Small matters

While the UK and Europe are battling over the Brexit process, it is easy to find yourself drawn into this like a moth to the bulb, spending hours thinking about pros and cons, and who said what.  Then there is a perpetual source of amusement coming from the USA, which generates reams of journalistic coverage and hours of entertainment.  It is easy to lose yourself in these things everyday.  But one day I took a look at my terrarium- and realised that there were small events happening daily in my own room that I ignored. Things that gave me joy and courage. And hope and happiness.

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A life was emerging and there were more signs of life to be found in my living room that I hadn’t acknowledged, like this Peace Lily from a pot that hasn’t bloomed for years.

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Then I realised there were big things also happening that could affect our life on the planet at the time when politicians appear to have taken centre stage.  Climate change threatens our entire existence and no one really seems to be paying any attention, despite the student protests on Fridays.  In December 2018, a meteorite came close to causing catastrophic damage to all forms of life when a force close to ten Hiroshima bombs was unleashed.  Except, thankfully this meteorite exploded over a water body and no one was hurt.  So I realise that when the immediate seems to capture and hold your attention, then try looking up into the heavens or inside your home.  There are things happening there which are far more meaning to your life and others.

 

 

 

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Mindful cooking and happy eating

I love cooking and even though I have a chronic illness and suffer from tiredness and pain, I feel it is something I can do and actually enjoy it!  So over the years, I have devised ways to cook well, easily and cheaply.  The money saving is essential because the ingredients I use are organic and fresh, and cost much more than conventional stuff. Also, obviously it has to be healthy cooking too.  So money has to be saved in other ways. So here are my top 20 tips. You may not agree with all of them and some of these go against ‘conventional wisdom’, so please feel free to comment below.

  1. Eat between the hours of 8-00 am and 8-00pm.  Apparently this the optimum time for food to be digested properly as the body clock starts slowing down. In fact, it starts to do that by 6-00pm but as I usually don’t finish work by then and have to cook from fresh, the food is not ready until about 7-30pm.  Try to make your first meal the biggest and the last one the smallest and don’t snack in between.
  2. Oil is one of the most expensive ingredients, so use it sparingly. It is also healthier to use less oil. On the other hand, I use butter and ghee for cooking too. I have found that these ingredients add a richness to bland starchy foods such as pasta, potato, breads and rice so that you end up eating less of such foods. A dollop of butter in pasta sauce adds amazing flavour.
  3. Put a lid in the food that is cooking- it makes it cook faster, save energy and therefore cheaper, and the flavours get locked into the food by doing so.
  4. Eat seasonally and fresh- so that the ingredients will be cheaper and have more flavour.  More flavour also mean that less salt and other condiments will be needed to make the food more tasty.
  5. I don’t agree with the concept of mise en place, i.e. getting all the ingredients ready and then cooking, for all types of cooking.  Stir frying is one example where this technique would be useful.  But the leaving the chopping until you are ready to cook is better as the ingredients are fresher.  I often let the oven or pan warm up while I am preparing the vegetables.
  6. We don’t eat ready prepared desserts anymore. Not only are they expensive, wrapped in plastic but also do not taste nice.  We might have healthier desserts such as fruits or my homemade yoghurt or even a piece of dark chocolate.
  7. This trick I learnt from my grandmother- no more than three flavours together.  This gives such a clean but tasty flavour.
  8. We have at least one component of the meal that helps with digestion as I have real problems. So we can have yoghurt or fermented vegetables (kimchi) or sauerkraut along with the main course.
  9. The bulk of the food is vegetables, with about 30% meat or other protein.
  10. Clean up as you go along, putting away items in the dishwasher/sink for washing and removing peels and other waste from the work surface. It makes tidying up later much easier.  One pot cooking is marvellous- so much less to wash up and also saves money.
  11. I cook in steps. So I might marinade something a day earlier or defrost something couple of day earlier and so on. Some of the cooking such as gravy or fried vegetables might have been made earlier.
  12. Always have something in the freezer that can be defrosted the day before so that you can eat as soon as you can, instead of rushing to get a chilled meal from the supermarket.  It has been many years since I’ve had a supermarket meal and now if I have a small mouthful, I realise how ghastly they taste.  I suppose our tastebuds get used to such food and only until you’ve had a good long break, that you realise that these foods have no flavour at all- mostly salt and sugar to give it some.
  13. Find ways to reduce food waste.  So I use the potato skins, broccoli stems, bottoms of lettuce, carrot or radish leaves, etc. (I will put some recipes later on).IMG_4358.JPG Even with meat, there is hardly any waste- only after using the bones to make broth, I throw them away.  I don’t have a big composter (I have a home made composter which can only handle a small amount each time) or a garden, but our bodies are the best composters.  Avoiding buying foods that have parts that need to be thrown away is also good.  But some are inevitable such as lemons and bananas. So I will use the skins of the lemons for making washing up liquid or lemon zest. Banana skins can be used for polishing shoes and wood but I don’t like the smell and these skins tend to be my biggest throw aways. If you have a garden composter, then you can be a bit more wasteful.
  14. You can wash out ketchup, jam and sauce bottles with water and add that flavoured water to soups or curries. Then your bottle is also ready for recycling. Soups are nourishing and filling- you tend to eat less if you have the liquid and solid together as with soup.
  15. Many bloggers advise buying in bulk. I live in a flat and there is little space to store sacks of grains or pasta. Also I have found that spices lose their flavour if kept for too long. So buy little and often. It might be more expensive but it is better value.
  16. I have problems cutting hard vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes. So I bake them whole and make soups or mashes out of those.  The seeds can be dried and eaten.
  17. This is a great trick I learnt- if some of the ingredients have been in the fridge and freezer, take them out so that they are at room temperature before you cook them. Not only does it save energy but also improves flavour.
  18. I get my vegetables and meat delivered from the farm- local, seasonal and fresh. This saves me trudging from the supermarket carrying bags of shopping which I can’t really do.  It is also expensive. I can plan out the meal for the week depending on what I receive- so it also saves time and money.  Also there is less packaging to deal with as these come with hardly any and if they do, they are taken away by the delivery company. One less thing to do!
  19. I try not to have drinks with food. I keep them separate.  Juices can be expensive. Water is good enough!
  20. Finally, try to eat mindfully with those you love. My uncle used to say that food eaten in good company always tastes better!

