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Have a byte!

‘STOP!’ my mom bellowed. ‘Don’t you dare bite on that sandwich anymore. Don’t you even watch TV?’ Comfortably couched in front of my monitor, I stare back at her feigning innocence, wondering whether to gulp down the remains of the local food joint specialty behind her back or wait a little longer. But alas, she chooses to keep guard. ‘Haven’t you read all those reports in the newspapers? Do you really work for a newspaper in the first place? Can you even read?’ And in that kind of context, I just had to do what any journalist with an assignment would. Yep, you got it right: I figured out the most comfortable means of collecting information, yawned, and logged on to the Internet.

So what’s really happening online? I did a little searching on all the major search engines, and the food adulteration issue in Bangladesh came in the top 10 search entries every time. Suddenly, everybody from Mama (of Mama Haleem fame) to Chacha (who cooks up Hajir Biryani - how could you?) to Bombay (not Mumbai, it’s the local guys who make chanachur) is a food adulteration star born overnight. At this point I came across Zaman bhai’s editorial at http://newagebd.com/2005/aug/31 /edit.html, and decided to dig up a few more webpages.

With all the major dailies having their own websites, it’s not surprising that almost all of them host mobile food court reports that leave you with a sour taste in the mouth. Search engines do have a habit of citing completely irrelevant information, and in this case, the only actual food adulteration cases were the ones hot and happening in Bangladesh. In case you want to look into existing theory, ‘adulterated food’ is defined in terms of US law at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/21/342.html, a blazingly fast website managed by Cornell University. Imagine whitening bread with alum and chalk, and using mashed potatoes, plaster of Paris (calcium sulphate), pipe clay and sawdust to increase the weight of the loaves. Sounds pretty much ‘us’, doesn’t it? Well, this was actually a common food adulteration practice in the nineteenth century. The Royal Society of Chemistry, subtitled ‘Advancing the Chemical Sciences’, has a nice article on the anti-adulteration movement at www.rsc.org/Education/EiC/issues /2005Mar/Thefightagainstfoodadulteration.asp . It reads great, but as long as we’re dealing with food, let’s look up something that tastes better, shall we?

There are practically zillions of websites in existence which give away free recipes. Even if you’re not much of a cook, you might want to check out www.epicurious.com (‘epicure’ stands for a person refined in tastes in Medieval Latin). You’ll be amazed at the sheer detail gone into making a killer gourmet dish, er, website. There are all sorts of recipes that you can get your hands on, and also tips for students and wannabe chefs, recipe contests, a fantastic recipe search feature and a friendly, colorful interface that you’ll fall in love with. I’m hailing this website as the one-stop gourmet destination on the Web.

But then again, the Web is huge – and just take a look at what got caught in it. If you’re familiar with polar expedition novels, you’ve probably heard of Pemmican. It generally consists of a mixture of pounded beef with beef fat, and was invented by the Hudson Bay Company and based on traditional native North American Indian recipes. As expected, it’s compact, nutritious and can remain edible for a very, very long time. Hop off for the recipe at www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/ science/food2.htm . Want to taste Viking bread, the way it was really prepared 1,000 years back? Follow the directions on www.yesmag.bc.ca/projects/vikingbreadbw.html and you can make it in your very own kitchen in no time. Caution: just don’t hit anybody with it.

It’s pretty weird, but for some reason amateur physicists these days are intent on demonstrating ‘kitchen science’ online - laboratory tricks which mostly have nothing to do with cooking (now that’s what we call a mean fry!). Some of them, however, do involve stuff like getting electricity out of a lemon using two strips of metal. If you’re interested, try out www.bizarrelabs.com. The site also has lighter sections, such as one called Bizarre Yolks and featuring egg tricks from the kindergarten days: how to tell a raw egg from a hardboiled egg, making an egg float, and the sorts.

In the meantime let’s get health conscious. To my mother’s delight, I push away the sandwich and head off for www.caloriescount.org/calculator with the sole mission of creating a diet chart that I can manage online. For your information, there are many software and websites available to do the job. CaloriesCount.org is unique: first of all, it’s a paid service (you can try it out for a few days though) and makes sure it raises the stakes high enough for its genre. The site boasts an exhaustive set of features, including different approaches to help you keep in shape: diet control, weight reduction, workout directives and so on. Go pick the strategy you like most.

But hey, ‘edible’ is relative too. If you are allergic to certain kinds of foods, you should better be wary of them. I came across an interesting article on http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth which provides an informative insight into food allergies children often suffer from and how they can be overcome (I’d never have guessed that the most common allergen for kids is milk!). Again, if you have diabetes you’ll need a customized diet control program with all the medical information chalked out. Unfortunately, despite the abundance of such services offered on the Web, almost all of them are hardly relevant in our part of the world, where eating habits differ greatly from the West. The closest match I could get for a Bangladeshi context was www.diabetesindia.com/diabetes/index, India’s premium website for diabetes patients. Let’s get this straight: the site isn’t great, but does the job fairly well; and in the end you simply can’t help wondering how come this kind of thing hasn’t been developed in our country yet.

It’s time I signed off now, but not without taking a look around at www.foodreference.com. And isn’t it the icing on the cake: this gem of a site has tons of features you won’t find together under the same roof anywhere else. There’s trivia, recipes, articles, food history, and even magazines, poems and reviews of books on food! There’s also a ‘cooking tips’ section, the best I’ve come across (which also provides you with all sorts of facts, such as how to preserve ‘zebra’ tomatoes and that cocoa butter is used widely in soaps and cosmetics), and a section on ‘food quotes’ (ranging from NY Times Restaurant Critic Bryan Miller’s ‘square meals, not adventurous ones are what you should seek’ to Oscar Wilde’s famous ‘an egg is always an adventure; the next one may be different’).

Creative, to say the least; nonetheless, enough for a day’s food for thought! I lazily terminate the network connection and reach out for the homemade delicacies that my mother has just served. Thankfully, some things will always be unadulterated.

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