There’s nothing quite like a plate of fushka to satisfy a hungry appetite. Over the weekend, I found myself savouring those delicious explosions of coriander, chilli and chickpea flavours for the first time in months. But I wasn’t sitting on the shores of Dhanmondi Lake eating alongside a parade of rickshaw wallahs and vegetable markets. Instead, I was perched under the roof of a football stadium in south western Sydney among a sea of saris and rainbow flags at the Bangladesh Australia Friendship Fair.
I returned to Australia a few months ago after spending a year in Bangladesh working with an NGO called Hunger Free World. Now I’m living in Sydney again, volunteering with Oxfam’s GROW campaign. It was because of this work with GROW that I found myself eating fushka in Sydney on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Food is one of the most universal languages we have on this planet. Offer a stranger a bite of your own meal and you’ll spark a conversation and maybe even start a friendship. And yet food is also one of the most defining features of our cultural identity – it sets this group of people apart from that group. It’s telling that one of the most infamous songs about difference is also talking about food: “You say tom-ay-to, I say to-mah-to… let’s call the whole thing off!”
Bangladesh and Australia have many differences, and one of them is over food. While Australia has some of the highest obesity rates in the world, Bangladesh has some of the highest hunger rates. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly two-thirds of Aussies are overweight or obese. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is one of just seven nations that are home to two-thirds of the world’s hungry. While these may seem like two separate problems, they are not. Rather, they are united by the fact that both are symptoms of a food system that is inherently flawed.
Waste not, want not
When I was living in Bangladesh, one of my favourite things to do was to go the markets to buy my fresh fruit and vegetables. I’d practice some Bangla with the stallholders and find out exactly what part of Bangladesh my mangoes had been grown in. I’d get a bit heady from the spices and nibble on a veggie I’d never seen before. In Australia, food shopping is a completely different experience.
Most Australians buy most of their food from inside a very sanitary supermarket. There’s a fresh food section, and then there are at least ten other aisles dedicated to what influential writer Michael Pollan has termed the “thousands of foodish products…that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food.”
I’d bet a lot of people in Bangladesh wouldn’t recognize them as food either.
In Bangladesh, choosing fresh, seasonal food was easy – unless you could afford to pay for a marked-up, imported piece of ‘foodish’ food, whole foods were the only option. Buying from the markets also meant that you could very easily avoid unnecessary plastic and packaging.
But the constant power outages and the gnawing creatures who lived in our kitchen (that try as we might we could not get rid of) meant that buying food was an almost daily occupation. We didn’t buy large amounts of anything because nothing could be stored for long – if I didn’t eat at home for a few days in a row, I’d find my fridge full of wilting greens and mouldy coconut milk. My Bangladeshi friends were masters at saving food and making it last. But at the business end – when the harvest is collected – a lot of food still gets wasted in developing countries; one third, to be exact. With better access to adequate storage, refrigeration and transportation, this could be reduced.
In Australia and the rest of the industrialised world, where we have the technology to address the wastage problem, one third of food still gets thrown out – but in a different way. In Australia, food gets wasted by consumers when we buy more than we need, when we turn our nose up at a bruise on an apple, or – like me – when we eat out too often and come home to find a poorly planned fridge of meals have turned into mush.
In Bangladesh you say “to-meh-toh”, in Australia we say “tom-ar-toe”. And yet we are more similar than it would seem.