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Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006

Slow food, an attitude as much as a meal

Taking time to appreciate the things we eat may help sustain our choices


Staff writer

In the 1960s, Japan's first instant ramen changed people's eating habits significantly by making it possible to get dinner in as little as three minutes. Even putting fast food and microwave dinners aside, eating has become easier and more functional since those days, due either to higher living standards that make it possible to eat out often, or to advances in the food industry that allow us to buy anything, anytime. Today, we take our meals for granted so much that some busy people even choose to survive on biscuit-type "nutrition bars."

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Many varieties of food may disappear as a result of the food industry's relentless pursuit of efficiency, through standardization and mass production, according to Natsu Shimamura, author of two books promoting the philosophy of the slow-food movement. YOKO HANI PHOTOS
News photo

But this raises questions. Have we forgotten about the pleasure of taste? Are we really enjoying ready-made food? Does the convenience of being able to grab a bite to eat at a fast-food chain, no matter where you are, really compensate for a lack of home-cooked meals?

Writer Natsu Shimamura says modern trends make food boring. In her latest book, "Slow Food na Nihon! (Slow Food Japan!)," she emphasizes that they can also lead to a loss of local cuisine and culture. Shimamura, 43, was one of the first people to introduce the idea of slow food to Japan six years ago when she published her first book on the topic, "Slow Food na Jinsei! (Slow Food Life!)."

What you eat at mealtime is your choice. But the slow food movement argues that the varieties of choices now before you could narrow in the future, as a result of the trend toward the standardization of food.

Internationally, the slow-food movement has spread to more than 100 countries and has gathered more than 80,000 registered members since it started in Italy in the late '80s. In Japan, the phrase slow food has become widely known in the past few years, chiefly because the media has picked up on the concept, often running features about "slow life," "slow city" and "slow food" as alternative lifestyles for busy people.

But still, the real meaning of the slow food philosophy is not understood by many people -- especially urbanites -- who tend to regard the idea as fashionable but impractical; that was one of the reasons why Shimamura wrote her second book on slow food earlier this year.

"Slow food is not about a life of farming in the countryside. It does not deny [you] fast food, but questions the view behind it," Shimamura said in an interview with The Japan Times.

"A key phrase for understanding slow food is 'diversity of taste.' I think the standardization of food could threaten the diversity of tastes available to us and narrow our choices. And that trend could threaten our fundamental right to enjoy good food. The movement is aimed at preserving a society in which people have the luxury of enjoying food."

The main aims of the slow-food movement are, she explains, to protect local food producers, to promote taste education and to protect food heritage.

When she published her previous book, which mainly focused on slow-food philosophy in Italy, Shimamura did not directly associate the issue with the situation in Japan. Later she learned that local produce could be in danger of disappearing in Japan, due to the food industry's mass production and mass distribution structure, unless action is taken to protect small farmers. She discovered that many producers of food actually live on tiny plots of land (as little as one-hectare in size). To raise awareness of the matter, in her second book she reported on 20 farmers producing "excellent food" across Japan.

The farming population in Japan has fallen to less than five percent of the entire population, from about 15 percent 45 years ago. In addition, more than half of Japan's farmers are now older than 65. Trips to meet local farmers opened her eyes to that reality. She was amazed by the skills and wisdom they had developed over many years.

"These farmers are so cool. They are just too good to lose," she says.

The slow-food movement pays attention not only to an individual country's internal problems, Shimamura says, but also to global issues such as biodiversity and environmentally sustainable farming.

"You can adopt the slow-food philosophy even if you are living in a penthouse of a skyscraper because the fact is that you have to eat food, and that links you to the producers, no matter where they are in the world. This is the most fascinating aspect of this movement," Shimamura says.

Pursuing slow food may cost more, since the produce of small farmers is often more expensive than mass-produced versions. Also, some people may say that the epicurean attitude of slow food proponents is similar to a gourmet lifestyle that often pays no mind to cost.

Shimamura, however, draws a clear line between the two.

"Gourmet people appreciate and enjoy the selected food on the plate with their refined tastes. Slow food supporters not only appreciate the food on the plate but also pay attention to the origins of the food, such as the producers and their lives and the food distribution systems," she says. "Slow food may cost a bit more, but I am willing to pay for food that I really want to eat if I believe that it is fairly priced."

Kazumi Oguro, editor in chief of a lifestyle magazine Sotokoto, echoed the view. With a monthly circulation of 100,000 copies that target readers in their 30s and 40s, Sotokoto was established seven years ago to promote alternative lifestyles that focus on environmentally sustainable living.

"Organic food is often more expensive. But if you believe it is good for you and also good for the environment, paying the extra cost is only reasonable," he said.

But eating organic food is not the main point of the slow-food movement, Oguro adds.

Rather, it is about encouraging people to rediscover the excitement they once held for the taste of good food.

"Eating is one of the most fundamental pleasures of being human. How is it possible to lose that? Slow food is not difficult. It is saying 'let's enjoy food,' and is trying to preserve a society in which you can pursue that pleasure," he said.

Practicing slow-food philosophy

You are busy. You live in a city. You understand the idea of slow food but are finding it difficult to put it into practice, you may say. Here, Natsu Shimamura, author of "Slow Food na Nihon! (Slow Food Japan!)," makes five suggestions on how you can incorporate the slow-food philosophy into your lifestyle.

Don't eat alone. Make time to share more meals with your family and friends. Plan how to increase the likelihood that you will cook for yourself and/or somebody else. You will become more aware of the pleasure of good food, making you more conscious and careful about what you cook and eat.

Read the labels on the food you buy, visualize where it comes from and who handled it. Make an effort to get to know the producers of foods that you use regularly, such as tea and rice. Ideally, buy these daily staples from producers you know.

Take the extra time to make your own seasonings. Make dashi (soup stock) from such food as konbu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (very thin flakes of dried bonito) and use it often when you cook Japanese dishes. You discover how diversified flavors can be. You will learn to identify the strong taste of chemical seasonings.

Get your mom to teach you what she used to cook. Every country town has its own specialities -- check out the ones specific to your hometown. You will rediscover the local food and culture in which you have grown up.

Next vacation, instead of hitting the beach or the slopes, visit the countryside where your favorite foods come from. Befriend food producers. There are many kinds of farms and fisheries in Japan. There is even a noka minshuku (countryside accommodation system) in which you can stay in the homes of farmers or fishermen. The psychological distance between producers and consumers will narrow if you get to know them. Linking the two is one of the most important aims of the slow food movement.



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