Reimagining waste

Each time there is a bumper crop, the farmers sit back with their excess and create the right conditions for the Maillard effect that turns their garlic into the black gold that they seek

I never really understood why the west hasn’t found a way to recycle the way India does! Out there, you buy a newspaper and it gets chucked in the trash. The same goes with cans, bottles and store-supplied plastic bags.

The waste is segregated though; in neat little bins that are colour-coded and collected on specific days of the week. That, to my own mind is however not enough. It is a clinical and desensitised approach at best; teaching a population how to dispose but never how to reuse.

I guess that growing up in an environment where shortages are the norm rather than the exception makes you feel grateful for everything that you have. We looked forward to collecting old newspapers; they were sold to scrap merchants and we were allowed to keep the money in exchange for lugging the loads all the way to the dealer. The scrap merchant in turn sold the paper to other dealers where it could be turned into pulp, converted into papier-mâché or into practical packaging material.

Since our parents did not have much money to share with us and with pocket money being a nonexistent commodity we had to turn to innovation and scrounging. Magnets tied to ends of long sticks made for a makeshift metal detector and the shards and forgotten nails that were attracted to it paid for many a soccer ball.

This particular attitude travelled with us well through life where leftovers were converted into uniquely creative repasts that could make a Michelin starred chef swell with pride. But as I began travelling I realised that we weren’t the only ones. Being frugal is a trait that we share with the world!

The Koreans have turned it into a masterpiece of their cuisine, in particular, when they came up with the concept of ‘black garlic’. In a time of plentiful crop and unseasonal rain showers, the population watched as their garlic went from the original creamy white angelic look and took on a demonic dark shade. Surprisingly however the garlic wasn’t spoilt but there was a welcome change in flavour and fragrance, distinct from regular garlic that is known for its sharp and pungent taste apart from the little issue of bad breath.

The black garlic develops sweet, savoury and earthy notes with a hint of caramel. Most chefs also believe that the black garlic imparts umami which is the legendary taste factor that gives your food the required oomph. Now each time there is a bumper crop, the farmers sit back with their excess and create the right conditions for the Maillard effect that turns their garlic into the black gold that they seek!

When Russian shortages and state control on food forced chefs to think creatively, there was nothing better that came out of the era of bitterness than the absolutely delicious ‘kartoshka’. Prior to the time of nationally induced famine-like conditions, the Russians were renowned for their amazing desserts. In the course of production, a young chef realised that there were several cake and cookie crumbs that were going to waste. He quickly threw in some rum, the Russian condensed milk called ‘sgushyonka’ and butter to glue his creation together. His no-bake dessert just required a bit of the Russian cold to bind together and it as ready to be lapped up by its adulating fans.

When sherry producers clarify their products, they use up a lot of egg whites in the process. This results in tons of unused yolks. In the 14th century, the nuns from the convent of the Sacred Spirit heard about this predicament and decided to put the sweet to good use. They tossed the yolks with water and sugar to create a creamy sweet flan called ‘Tocinillo de Cielo’ which translates into ‘Heavenly Bacon’. There is no bacon involved in the production but more of an allusion to the high fat content of the dessert.

Christmas leftovers are never really exciting except if you are eating the fiery Malaysian ‘debal curry’. When the Portuguese colonised parts of Malaysia, a few settled down with the locals and their offspring formed the ‘Kristang’ community.

Converted by missionaries and integrated into Portuguese society, they always found it difficult to leave their roots behind. This is truly evident when they let all hell loose when they reimagine innocent looking Christmas leftovers and trimmings into a coma inducing spicy curry. No holds are barred in this wonderful yet cringe-inducing chicken concoction that boasts of lemongrass, ginger, chillies, vinegar, mustard seeds, turmeric and several other spices.

I, however have not really had much practice with leftovers. My record achieving gargantuan appetite leaves me with no scope of food ever being left behind!