We urbanites seldom think about the true cost of our consumption choices. After all, most of the negative externalities—the environmental degradation, the loss of homes, etc.—are typically borne by rural dwellers elsewhere.
That changed for many of us in Southeast Asia in September 2015. For two months, a horrid brown haze hung over even the poshest neighbourhoods, forcing everyone indoors (except the unfortunate manual labourers).
Fires that had been started to clear land for palm oil plantations burned out of control, creating an environmental disaster that the Guardian called a “crime against humanity.” In Sumatra, Indonesia, where the haze was at its worst, eight babies died from acute respiratory diseases.
For Singapore-based artist Mamakan, the months of confinement gave her plenty of time to ruminate about global supply chains, end-users and other fun stuff.
T: Tell us about your a-ha moment.
M: Well, the haze has almost become an annual occurrence here in Southeast Asia, so I’ve been researching and thinking about the subject for more than a few years now. Last year the haze was especially bad.
One morning, when we were all feeling grumpy from being stuck indoors, I realized that my daughter Coco was eating Nutella at breakfast. Nutella, in case you didn’t know, is twenty-three percent palm oil.
Here we were complaining about the Haze when, ironically, it was our demand that had created it.
But look, I get it. Nutella is convenient, not to mention tasty. We’ve become a convenience society.
Every time we go out, our kids say they are hungry and we give them a packaged snack. But what is the cost of that snack? So many of these snacks have palm oil in them. And so, now we know.
T: But what can we do? Nutella is probably one of the most popular breakfast foods out there.
M: After my initial embarrassment had subsided, I began thinking about what I fed my children. I thought, why don’t I teach them about eating natural and wholesome food—“farm food” vs. “factory food.”
Nutella comes from gianduja or hazelnut paste. Before the era of mass production, these chocolate-hazelnut spreads were eighty percent nuts and twenty percent cocoa. Now, the nuts make up only thirteen percent.
My kids love Nutella, so I thought, why not give them a home-made alternative without palm oil? Farm food, so to speak.
T: I’ve heard that you went to great lengths trying to make the perfect alternative, even organizing blind tastings.
M: Yes, I went through many recipes for my Nutella alternative. It’s a Mamakan food. It’s a combination of the words “mama” for Mother Nature, and “makan,” which means “ food”.
T: I love the idea of Mamakan, but with more and more women going to work in the region, who has time to cook from scratch?
M: I know nobody has time anymore, but we can start small. Right now, I organize Mamakan dinners once a month, where women bring homemade food to share. We get to test new recipes. In fact, it’s where I first tested my Nutella alternatives. And best of all, we have created a community in the process.
T: You are going up against a very sophisticated marketing machine. For a lot of people who are now entering the middle class in Asia, convenience is only part of the equation. These packaged foods are also aspirational. How do you fight that?
M: By showing another way.
I grew up in Denmark in the 1970s. My first childhood experiences came from roaming around our garden—we had pears, plums, apples etc. I would know every single tree in our garden. In the autumn, we would pick berries in the forest. My aunt grew her own vegetables and fruits. Tasting cucumbers and tomatoes in season that have been ripened in the sun—it’s the most delicious thing you can imagine.
But with my mother’s generation came the modern woman, and when women went out to work, they outsourced the cooking to corporations. When I was growing up, I never learnt to cook.
As moms, we need to take the power back a little bit and take the responsibility back for our families. That’s where so many women are struggling. We have equal rights, we have careers, but we have lost the shared experiences around food. Whether it’s cooking it or growing it.
Good food is good for your health; it’s good for the community. Eating and cooking together brings people together.
The only ones that can change the direction in which things are going are the mothers. I don’t think the fathers will do it; I don’t think the kids will do it—because they don’t know what they’ve lost.
And that’s what I want to do. I want to show a different way. Not going back to the past—I love technology too much. But back to a more balanced way.
100g macadamia nuts
1 tbsp pure cacao powder
Pinch of fine salt
2 tsp vanilla extract or 1 vanilla pod
120g organic coconut sugar
4 tbsp boiling water
Roast the macadamia nuts and hazelnuts for about 8-12 minutes in a 180°C/ 350°F oven until golden brown. Once the nuts have cooled down completely, add them to your food processor or blender. Start grinding. It will take a while, about 2 minutes or more, till it achieves a buttery, spreadable consistency. At this point, remove the nut butter from the blender and put it into a bowl. Add the vanilla, cacao and salt and mix well. In a separate bowl, add the boiling water to the coconut sugar and mix until it becomes a smooth, dark paste. Now mix or blend this sugar paste in with the nut butter and, voila, your homemade chocolate-hazelnut spread is ready.