The Holy Kale: A Tale of Rags to Riches

What images do you conjure up at the word ‘kale’ ? Yoga-attire-clad green smoothie drinkers? A cluster of deep green, gorgeously curled leaves in a health food market? Or a steaming swamp of mush adorned with awkward chunks of shiny sausage? If you’re Dutch, I guarantee you it would have been the latter.

‘Stamppot met boerenkool’ (a.k.a kale and potato mash, or literally translated to ‘stamped pot with farmers cabbage’) has been a winter staple in the kitchens of the Netherlands for centuries. It’s one of those iconic Dutch dishes that, unfortunately, reinforces the stereotype that the country has a rather unrefined palate. Overcooked kale is the main ingredient along with equally flavour-obliterated potatoes. The resulting mush serves little higher purpose than to fill Dutch bellies, something I can attest to with plenty of childhood trauma! 

Man with kale in wheelbarrow Holland
The ‘Kale King of Holland’ (I kid you not) literally walking on a frozen canal with his wheelbarrow of kale. Tell me this isn’t the Dutchest photo you’ve ever seen.  Photo Cred: ANP/Koen Suyk

Despite the (frankly awful) taste, it seemed the Dutch may have been onto something. Nowadays, this paupers vegetable prides itself as an organic darling throughout the Western world. Kale is trending. First it was the health mamas on Pinterest and the nutrition savvy, then celebrities jumped on the Kale bandwagon, and now everyone is doing it. Yes, that means Starbucks. There is even a 50 Shades of Kale on the bookshelf. As Kevin Bacon put it, “It’s the age of kale. A day without kale is like a day without sun.” If you’re not eating it raw, massaged, in a smoothie or baked into crisps, you are clearly not living your best life.  

The fascination with this humble green in the media is partly due to impressive health claims (one of the biggest being that sulforaphane, a compound in cruciferous vegetables like kale, has anti-cancer and anti-microbial properties) but also thanks to a wildly successful ad campaign by a clever New York marketing maven. Kale became the ‘It’-veg in the coolest NYC restaurants, and the rest of the newly health-conscious West was eager to cash in on the trend.  

Beautiful kale plants
Brassicas are big business. Photo cred: Pixabay

However, with every craze there is the inevitable backlash. It turns out that people with thyroid or digestive issues need to be cautious about kale, especially in its raw form. Cruciferous vegetables have a lot of indigestible fibre and raffinose (the natural sugar responsible for the unpleasant bloating and gassiness associated with these vegetables). This means it’s hard for our bodies to process kale in large quantities, especially if uncooked. Baking, boiling, or – even better – steaming your kale before consumption will help. According to Dr. Leung; “Juicing kale concentrates the vegetable and thus potentially poses a greater risk toward iodine deficiency and hypothyroidism if ingested in large amounts on a very frequent basis.” The message, then, is clear: As with anything in nutrition (and life), moderation is key. Perhaps a month long raw juice cleanse isn’t the best idea, neither is eating any food repetitively day in day out. 

Green kale smoothie
Go easy on those raw green smoothies and all will be well. Photo cred: Pixabay

The media thrives on hyped headlines (who can resist the clearly Awesome Alliteration of ‘Caped Crusador or Thyroid Threat‘?!), but the truth is kale is neither going to kill you nor be the cure-all it’s touted to be. The best advice is to buy organic, mix up your diet, keep eating your greens and listen to your body. I sound like your mum. 

The Curious Case of Quinoa

In the case of quinoa, the controversy that follows in the wake of this particular superfood boom isn’t about nutritional benefit or safety, but about socio-economics.

Quinoa (Yes, it’s pronounced ‘keen-wah’ and you hereby have permission to smugly correct anyone claiming otherwise), is often used as a grain-replacing food; substituting rice and couscous in many dishes. It may come as a surprise to know, then, that quinoa is actually a member of the same plant group, called goosefoot plants, as spinach, beets and, erm…tumbleweed (don’t ask). It is one superfood that actually deserves its ‘wondergrain’ status: high in protein, essential amino-acids, gluten-free and non-allergenic. Despite it being a novelty in our food cupboards, quinoa has actually been a staple in the diet of Andean people (Bolivians, Chileans and Peruvians) for thousands of years. In Incan times, it was even regarded as a gift from the gods.

A picturesque quinoa field in bloom, with the Andean mountain range as a backdrop.
Image Credit: Pixabay

So why the sudden decline in quinoa consumption in Andean populations? Do they know something we don’t? Actually, the root of the problem is money. It turns out that the huge demand for quinoa has so inflated its retail price, that local (read: poor) people can no longer afford it. It has risen from ‘comida para los Indios‘ to food for the rich. And so begins the curious quinoa debate.

