Asia shows the way in its Street Food, the West shows the way to a Heart Attack

Printer-friendly versionI am having a bit of a war on Western food (from English speaking countries) at the moment and combined with a recent post of mine over at Asiapundits on enjoying food and food waste, I thought I'd use my own site to highlight some attitudes towards health and our food and what we can learn from Korea specifically, and Asia in general.

I don't know much about the United States, but from what I can gather from the news, my American friends and the internet the people there tend to be a little more overweight than average, my country is not far behind and to be honest it isn't hard to see why.

Recently, I have been watching a program on National Geographic Adventure in Korea called "Eat Street".  It charts the truck street food trend currently in the US, Canada, and occasionally other countries like the UK.  It always happens to be on the TV when I am eating dinner myself, coincidentally.  While I usually tuck into Korean food for dinner, I can see what Americans on streets all over the country are eating.

It is actually quite an interesting program and usually makes me quite hungry, even after I have finished dinner.  Sometimes, however, I have to admit to being quite shocked at what some people can put down their throats.  Here are some examples:

I always hear of the customers of these establishments saying how they often eat there everyday or a few times a week and I wonder how their hearts can cope.  I also see parents feeding some of the more irresponsible things to their children, some of whom are already grossly overweight. 

Of course, excess is kind of the point to these food trucks, but it is a fair reflection of where we are in Western culture with regard to enjoying food.  There is a definite feeling of, "This is so bad for me, but I don't care, in fact that's what makes me like it more."  I sort of understand this attitude because I used to have it myself.  However, living in Korea and also travelling to other countries around Asia have given me a new insight into how we perhaps should be looking at the food we eat.

The street food around Asia sums much of this up quite nicely.  Korea is the only country I have lived in and street food is probably not quite as good as in many other countries in Asia, especially Thailand.  While the street food in Korea is not especially healthy (it is also not especially unhealthy either), it is also not thought of as a meal, just a snack often during a night-out drinking.  The portions therefore reflect this and it doesn't seem quite so indulgent as the clips above.

Somewhere like Thailand, on the other hand, has street food sorted.  You can get anything from quick snacks to full meals, freshly prepared and often quite healthy.  When I was there, I did not see gluttony on the street, just a varied and interesting food culture.  I have traveled to a number of countries now in Asia and a pattern I see is that street food in the Far East is more about smaller snacks and South East Asia tends to go for actual meals.

While some might argue that the lack of health and safety regulations for street food vendors in Asia might cause health problems of their own, in principle the food on offer does not clog arteries or drastically expand waist-lines.  The funny thing about Western food culture generally, shown in many of the street-food trucks featured in "Eat Street" is the pride people take in looking death in the face while they eat.

The "Double By-Pass Burger" with "Flatliner fries" by Heart Attack Grill

I know the above picture is all in good fun, yet at the same time I can't help but feel that it sums-up a very serious attitude problem towards our relationship towards food in many Western nations.  In Korea, I have noticed people eat food for a specific purpose - other than just filling their stomachs - and this is to make them feel good, feel stronger, or to make them healthier in some other way.  Even if some of these reasons are bullshit ones, there is still a real thought to what they are eating having positive effects on their body, rather than simply fulfilling a gluttonous desire for sugar and fat because it gives them a big hit of guilty pleasure.

The interesting thing is though, Koreans love the taste of their food as much as anyone and I have learned to love the pleasure of eating Korean food also.  Once I coupled this pleasure for eating with the genuine feeling of well-being it gave me and the feeling of being healthy, there was no turning back.  To put it simply, my diet is no longer a Western one, it is predominantly Asian and mostly Korean (because that's what I know best).  Even Western food that is not fast-food or street food does not tend to make it onto my plate anymore.  Generally, I find it too heavy, too fatty, and too oily and it just doesn't make me feel good in the same way Korean food does.