Living an ecological life with long term illness- part I

I suffer from an incurable debilitating illness which can suddenly cause blood clotting. It has given me five miscarriages and a stroke while also causing tiredness and pain on a daily basis.  You may find I don’t post regularly- this is why.  So I work flexibly from my home and go out only when there are meetings with other colleagues.  While restricting my income and ambitions considerably, in some ways, it has also been a gift.  I’ve had to learn to save money, find ‘easy’ ways of going about daily life and while doing so, I found that I could also be ecological.

For one, before I start, I can’t live a ‘zero waste’ life style- I have waste that can’t be recycled or re-used easily for contamination reasons, for example plastic blister packs with foil backs, bandaging, wipes, etc.  I also need to regularly clean areas such as the bathroom and toilet and throw the wipes.  So here is a photo of a small bag of such items- for scale, I have put the fork next to the bag. This is rubbish that is non organic and can’t be composted that I have collected in one month that will need to be thrown ( I will save the bag for another use once I have thrown the contents).

IMG_4397.JPGBut you might agree that this is a very small amount for a month, right?

Being ill and being ecological are not mutually exclusive- there are many things one can do.  For those who are lucky to be perfectly healthy, these will work even better.  So here are the ideas that I have been using for many years.

  1. Keep your horizontal surfaces clean and clear and get rid of (or store) small items that need constant dusting. This is the quickest way to appear tidy!  I have used a sheep skin duster which I’ve had for about 25 years for this. This duster can be washed using the dishwasher liquid (see below). Some linen scraps are also good for dusting but not for wiping.
  2. I have found that cotton cloths from old clothes, particularly underwear, can be cut up and used for wiping.  Old clean socks are also good for cleaning and you can put your hand inside the sock to get to difficult areas such as window blinds and corners. I never buy kitchen paper, dish cloths or any other kind of cleaning cloths or wipes.
  3. I don’t use wipes for cleaning toilets- I spray tap water using an old spray bottle and then wipe clean with toilet paper which can be flushed away.  Wipes have been known to clog up sewerage systems in London and should not be used. Spray bottles containing water and perhaps a few drops of tea tree oil and lavender are lovely to use and help to combat infection while keeping the area smelling beautifully.
  4. I make my own dish cleaning liquid the lazy way.IMG_4277.JPGThis made by soaking orange or lemon peels in vinegar for about 4-6 weeks and then adding half measure of washing up liquid. This is less expensive than using pure washing up liquid and also smells lovely apart being very effective.  The peels can be used to clean the sink or oven surface and then either composted or thrown- they are quite reduced in mass after all this.
  5. You can tidy up a small areas daily as and when needed– the most used areas get untidier faster.  I tidy up the living/dining areas and kitchen as they are used the most and also tend to hoover the stairs. Then there isn’t a huge big tidy up needed if people turn up. If I see a place that is dusty or untidy, then I dust or tidy it- I don’t have a regular schedule. I find that most of the time, visitors don’t notice anything!
  6. I use an Indian grass broom, Jharu, to clean the floor.  Unless the there are difficult to reach places which necessitate the use of the vacuum cleaner which can be difficult for me to manoeuvre, I use the Jharu.  These can be found in Indian shops (there are ‘Western equivalents’ but not as effective).  IMG_4402.JPG
  7. I haven’t bought bin bags for years, I simply use the bags/packets I get from my grocery shopping to put rubbish as these would have to be thrown anyway.  So, for example, the frozen fish comes in plastic bags which can’t be recycled, so I use them as bin bags.  (For those who ask why I don’t take my own container to the fishmonger, I don’t buy ‘fresh’ fish anymore because they are least fresh. Unless you’ve caught them yourself, most of these so called fresh fish are actually defrosted fish and they start to decompose when displayed at the fishmonger’s shop window. These fresh fish are also more expensive.)  My recycled toilet paper also comes in plastic packaging but I use that plastic as a larger bin bag.
