Stuck in a mindset that eating fast leads to prosperity and good health, Asian eaters are taking their time to embrace the Slow Food movement.
From steaming bowls of noodle soup to fiery curries served at roadside stalls, Asia is known for its superb fast food.
But fans of the Slow Food movement are trying to teach Asia’s busy eaters to take things more sedately.
Founded in northern Italy and France in response to the spread of fast-food chains, Slow Food promotes local produce through tastings, farm visits and, of course, long and leisurely lunches. Its logo is a little snail.
The idea caught on quickly in Europe and the United States, where most of the movement’s 80,000 members live.
It has taken a bit longer to get to Asia, and gourmets here say the reason is simple. Good food is greatly appreciated in most Asian cultures; slowness is not.
“The word slow means it’s not efficient in whatever Asian concept,” said Wilson Kwok, the owner of a French restaurant in Hong Kong and founder of the city’s Slow Food chapter.
“People think if they eat fast and work hard they will gain more money and they will become more healthy. But eating fast is slowing down the immune system, it’s not good for your health and it’s damaging you.”
To show his compatriots the benefits of being more aware of what you eat, Kwok organises events ranging from a Cantonese meal to a tasting session with an oyster supplier.
Kwok would like to expand the network to include mainland China, where a growing middle class is celebrating its new wealth with delicacies such as shark fin soup and abalone.
But apart from the bureaucratic difficulties of setting up a private organisation in communist China, he finds it hard to convince other Chinese of the merits of an unhurried meal.
“I want to use Hong Kong as a first step. It’s very, very difficult – there are not a lot of Chinese members. Most of them are working and don’t have extra energy to contribute.”
With the grown-ups stubbornly sticking to their love of fast food, Kwok, who trained as a chef in Paris, is now focusing on children.
His Slow Summer program offers cooking lessons and visits to organic farms to children aged around 9-12.
ENSLAVED BY SPEED
Many of the Hong Kong members are expats. Like other Asian chapters – in Singapore, Taiwan, India and Japan – the organisation in Hong Kong was founded only a few years ago, long after the original Slow Food movement emerged in the late 1980s.
What unites Slow Food fans around the world is their love of culinary diversity and fear that global fast-food chains are eroding local food culture.
According to the original Slow Food manifesto, “we are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods.”
In Japan, the 1800-strong movement is fighting the advance of instant “ramen” noodles and rice boxes sold at convenience stores, which are increasingly replacing home-cooked food.
Slow Food enthusiasts here meet, for example, to sample a traditional Japanese vegetable that is making a comeback in the Tokyo area.
For others, Slow Food is part of a larger battle. Navdanya, an Indian non-governmental organisation that promotes sustainable agriculture and supports small farmers, set up a Slow Food cafe in New Delhi that serves organic food.
“In India we mostly organise food festivals around the core concerns of our movements – biodiversity-based cuisine, traditional cuisines as well as local and seasonal specialities,” said Maya Goburdhun, a director at Navdanya and Slow Food member.
The group plans a special dinner based on mangoes from different regions, and also organises monthly talks.
“All those who are related with food in one way or the other, from restaurateurs to school teachers have been very excited about the movement,” Goburdhun added.