Sunday, August 22, 2010

Food for Thought!

Introducing Interfaith Action Inc.'s cookbook, Food for Thought. The cookbook cover - designed by Rachel Finklestein especially for the IFA - and the introduction that I wrote, reflect the sentiments of all those associated with this project in some way. This cookbook is a celebration of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of Sharon that the IFA is proud to support.

One of the major inspirations behind writing or compiling a book is to serve as a source of recorded history. Whether it is a work of fiction or non-fictional narrative, the reach and impact of the written word transcends geographical boundaries and challenges the mind. Writing a cookbook is one such endeavor that aims to connect generations by passing on their recipes to the realm of timelessness.

All cultures have their own cuisine and etiquette, and sharing their favorite traditional foods enriches one’s outlook. As revealed in Food in Global History, by Raymond Grew, “Historians find in foods’ ties to economics, technology, commerce, and re¬ligion particularly satisfying evidence of how ordinary, daily activities are re¬lated to larger historical trends.” Cookbooks from different cultures have addressed this finding in a variety of ways.

Grew discovered that the first cookbook, called Kuchenmeisterey, was published as early as 1485, in Nuremberg. Moreover, early English cookbooks largely targeted a female audience, while the French encouraged “the culinary arts for the elitist male chef domain”. American cookbooks centered upon a married woman’s life revolving around cooking and serving meals to her family. Eastern cultures have also primarily focused on domesticity as a feminine trait, and cookbooks address the housewife who is skilled in the art of cooking as a ‘valued’ wife. A favorite saying in the East is: “The way to a man’s heart goes through the kitchen door”. However, financial concerns and the increasing role of the educated woman in the work environment have resulted in men becoming more actively involved in mealtime preparation.

Inside the covers of cookbooks, one discovers food and eating preferences of cultures from all regions of the world. Cooking and eating is not as simple an affair as one might think. Reflecting family preferences and cultural traditions, the home cook chooses vegetables or meat and selects grains, fruit or eggs spiced with hot or bland flavors. These foods undergo a variety of cooking techniques such as frying, boiling, grilling or steaming; or they may be preserved by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, or soaking. A lot goes into the accomplishment of the end result we so eagerly consume! It is also interesting to note that many dishes made in different parts of the world have much in common, e.g. a rice dish which is a favorite in many countries is known by many different names, such as Biryani or Pulao (Pakistan, India), Jambalaya (US South), Bocumbop (Korea), Paella (Spain), Chau Fan (China), Pilaf (some countries of Middle East, Central Asia), Pilafi (Greece) Qabli Palau (Afganistan) and Risotto (Italy). All these dishes feature local produce and spices to give each their own flavorful characteristics.

Cultural etiquette also varies with region. Cultures may require that meals be eaten at a table, sitting around a floor mat, or standing at a counter. Some may recite a prayer of thanks at the beginning of a meal, others at the end. Diners may use cutlery, chopsticks or hands as implements. All signify adherence to preferred cultural or religious custom and provide a window into the heart of cultural history.

Since food has enormous potential for serving as an indicator of cultural trends, we spend hours researching online to find ways to enrich our eating experiences with a variety of ethnic foods. Living in Sharon, we have a wonderful advantage where we can take a trip into a foreign food culture without leaving our small town! To make this experience even more meaningful, a committee of volunteers from an organization in our town called Interfaith Action Inc. (IFA) has compiled this cookbook, Food for Thought. It consists of a rich blend of traditions and treats in the form of family favorite recipes from different cultures along with their anecdotal notes.

The IFA is known for encouraging Sharon’s cultural diversity to play an important role in weaving a sense of cohesion into our town and urging us to come together in many wonderful ways. We hope this cookbook will be another source of connection for a community that truly owns its diversity. The recipes included in this cookbook are followed by home cooks in not only the United States but also Cambodia, China, England, Greece, India, Iran, Ireland, Pakistan Portugal Russia, South Africa and Spain, to name a few.

Why the cookbook title, Food for Thought, you may wonder! This is not just a book. We chose this title so that as you prepare a dish for family or friends from our collection, you may reflect on the diversity represented by each recipe. Think of the tradition and the full range of cultural associations connected with every dish served to prior generations of the related culture. We hope you come out sated and enriched. Enjoy your meal!

The cookbook is now available for sale! Price for one book is $18 and for two or more, 15 $/book. Out of town shipping and handling charge, an additional $2. To order a copy, please contact Janet Penn at Interfaith Action Inc., P.O. Box 200, Sharon, MA 02067.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Future of Our Youth


What future do the youth in developing countries have where opportunities are few and challenges numerous?

Youth participation in world affairs is an investment into the future. The UN General Assembly in recognition of this important fact, in 1999 endorsed the recommendation of the World Conference of Ministers responsible for Youth to declare 12 August as International Youth Day.

Through this forum, the UN has invited youth participation in the past on development issues like poverty alleviation, health and unemployment, climate change etc. employing print and electronic media to organize public meetings and debates, concerts and exhibitions to make a commitment for stronger and better communities around the world. This year 2010 has also been declared as the International Youth Year, and this year’s theme is ‘Mutual Dialogue and Understanding’.

