Carbs. Why Do People Eat Them ? Should They ?
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
Easy. Because they are cheap and filling. Has nothing to do with nutrition, everything to do with a legacy of poverty.
I am in Viet Nam right now. Here is a popular dish, bún chả. It is a good example of the realities of food consumption. Chả I am guessing comes from charcoal, most likely from the French, and consists usually of small burgers and fatty pork. This is a fancier restaurant so the meat is leaner (!) than normal. The sauce has a fish oil base and a strong flavour, with slices of apple and carrot added for sweetness. This is the food component of the meal, it is the only source of nutrition here. See my earlier post on this
Bún are the rice noodles. Why are they there ? Simple - they are filler. On their own they have no taste, nor do they need to have any, the meat and sauce has enough to go round. Why do we need bún ? Because meat is expensive, if we want to fill our stomachs we need something else.
A plate of greens is added in too. This is not food either. For the most part it is lettuce, which is just there for decoration, no one eats it, why would you ? Almost all of it will be thrown away. More interesting are the herbs, three here at least. These have medicinal purposes. From what I could gather one assists the immune function and is used when people catch a cold, another is given to children, its good for their skin.
If people had the option to skip the filler and just eat the nutrients, they would. Cooking style might change, with the sauce being toned down a bit. What holds them back is the cost. That's it.
This is true even for more wealthy Vietnamese, because eating habits are ingrained in the culture. To just go straight for the meat, which I did here btw, having two serves and an extra seafood spring roll, would be considered a ridiculous extravagance. Outrageous.
As a foreigner, you can get away with it. I got a takeaway of just the 'chả' a few days ago from another bún chả restaurant, cost me AUS$3, and because it was a cheaper place the meat was fattier. Yum.
Potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, these carbs are staples of our diets because for the most part we have been poor, we get hungry, and we want to fill our bellies. Nutrients are a bonus, we'll take what we can get.
Vietnamese cuisine reflects this reality, with an astounding array of animal proteins sourced from anything and everything that can be found in the countryside, from buffalo to crocodile, rats, snakes, dogs, frogs, snails, locusts, freshwater crab, fish, chicken, swan... Pretty much anything alive you can catch. An efficient way of harnessing the nutrients from these is through soups, phở being the best known. Every part of an animal is eaten, even the blood is turned into a kind of pudding, another delicacy.
But its not enough to fill anyone's belly, so we need some rice, or noodles, and Vietnamese use their cooking ingenuity to give these some flavour, to make them palatable.
An expensive restaurant meal in Viet Nam demonstrates the point. All the tasty dishes are served first, meat, fish, chicken, people share these as far as they go around. Then some soup arrives, this is the carrier for the rice. The rice is eaten last, its there to fill out any remaining hunger, that's its function.
Examine a cuisine from any part of the world and it will share these basic features. Food comes from animals, some plants are thrown in usually for taste or medicinal purposes, herbs, spices. The rest is filler, sometimes green vegetables, but usually starch. No one really likes greens, some people pretend to, but they don't really, they just don't like to finish a meal still feeling hungry.
I'm not sure it has to be this way. This is our challenge, as I see it, to make nutritious food, from animals, affordable and available so we can lose the filler. I think it can be done. A carnivore diet is easily within my reach in Australia, is not actually any more expensive than a 'normal' shop of processed crap or take away. Viet Nam may still be some way off, and there are challenges for this densely populated nation, with its two river deltas among the most productive rice growing regions in the world. Other nations face similar obstacles, but its a worthy goal to shoot for, in my opinion at least.