to finish a single vegetable dish between the two of us … though the smaller, cheaper places did have manageable portions.

  7. Wow, I loved this post. I don’t know how I would have handled eating the lobster, but I agree completely with the rest of the post. I wish we were more in touch with how our food is produced, instead of buying perfect vegetables and skinless, boneless, unrecognisable meat from the supermarket.

    In Australia we have a problem with overpopulation of kangaroos, which are naturally organic and grass-fed, however a lot of people are not willing to eat kangaroo meat because they are cute and are our natural emblem. As a result, a lot of this good, healthy meat gets turned into pet food. If an animal needs to be killed, then we should be eating all of it.

    I am going to share this on my facebook page, so maybe that will help it to go viral :)

    • Thanks so much – and, believe me, eating that lobster was hard. Somehow it seemed so much more obscene to not eat it at that point.

      I can see why people would have a hard time eating skippy, though many of my Australian friends have a great fondness for their kangaroo jerky. Agree, though, if you are going to kill something for food, then you owe it to that creature not to waste any of it (and it makes more economic and environmental sense too).

      Thanks for the Facebook share – and I’ll settle for viralish. :) For most of what I do here, I think I reach the right audience, but in the case of this entry, I think the people I’d like to reach are not ones likely to find “222 million tons.”

  8. Pingback: March: It’s Celery’s Month | 222 million tons

  9. Lol – I’ll still visit Japan but make sure not to order the lobster (or do so with someone who can assure me it will arrive dead & cooked.) I understand this approach to having food as fresh as possible, but it’s not for me! I have generally viewed Asian cultures as ones that lack the wasteful mindset of Western (and particularly American) cultures, but the two Asian girls I have lived with didn’t care a fig for conserving utilities – one taking hour long showers every night and washing two or three small clothing items almost every night and the other leaves her rice cooker on for days at a time until her rice gets crunchy and she has to throw it away. Both refused to compromise in these matters. Waste and inefficiency bother me – and I know that a lot of fruit & veg doesn’t even make it to the store because it isn’t ‘pretty’ enough. It gets turned back into the soil. Everyone should be made to grow their own food at least once! Remember in the 90’s when they were pushing reduce, reuse, recycle? Whatever happened to that?

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