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Traditionally, food is seldom over-cooked until they burn. Overcooking of meat melts away the fat and fuses up the protein and sugar molecules, making the meat tough and difficult to digest. Toxic chemical compounds are generated as well.
A good steak might be seared on the surface, but the inside should be juicy and red. incidentally, the red liquid is not blood. but a mixture of water and a protein called myoglobin.
In traditional cuisines, meats are typically stewed over a small fire for long periods - from several hours to several days. One of the oldest cooking methods is pit cooking, where an entire animal is placed over a fire (comprising hot firewood or charcoal) in a hole in the ground. Unlike modern barbecues, pit cooking involves placing the animal some distance above the fire and cooking it over low heat for many hours.
Benefits of pit cooking
Such slow cooking releases the complex favours that come from muscle, tendon, bone, fat, skin and other parts of the animal. It produces the rich and savoury flavour that makes the traditional cuisine so wonderful - without rendering the foods harmful.
Food preparation in the past
Through trial and error, our ancestors also discovered which foods were toxic and how they might be safely prepared for both enjoyment and nourishment. A classic example is the soybean. The ancient Chinese valued soybeans so highly that they designated it one of the
"five sacred grains". Yet for the first few thousand years, the Chinese only planted it to enrich the soil. They never ate soybeans. Today, we know that soybeans contain large amounts of anti-nutrients. It was only when the Chinese - and later the Japanese and Indonesians - discovered ways to ferment soybeans that it became an important food throughout Asia.
Fermentation and other special techniques of food preparation have evolved over thousands of years, resulting in many well-known traditional cuisines that we still enjoy today.
These techniques include:
Sprouting, which breaks down phytates found in grains, beans and seeds. These phytates form a protective sheath that locks in the nutrients. Phytates are also anti-nutrients that block the absorption of minerals. Sprouting destroys phytates (and other anti-nutrients) and unleashes nutrients that were previously unavailable to us.
Soaking and cooking is another critical step in the traditional preparation of beans and, to a lesser extent, grains. Beans are soaked overnight and the water discarded. New water is added and the beans are boiled for an hour or longer before they are eaten. During boiling, scum that forms on the water surface is removed. These steps are closely followed in the traditional production of products like tofu and soymilk. Many people today skip these steps and the soy products they take are harmful.
Fermentation uses healthful bacteria and fungi to transform foods, often turning them from toxic to nourishing - and delicious! More importantly, fermented foods are rich in friendly bacteria, which strengthen the intestinal flora and aid digestion and nutrient absorption. Friendly bacteria also protect the intestines against harmful organisms. Traditional fermented foods include soy sauce, miso, natto, yoghurt, pickled vegetables (such as sauerkraut, kimchi and achar), cheese and picked fish and seafood. Wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks are fermented products too. Taken in moderation, they are healthy.
Cooking is the most important food preparation technique. Some health advocates recommend a raw-foods diet, arguing that cooking destroys important vitamins and helpful enzymes. Yet humans have been eating cooked food for thousands of years without any, or much, harm. Cooking actually predigests foods and releases massive amounts of nutrients previously unavailable, being locked inside raw foods. In addition, cooking destroys anti-nutrients that block the absorption of important nutrients. For these and many other reasons, scientists now believe that humans have grown bigger and smarter because of cooking.
Raw foods: While there is value in cooking, we cannot ignore the great value of raw foods either. They add freshness and "life" to our dishes. Foods like garlic contain beneficial but highly unstable chemical compounds that are destroyed by cooking. So raw foods certainly have a place in the diet.How to adopt a healthy traditional diet?
How to adopt a healthy traditional diet?
Without specifically following any specific diet plan, you will be well off if you simply adopt the key elements of traditional diets. Eat fresh and seasonal foods and eat whole foods. Do not overcook your foods and do eat some of your foods raw. Most importantly, do not eat processed and artificial foods and foods with chemical additives.
Note that sugar (containing glucose and fructose) was not a part of the traditional diet. Until about 500 years ago, sugar was unknown to most of the world. Then it became a luxury food that only the rich could afford to eat in tiny amounts - a few grains each time. Sugar became more widely available only after the Industrial Revolution and it only became a major part of the human diet only in the last 100 years.
Our world today is very different from that of our early ancestors. Our diets, too, are very different. One major change is that we now have access to a much wider range of foods and cuisines than before. We need not eat exactly the same foods that our ancestors ate - there is no need to be so restrictive. But if we follow their principles of eating and food preparation, we will enjoy more of the good health that our ancestors enjoyed.
This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.