  8. As another example of ‘secondary use‘, I use water left from cleaning other things to use for more cleaning before throwing it.  So if I clean out my dishwashing liquid bottle, then the water from that can be used to clean the sink or washbasin.  Shampoo bottles can be rinsed before recycling and that water used to clean the bathtub.  Rice or lentil water, i.e. water used for cleaning these, can be used to clean low grease items such as the sink or plates.
  9. Don’t be afraid of using the dishwasher- the modern dishwashers are energy and water efficient and can be quicker and better than hand washing.  Some of my utensils that are cast iron or brass hand me downs from my maternal grandmother need to be hand washed and I use the left over hot water from making tea or coffee to wash them.
  10. I buy clothes that don’t need dry-cleaning and even if the label says ‘Dry cleaning’ I will try to use the washing machine on it.  I have spoilt a few clothes, I admit, but by not using the dry cleaners, I have made much of a saving!
  11. I generally use the washing machines at the lowest possible setting for the shortest time– usually about 53 minutes at 30C for clothes and 27 minutes for the dishwasher. Once in awhile, I will put a cup of vinegar and turn on the dishwasher for the highest temperature setting- this gives it a good clean.  You can also do this for the clothes washing machine using a three table spoons of bicarb.
  12. I have a steam cleaner that I use for deep cleaning the bathroom.  This doesn’t need any chemicals and while doing the cleaning, I get the benefit of steaming my face and nose too along with some exercise.
  13. My cleaning equipment is very basic as I can’t lift much and my supplies are limited to Sodium bicarbonate, soda crystals, vinegar, eco-friendly laundry liquid and dish washing liquid.  I do use a small amount of bleach from time to time to disinfect and to clear stains.  To keep the sink pipes clean, put down some bicarbonate and then some vinegar (it will fizz) and then pour down a kettle of hot water.
  14. I don’t follow the advice, ‘If it is brown, flush it down; if it yellow, let it mellow.’ I found that my toilet bowls get stained if pee is left around too long and so I do flush- it is better than having to use bleach later to remove stains.  Dental tablets are excellent for removing limescale from toilets- I chuck couple of these and after half an hour or so, the toilet is free from lime scale.
  15. Finally, remembering that fresh air and sunlight are one of the best germ and insect killers and deodorisers.  Strong can also bleach away stains. Even in winter, I try to ‘air’ and sun the rooms when it is not raining.  Airing also helps to get rid of dust mites on the bed before it is remade.

As a quote attributed to Albert Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made simple, but not any simpler.’  My home is not minimalist– there are things that bring me joy and I keep them. So the tidying and cleaning is made simple but not any simpler so that the joys of seeing and remembering is lost in extreme minimalism.

Too much cleaning can be bad for health too- and not just from the work.  As a BBC report tells us, ‘being too clean is also wrong, because it might help cause asthma and allergies. So is there a balance between keeping obsessively clean and learning to live with the bacteria all around us?’  Quite so, that is the middle way which we can discover for ourselves, for our particular life styles.

Choices, checks and balances

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I have been asked to give a talk later on this month about ethical supply chains in the construction industry. This got me thinking about such issues with many other areas of everyday life, for instance buying food and clothes- it doesn’t have to be with just big industries, small actions count too.  But it is so difficult to make ethical choices these days with so many categories- organic, fairly traded, locally produced, low food miles, low carbon, etc., etc.  It is a minefield.  Plus choices based on values are always more difficult than ones based on some measurable or visible quality.  So how does one choose?