If street food tells us something about the culture of the country we are in, what does the street food of the US or the UK tell us?  I showed some of these clips to my students at school last week as part of a lesson on food.  While a minority thought that the food featured on some of these trucks looked like the best thing since sliced bread, the majority were shocked by what was being consumed and many laughed at the number of fat people eating it and saw it all as a fit subject for ridicule.  I have to say, when you look at it all from the perspective of a culture with a greater connection between food and what it does for the body, I must agree with them, there is something ridiculous about it.

Perhaps I am being a little unfair, after all I did pick probably some of the worst clips of the most unhealthy food trucks to show you.  However, the healthy ones did tend to be exclusively non-American, non-Canadian, or non-English, and a great many of them had an Asian theme.  They also tended to feature much smaller portion sizes.  Huge portion sizes was something that shocked me on my only visit to the USA.  Here are some examples of the healthier food trucks on the show:

Of course it is just one TV show, but my experience of street food from back home is not a healthy one either; it mainly consisted of hot dogs, doughnuts, pork pies, pasties and not a lot more (not that Britain is especially world famous for its food culture).  I guess on a positive note the show does at least show how open most of our countries' people are to eating food from other places.  Unfortunately, however, the "good ol' fashioned" all-American food or English food that is served on most of these food trucks are often the worst examples of fat, grease, and general unhealthiness imaginable.

In reference to my post over at Asiapundits about waste and enjoyment of food, someone wrote that the poor attitudes to food we have in the West are mainly present in the cities and when you get outside of them people are eating locally-grown food and eating healthily and that I was mainly talking about a countryside vs the city phenomenon.  This was not my experience in England, however, and a little anecdote that sums-up our differences in food culture concerns the contrast in the schools that I worked at in England and my current school in Korea.

At break time in one of the rural schools I worked at in England (picture a classically old, rich English school in some of the most idyllic countryside you can imagine, it was a beautiful school) between stints in Korea, there would often be food in the middle of the staff room for all the teachers to enjoy.  100% of the time this would be cakes, chocolate or sweets.  While I tucked into some of this myself, I was often held back by a niggling guilty conscience about what the Koreans I knew would have to say looking at the scene.  I thought that they would say we were eating the kind of food kids would eat and that as teachers and adults we should be eating much better quality food, not to mention the number of over-weight teachers that were scoffing down cupcakes and fun-size chocolate treats.

The difference in my High school in Korea is like chalk and cheese.  Occasionally there is something sweet, but not nearly as sweet as back home, even the cakes in Korea seem to be lighter and less calorie dense (which is probably why they are not as tasty).  The vast majority of the time the only food that gets put out on our staff room table is locally-produced, seasonal fruits and vegetables.  It is a telling difference in culture.

When I see what is depicted of the US and what I see for myself in my own country, I wonder whether too many of us have a relationship with food that is totally dysfunctional and broken.  There is also a childish element to the way we eat; it is almost as if we need our mums on our shoulder all the time to tell us not to eat the things we know we shouldn't.  The fact that she is not there to do so means we can be naughty and do what we know is wrong anyway.

There is of course nothing wrong with a little indulgence every now and then, but when it becomes too commonplace we need to change our ways; there is an obesity epidemic in many Western English-speaking countries which is at the heart of a range of health problems.  This is down to our culture as much as anything else, a culture that is severely compromised in the food department.  We have slipped into some of the worst habits imaginable, consuming some of the worst food possible and doing very little physical exercise.  A connection between the health of our bodies and the food we put into our mouths has to be restored and looking to other countries that have better attitudes may help us break a rather dangerous spell of unhealthy eating that has been cast upon us.

Instead of doing this, however, we seem to be remarkably good at spreading our bad habits to other countries.  I hope Korea doesn't lose sight of what is great about their food as some of the younger generation appear to be slipping into the same bad habits as we are in the West.  Let's hope that Asia's food culture wins through in the end or at least the healthier aspects of our own food culture in the West.


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