In The Garden With KokHeong: Food Preservation

Los Alamos

I like to think of myself as the ant in Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. When fruits and vegetables are abundant, whether from my backyard or when they are reduced for quick sale in the produce section of the grocery store, I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen making jams, chutneys and relishes, pickling, canning, freezing, drying, and fermenting the extras to stock my pantry. Food preservation reduces the amount of food that would otherwise go to waste. Reducing food waste is another form of water and energy conservation. It’s rewarding for me to be contributing in this small way.

  I didn’t learn about these methods of food preservation until I immigrated to this country in 1972. Back home in Malaysia, my mother shopped every day, buying just enough fresh food for one day’s needs. No one in our large extended family owned a refrigerator; so, except for dried staples, there was no need to keep perishable food items around for longer than one day.  Everything the family prepared each was eagerly consumed by the end of the day. Food preparation involved all the female members of the  family, including toddlers who squatted by their older sisters to play in the bucket of water and “helped” wash vegetables. Meals were consumed to the last morsel, but no one in my family would dare to lift our chopsticks until my father was seated at the table and gave us the green light.  In these days of convenient fast foods, families don’t spend as much time cooking and eating together as they used to. Many people with busy schedules would simply “eat on the run” rather than sit down and enjoy a meal and conversations around the table with friends and family. The word companion is derived from pan, and to break bread is to hold a communion. I’m extremely lucky to have my immediate family living close by, so that every other Sunday, it’s “Dinner at Grandma’s.” We would catch up with one another’s news, and play games afterwards.  It’s like a mini-thanksgiving celebration for us. 

When we grow our own food, every little morsel is appreciated since it takes so much work and care to produce it. Similarly, food lovingly prepared is more deeply appreciated than reheated frozen dinners. When I’m asked, “What’s your favorite food?” my answer is, “Anything that someone cooks for me!” 

When children are involved in the food preparation, they are likely to enjoy the meals they have helped prepared more. 

In his book Cooked, Michael Pollan explored the four ways of cooking – air, water, fire and earth. Air is roasting, baking or broiling with heated air. Water is poaching, steaming or boiling with hot water. Fire is barbecuing or pit-roasting; while earth is cooking with microbes or fermenting. The last method has largely been ignored these days as people seem to prefer highly sanitized foods.

Fermentation is a process in which microbes partially digest the foods before we consume them, creating enzymes that our body needs and making the nutrients more available to be absorbed. Recent studies have reinforced the importance and health benefits of fermented foods in our diet. 90% of the cells in our body are microbes living in symbiosis with us, mostly in our guts. The food we consume needs to nourish these cells as well as our own cells. Other studies have found that the appendix, an organ previously thought to be useless, is actually a “safe house” for beneficial microbes which re-populate our guts after most of them have been decimated by antibiotics or an intestinal infection. Probiotics help replenish these microbes.

So let’s have some kimchi, and bon appétit.