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THE NEARER THE BONE THE SWEETER THE MEAT

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, February 03, 2013

For most Asian, Mediterranean and native cultures, eating meat on the bone and using your mouth and fingers to remove the meat is natural and tastier way to eat. But some Westerners find it disgusting or too primitive to be putting bones, fish head or even ice cream sticks into their mouth, let alone a juicy piece of lamb neck or chicken carcass. I often wonder if it because the ancient civilisations developed and preferred this more primal way of eating long before the Europeans invented the knife and fork. There is actually an art to removing meat from the bone and swirling it around your mouth, sucking the delicious juices dry before spitting the bone out like a machine gun. Some people have a real fear that they will choke from putting bones in their mouth.

There is truth in the old saying that the meat nearer the bone is sweeter. That's because bones of animals and fish contain several special amino acids, marrow, gelatine and minerals that trigger the fifth taste sense of umami. Unlike our senses of tasting food that are salty, sweet, bitter and sour, umami flavours are from foods that are rich in chemicals called glutamates and include tomatoes, mushrooms and fermented foods like strong cheeses and soy sauce. The muscle and meat that surrounds the bone is loaded with this additional flavour compared to other meat cuts without the bone and the reason why soup stocks made with bones are not only tasty, but are very healthy for the body

The marrow found in bones is loaded with fatty proteins and minerals that are vital to a healthy immune system. The collagen and gelatine help to reduce joint pain, and the amino acids aid in keeping the blood cells free of damage. The minerals of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium are essential in bone growth and healthy immune system. Bone broths or stews are known to help people with arthritis and problems with the gut and digestion. Our early ancestors ate a lot of bones and marrow to stay healthy and energised.

Curries and stews are great ways to enjoy the benefits of bones, and with a little creative flavour provides the family with a familiar taste and a healthy meal. In commercial kitchens we make stocks and sauces based on a good stock usually made from beef or veal bones. The bones are first roasted off in the oven with some tomato paste to create a deep and rich base for the broth. This technique can also be applied to curries and stews to give the dish more flavour. If you have an oven, simply coat the bones, whether lamb, beef or veal with tinned tomato paste on a high heat of 195 Celcius for 30 minutes. If you don't, pan-fry the coated bones in a hot fry pan until each side is a dark brown. Then start your curry or stew recipe in the same way and you will end up with something even tastier. Sealing the bones off first helps to keep the juices and blood inside the piece, ensuring it doesn't leak out into the stew with impurities and cooked blood spoiling the gravy.

The health benefits of bone-in stews and curries can be further supplemented with fresh crunchy vegetables towards the end of the cooking process. The easiest way to do this is to partially boil vegetables like pumpkin, potato, root crops and green beans first. Once the stew is more than half way cooked, add the vegetables for the last 30 minutes of cooking time. This way, your dish has crunchy and fibrous vegetables that have also retained all their nutrition.

Today's two recipes for a new curry and stew will be welcome changes at the dinner table, and any leftovers can be easily reheated the following day. I have been invited by the Ministry of Health to present a healthy cooking session with the staff of Veiseisei Health clinic at Vuda in the Western Division later next month to demonstrate healthy recipes like these. This venue has enormous significance for Fijians as it is the site of the first landing where the first seafaring Austronesian travellers settled on the islands. Learning to identify the good foods and bad foods will help the health professionals teach the local people new recipes and better understanding of how food and diet plays an enormous role in addressing and preventing NCDs. It is ironic that the new lessons to be learned about the possible causes of today's modern diseases are deeply rooted in Fiji's ancient past and the way the ancestors used to eat.

* Lance Seeto is the executive chef, author and television presenter based on Castaway Island Fiji. Follow his adventures at his Facebook page "Fijian Food Safari".