The issues faced by the young living in today’s world are numerous and challenging, especially in the underdeveloped countries. Generally speaking, the youth in the developed world have moved beyond the three-square-meals-a-day concerns, while their counterparts in some of the developing countries live with uncertainty and fear, battling survival issues on multiple levels.

South Asia lags behind in many important development indicators, including healthcare, education, food, water and energy. These concerns are inter-related and interdependent. Studies have indicated that between 1960 and 2000, the number of young adults more than doubled in most Asian countries, putting enormous pressure on governments to invest in health and education and to create employment.

Unfortunately, widespread corruption and mounting foreign debt consume the budgets of developing countries while these important issues continue to suffer. According to some estimates, Pakistan is expected to have over 170 million potential workers by 2030. It is widely acknowledged by development planners and practitioners that the stability of any country depends on how well the balance is created between demand with supply. Unfortunately, the Pakistan economy does not appear in any way ready to accommodate the influx of such a huge number of workers. The fallout of low employment is already evident in the corresponding high rate of crime.

According to the International Labor organization (ILO), Asia represents the largest concentration of the urban poor in the world, and the South Asian market is distinguished by the unemployed and the underemployed. The unemployment levels in South Asia increased from 2.9 % in 1995 to 3.4% in 2001. The unemployment rate of Pakistan was estimated to be at a staggering 7.8% in 2003 by the Labor Force Survey of Pakistan. However, data from the Asian Development bank (ADP) showed that whereas unemployment increased in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives, Sri Lanka showed a different trend with low level of population growth and high levels of human development. The reason is widely accepted to be the comparatively higher female literacy rate in Sri Lanka, as young educated women chose to enter the job market and delayed marriage or childbearing.

The education sector is a major area of concern in all developing countries of South Asia, where the existing educational infrastructure is not only inadequate, but also ill-equipped to impart skills needed for an increasingly competitive world. E.g. a struggling, outdated, public education system in Pakistan has failed to train a force of working adults capable of fuelling the economy. Conversely, the country’s existing private education system is at par with that of the developed world, but only accessible to a small minority of the elite. This disparity is in itself a cause for internal conflict.

Many young adolescents of the poverty ridden Asian societies start their careers as child laborers when economic compulsions force them out into the labor market at a very young age. These children then remain trapped in a cycle of poverty forever. Factors identified by ILO as being conducive to an increase in the number of child laborers include parental poverty and illiteracy, social and economic attitudes and circumstances, lack of access to education, lack of awareness, and adult unemployment or underemployment. Provision of basic education along with vocational and practical skills is widely acknowledged as an effective means to break the cycle of poverty. Non-formal educational program which are relevant and easily accessible to poor families have enabled many child workers in some South Asian countries to come up to their age-appropriate grade level.

Healthcare sector in most countries of South Asia is as challenged as other sectors. The ratio of healthcare professionals versus patients is very low. Moreover, since healthcare spending is out-of-pocket, costly treatment is beyond the reach of a majority that lives below the UN defined poverty line of less than $2/day. India has the world’s 4th largest concentration of HIV-AIDS positive adults, a considerable number include young working-age adults. India also has a 500,000 strong sex workers community which, according to some studies, has had a considerable share in this area of concern. In 2007 more than 5.5 million people were estimated to be infected and a major catastrophe appeared to be in the making. However, cooperation with world aid and humanitarian agencies and through extensive hard work, training and vigilance the number of afflicted individuals has come down to 2.3 million, according to current government estimates.

Young men generally are more likely to indulge in risk behaviors as compared to young women in patriarchal societies due their limited exposure. Unemployed, poor, frustrated young men indulge in drugs to escape the grim realities of their lives. The war-torn Afghanistan is estimated to supply 90 % of world consumption of heroin. While generations of Afghanis youth continue to struggle with the instability and violence in their lives for decades, neighboring countries of South Asia remain equally plagued with this problem.

The high rate of suicide has become a serious concern for the youth of many South Asian countries due to issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of civic facilities, and poor access to healthcare. South Asia is home to a major part of the world's population and is estimated to account for up to 60% of all suicides worldwide by the World Health Organization. Statistics from the WHO on suicide in some South Asian countries seem to support the Dutch suicidologist Deikstra's trend predictions of rise in suicide cases in the developing countries in coming years. In Bangladesh, The total number of suicides reported to the Forensic Medicine Department of Dhaka Medical College indicates that suicides have increased from 12/month in 1989 to 18/month in 1998. Suicide rates in India (1988-1998) increased by 33.7%. In Sri Lanka, one study estimated that the proportion of young adults committing suicide increased from 33% in 1960 to 44% in 1980. Data from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) revealed that in 2006 most of the suicide victims were females under 30 years of age.

The Asian youth are intelligent, hardworking and as motivated, if not more, as their counterparts in the more developed parts of the world. It is unfortunate that only a very small number of these young adults get a chance to materialize their dreams or participate in global initiatives aimed at improving their situation or creating dialogue for mutual understanding. The world aid agencies would find investing in the youth though educational initiatives a more successful strategy in fighting the issues of violence and instability prevalent in these societies. Education creates awareness, discourages exploitation and improves prospects for a productive future for the collective benefit of the whole society.

SouthAsia Magazine, Future of Youth August 2010.