Who benefits, and who loses from the quinoa boom? Well, firstly, Andean farmers are relishing their new found prosperity. Bigger houses, kids can go to university and there’s more money being pumped into the economic arteries of the country. The downside is that demand for this crop is so high that farmers are, quite literally
elbowing each other out of the way to claim land on which to grow it: tensions in the region are on the rise. Areas that once grew other crops, or more importantly, were previously grazed by llamas, are now being converted to quinoa fields en masse. Curiously, the decline in llamas is causing a major problem: soil barrenness. It turns out that llamas provide an invaluable fertiliser to the normally dry Andean region: their…well…you can work it out! Without it, soil fast loses its fertility, putting future harvests into jeopardy, and potentially the food production of an entire nation.

Who knew that this adorable Andean icon is key to the crop health of entire nations?
Image Credit: Pixabay

Another of the biggest issues of the debate is the potential for malnutrition. A few years ago, a flurry of indignant articles appeared clamouring that eating quinoa was the equivalent of contributing to the starvation of an innocent Andean child. It stemmed from a Bolivian government’s statistic that national quinoa consumption over the previous five years had decreased 34% (the latest figures actually show an increase, due to government incentives such as school lunches). However, whether local quinoa consumption is falling or rising may be somewhat irrelevant in terms of health: with more money farmers are able to buy more fruits and vegetables, healthy foods that are difficult to grow in the harsh climate of the Andes, even if they do eat less of their ‘gift from the gods’.

Do we need to feel guilty for enjoying this superfood or not? The simple answer is no. When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and a high environmental cost. This isn’t exclusively happening with quinoa either. The solution is to continue encouraging quinoa cultivation in other parts of the world, so that eventually quinoa becomes affordable for all consumers of all income levels. In the UK, there’s the British Quinoa Company in Shropshire producing homegrown English quinoa on their farm; leading a great example. Keep enjoying this wondergrain; but buy local if possible.

Purple Haze: Açaí Bowls, the Superfood Heavyweights.

I remember my first spoonful of a deliciously zingy Açaí bowl profoundly. Although the taste is likely to mentally transport you onto a dreamy tropical beach, the image it conjures up for me is sweaty, kimono-clad grapplers in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament. For those of you who aren’t into fighting sports; Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a popular form of wrestling, a martial art where instead of striking your opponent you artfully choke him into submission in a tangle of limbs. It turns out BJJ is as intertwined with the history of Açaí bowls as its fighters are with each other.

 

An ‘Açaí bowl’ (pronounced ‘Ass-sigh-eee bowl’) is in its essence a thick smoothie of pulped Açaí berries with other colourful fruit (often bananas, blueberries, mangos or papaya), guaraná syrup, oats, bee pollen, nuts or chia. It packs a powerful punch of antioxidants and energy. Açaí berries resemble overgrown purple blueberries, and grow on the Açaí palm, a lithe palm tree native to the Amazon. Although Açaí berries have constituted a major part of the diet of indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon for decades, it was in the 80’s that legendary founder of BJJ, Carlos Gracie, brought the modern-day Açaí bowl to fame. He introduced the rich purple puree within his city, Rio de Janeiro, as fighting fuel for his students. Surfing is another sport that is huge in Rio, and many of Gracie’s students could be found in the water when not on the mat. Surf culture is close-knit, so it wasn’t long before the superfood started popping up as an energy-boosting snack all along Brazil’s beaches. The trend became unstoppable. In the early 2000’s, Açaí began to travel where the surfers did; first to California and Hawaii – and soon all over the world.

 

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Slender Açaí palm trees in Brazil are scaled by agile locals to collect the prized berries. The berries are pulped after harvesting, frozen and then exported all over the world.
Photo cred: Frank Krämer, Wikipedia Commons

 

Before long, Açaí bowls started appearing on the menus of hip health stalls as well as sports nutrition sites and gyms; marketed to the health conscious as well as a supplement for fitness fanatics. Because once the pulp is mixed with other ingredients, and the ‘Açaí bowl’ is born, it’s one hell of an energy bomb. However, there is one hefty downside to this divine concoction. The very reason behind its addictive sweet taste: Sugar. Although the sugar is mostly from the fruit itself and therefore ‘natural’ (this of course depends on the goodies you throw into the bowl), the quantity found in a single bowl is staggering – upwards of 50g. Add the guaraná syrup, and you’re really in trouble. Now, although not necessarily unhealthy, even natural sugar should be consumed in moderation. A misconception about nutrition is that so called ‘healthy food’ can be consumed in excess without weight gain. Nothing could be further from the truth! Of course, the right amount of good, wholesome food is the basis of a healthy body (and by that I do not mean skinny!) but it is movement that gets us truly in shape.

