on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

when small is beautiful

I was trying to psych myself up to start cooking instead of eating out (and delivered food) all the time, so I started watching an episode of Chef’s Table. I recommend watching it if you haven’t even if you’re not interested in cooking, because it is above all a documentary series about creativity: the leaps and sacrifices people have to take to pursue what they believe in.

I particularly enjoyed the episode about a Buddhist nun (Vol. 3, ep 1) blowing culinary experts’ tastebuds with her monastic vegan food. I also fondly remember the very first episode where the wife of an Italian chef said something that profoundly impacted me at that point of time: that if we don’t pursue something we really want to, it will continue to haunt us. I don’t watch all the episodes and I take a non-linear approach, choosing whichever ones that appeal to me the most.

The episode I chose to watch this time is on Bo Songvisava, a Thai chef in Bangkok. I chose it because it is close to home and therefore more relatable, plus the fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated industry. When she started to learn to cook Thai food she found out that nobody really knew how to cook Thai food traditionally anymore, and the ingredients used in Thai cooking these days were mass produced stuff like white sugar. So she set out to preserve the traditions in Thai cooking.

It is really interesting (and obvious in hindsight) how preserving traditions overlap a lot with low environmental footprints. She couldn’t find good quality organic ingredients in her local markets. It took a lot of time and effort but slowly she managed to find small-scale organic producers for her restaurant. I was very moved by the scenes of a palm sugar farm, where they had to climb the trees two to three times a day for harvesting because they don’t use pesticide, and the amount of work involved to produce the sugar without machinery.

Sometimes the beautiful thing about human beings is that they seem completely irrational, although depending on how we define as rational. I was very intrigued with the psychological motivations behind these small-scale farmers. They were not hipster farmers but rather people in remote areas choosing to upkeep their traditions. Why did they keep their farms small? Why do they not use machinery and pesticides like everyone else? Why are they okay with earning way less? It is not like they went on a Vipassana retreat or they read Rachel Carson (yes I am aware of how I sound here). When everyone else is obsessed about growth, these people made a conscious choice to preserve their roots, when it would make much more economic sense to follow suit.

Because we have a bunch of people who are going against the mainstream plus a chef who cares about preserving her tradition, we can now taste what Thai food could possibly taste like with quality organic ingredients. We are conditioned to think sugar is sugar but I would love to have a taste of that palm sugar. In Singapore I am not sure how long our traditional hawker culture will last before being taken over by generic bland food courts. When everyone operates from a point of economic incentives, we lose so much of ourselves and damage our environment in the process.

There is something really beautiful about how food gets sourced and made in Bo Songvisava’s kitchen. To see food as not as just a source of sustenance but to treat it with so much respect that in order to cook it we have to treat the way we cultivate the ingredients with the same amount of respect. That respect runs along the entire process from growing the food to serving it on the table, and it shows in the taste. Isn’t it the same for human beings? That if we see ourselves like machines we’ll inevitably treat everything like machines, including the planet we live on which unfortunately is not a machine. The amount of respect we truly have for ourselves shows: just like how we flippantly use environmental resources, we are also flippant in the use of our selves.

I am glad we are living in an age where we are debating whether billionaires should exist and if tech giants should be broken up. We are so addicted to growth that we don’t question what should we be growing, how should we be growing, and what are the costs. Growth is a very easy measure to hang on to, while the more difficult question has always been: why?