Ever since I was little, I remember my parents’ apprehension at me using the fuel-guzzling monster, called the oven. To this day I still feel wary about using it too often. I enjoy baking cakes, from madeleines to macarons. I also like Beijing roast duck. On the other hand, on the occasion we do use it, I feel so guilty at its inefficiency, I’ll generally scatter some raw nuts on a tray and shove them in to cook in the residual heat.
In rural Tanzanian villages where there aren’t electric or gas cookers at all, people generally use the three-stone method. A fire between three stones under a perched pot or BBQ grid. One of our secondary projects was building the more efficient “rocket stove” and entrusting the knowledge and brick-making resources to different groups in the village. The difference between the three-stone method and the rocket stove in terms of efficiency is probably something like between an old Beetle and a new eco car.
Air is drawn in through the bottom, feeding the flames at the back and the heat rises to cook the food. All you have to do is put your hand above a three-stone and a rocket stove to see the huge difference in the rocket stove’s efficiency. To the women in the village, a more efficient stove meant less time collecting firewood, less smoke inhalation and a more efficient method of boiling and treating water. To us, using a microwave instead of an oven means more time to do other things as well- but for these women, life is exceptionally hard already. And I doubt any of them would’ve liked a ready meal.
The reason I have my doubts will be made clear in a second. We managed to build 5 rocket stoves, one of them strategically placed at the market next to the meat stall. One day we entered the market and our team leader chuckled. I couldn’t figure out why until we walked to the meat market. They were barbecuing meats on the traditional 3 stones… next to the new rocket stove. Old habits die hard. We had given the community all the reasons they should take it up with our demonstrations but we needed to give them time to see for themselves the real benefits of using the rocket stove. We made tea and chatted to them, we invited various groups of people for chapati making competitions on rocket stoves and tea and mandazi at our camp. Slowly, we could tell they were catching on and more and more people were asking about them and how to build them in their own houses. We tried cooking foods from home for them too, which they didn’t like, so we stuck to the foods they were used to. Anywhere you go, the foods that are the most loved are the foods that you grew up with. Including the methods.
I remember when I was younger and still at primary school, a lady came in to tell us all to stop using our ovens and start using the microwave instead. A boy put up his hand and said he much preferred a jacket potato out of the oven, than from a microwave, even if it took less time. And despite everything she’d said about being efficient and saving energy, the lady had to agree. Some people will choose the old beetle over a new eco car- for whatever reason, nostalgia, a piece of the past, or just because they like it.
We have a vast range of choice when it comes to what we eat and how we eat. It’s not anyone’s job to dictate what we should or should not eat. Being sustainable is a choice, and one that is balanced alongside the foods and memories that we have. If we installed a microwave and ready-meals in the village tomorrow noone would take it up, even if it is efficient and time-saving.
So if someone said to me stop using your oven, start cooking things in the shortest time possible, I’d have a bit of a problem. But if someone said to me try and think of the most efficient and tasty way to cook the food you love- I’m still listening. Food is culture and culture needs time to change and grow.