 

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A fresh, tangy Açaí bowl; highly Instagrammable.
Image cred: Ella Olsson from Pixabay

 

Açaí bowls are great for fighters, surfers and other sports that burn vast amounts of calories but not so much for us mere mortals that aren’t training intensely. In conclusion: Açaí bowls are a fantastic stamina booster but it is unwise to consume them daily, no matter how colourful and health conscious it looks on Instagram! However, when enjoyed as a treat rather than a staple, Açaí bowls can be enjoyed by everyone.

You Are What You Speak: How Language Shapes Personality

One of the most important lessons travel and a life abroad has taught me is that language is everything.  Every country has a unique ‘voice’ – and when you delve into its language you see that country through entirely different eyes (…or in this case; ears!). Through understanding the content of local conversation or cultural discussions you learn about the soul of a place, and through the way it is spoken you learn about the souls of its people. Language goes hand in hand with the ‘personality’ of a country.

This has made me wonder; which came first, the personality of a country or its language? Can you have one without the other? Take Spain or Italy; where language involves famously expressive hand gestures and melodic intonation. To the Northern Europeans, where language is more about words and less about movement, it makes every conversation seem a particularly passionate one. Is it because many Italian people are generally passionate by nature or do elements of their language shape opinion and behaviour? It’s likely to be a bit of both. Gesticulating (how I love that word) and multi-tonal speech definitely seems to have an affect on how ‘passionate’ a person comes across. Another facet, of course, is culture. Feelings (a higher peak of excitement and a lower dip of despair) are generally more accepted, and so expressed, in Mediterranean countries than in comparison to many other countries. Think of the stereotypical English stiff-upper-lip (read a good study on that here), or cultures such as the Japanese (where negative emotions are subtly expressed in the tone of voice rather than through more obvious lingual or facial cues) as opposed to the southern European’s unambiguous displays of emotion. A dive into Italy’s vast, and often hilarious, pit of illustrative swearwords reveals just how enthusiastically sentiments can be expressed. The mouthing off by drivers in daily bouts of road rage is a perfect example; I remember careering through the narrow Sicilian roads with a local who seemed to revel in hurling obscene (and hilariously lengthy) sentences involving animals, grandmothers and unspeakable acts at anyone who dared overtake/cut in/brake or perform any other perfectly normal driving manoeuvre near his rickety car.

Words are just the tip of the iceberg in Italian language; true mastery involves appropriately using a baffling array of hand gestures and head movements. Who better to explain it than a handful of D&G models?

Language and personality are, it seems, inextricably entwined. Many Spanish friends have told me that I seem innocent (which always receives a disbelieving snort on my part) when I speak; which I put down to my somewhat ‘Tarzan Spanish’ and likely an element of shyness in my word confidence. In Dutch, I feel more practical and less elegant– both due to the harsher Germanic sounds of the language and the cultural implications (infamously to-the-point) that Dutch carries. I often wonder if who I ‘really am’ actually comes across at all in languages other than English! It seems like this is not unusual in the slightest; Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even a different world view (Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist, proposed that each language encodes a world view that significantly influences its speakers–a.k.a “Whorfianism”) when they speak their different languages. It appears language changes the way you see things and the way you act; both vital parts to the definition of personality.

There’s a famous quote floating around social media, often scrawled on a sufficiently envy-inducing photograph of an effortlessly beautiful model jumping with carefree abandon into turquoise waters: ‘Travel Yourself Interesting’. It’s about as obvious as ‘Eat Yourself Fat’. But what’s more surprising than collecting a book’s worth of stories and unlikely adventures is the truly lasting effect travel has on personality; not just in the way of improving gratitude and human understanding but on the way exposure to different languages changes subsequent inter-personal interactions. Since having been fully immersed in both Spanish and Italian culture in the last few years I’ve noticed a flurry of hand gestures and sweeping arm motions entering my daily lingual exchanges. My wonderfully Dutch grandfather even told me to stop waving my arms around so much when I talked because it was so distracting (priceless!). Noticeable changes have also crept into my accent and I feel I express myself more strongly, even in English–although this may be due to a change in attitude and confidence that foreign travel brings, as well as cultural exposure. If personality is the way you express yourself, then exposure to multiple languages can definitely alter ‘who you are’.

Language has the power to change your perception of the world, alters the world’s perception of you (something that I’ll delve into in the second part of this series), and dictates how you express yourself: it shapes your personality.

Do you have any thoughts or personal anecdotes about how languages have shaped your thinking and actions? Do you have a unique ‘self’ depending on the language you are speaking? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!