Recently I have stopped buying organic bananas from my local superstore, opting instead for their ‘Rainforest Alliance certified’ bananas.  My reason?  These bananas come without any packaging apart from the paper stickers that can be recycled easily.  The Rainforest Alliance encourages environmentally and socially responsible management of forests, tree farms, and forest resources in many poor countries. But their production is not as rigorous as organically produced bananas- organic agriculture has a slightly different angle.  Of course on another note, usually bananas are flown in thereby contributing to food miles, whether they are organic or not.  The organic bananas that I can order from my vegetable delivery service costs 50% more and I have to wait for the once a week delivery.  But then if we stop eating them, are we depriving the people who grow them of economic and social benefits such as basic livelihood, education, etc.?  What should be our priorities based on the beauty, goodness and benefit values along with the Middle way that I have written about?

I thought of different steps to follow through in our everyday buying process that could encourage ‘ethical supply chains’ in our everyday life.  A ‘no’ response to each question should make you think twice about buying that product! I have used this for my banana buying as an example.

Step One– Do you really need to buy this item? Distinguish between wants and needs.  Does this item satisfy your needs and suit your lifestyle (especially with clothes)?  Does it appeal to most of your senses– touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste? Apparently 80% of a woman’s wardrobe lies unused- think about how much money is being wasted in the wardrobes of people all over the world! [Answer- I really love bananas- they are packed with minerals and are a low carb snack between meal or after exercise]

Step Two- Can you afford it? If not, can you wait for it- perhaps the price might come down in a sale?  Buying on credit can be an option only if you are savvy with money issues (and able to juggle credit cards without paying fees) but for most people, if you haven’t got the money, don’t buy it!

Is it durable if you are thinking about any non food item?  Sometimes it is better to opt for durability over sustainability.  The planned obsolescence, especially in electronic goods, is one thing to think about- I once costed out the true price of an iPhone which worked out to be £75 per hour if you keep getting a new one every year.  My hardy little Nokia is still going strong, showing no signs of low battery life even after seven years of use but the iPhone, which I regrettably bought last year, has already started showing problems. And I am not going to buy another one again.  Again my Braun electrical toothbrush has been going for more than ten years while the Colgate and Phillips toothbrushes bought couple of years ago are showing signs of the battery running out.  While I will dispose of all these electronic items responsibly, they haven’t provided the value for money or the environment that works for me.  (PS- I am not being paid by Nokia or Braun to write this!) It seems companies are making us throw things out earlier and earlier. [Answer- yes, I can afford to buy the bananas, it is cheaper than the organic ones and I can choose how many I want unlike the packaged organic ones, so that there is no waste]

Step ThreeIs it produced with minimal harm either to any life form or the environment? This is about goodness.  There is no production that is zero carbon but we can all learn to buy good produced with minimal harm such as organic and or fair-traded (or Rainforest certified).  Similarly locally produced goods will have low air miles but then you won’t be supporting a women’s coop in Tanzania- only you can decide what your choice must be at that time. Companies that support their workers by giving them adequate salaries and other amenities are a good choice.  In  London, another issue that has come up with home deliveries is the pollution and traffic problems being caused by van drivers, so if you can walk and get it- best!

Finally this is the packaging issue that really bugs me- it is also related with doing minimum harm and responsible disposal.  Buy stuff with no or easily recyclable packagingit is no point getting something in a polystyrene packaging with the recycling logo on it if there is nowhere you can recycle it!  I once had pen delivered with miles of bubble wrap- see below- and then the same company delivered china plates with hardly any packaging so that most of the plates were smashed up!

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But I do take umbrage with excessive packaging- whether the item is organic or not.  Some companies have managed to reduce their packaging after complaints. I have stopped buying from one company that supports local farmers because of the amount of packaging they use. [Answer- yes, I can walk to get these bananas and they don’t come with any annoying packaging]

Basic principles of the Middle way

Many of the vlogs and books I have seen are about living in extremes. I recently watched a video where a woman and man live in a small but extremely tidy house amongst forests with no electricity, gas or mains water.  They do not use any modern appliances and even write with pens.  Their house is filled with antique leather backed books. They cook in the only fireplace they have and wear clothes which look like they belong to the 18th century.  This is great but if you have a job, live in the city, untidy children or pets, etc. how do you achieve this tranquility of an ‘Amish life’? Can we really live like this unless we have the backup of garden or forest from where we forage or grow food or have some passive income?

Bea Johnson who has written about the ‘Zero Waste’ life lives in an extremely large house which is very tidy but then it is large enough to absorb the stuff that her family has, so it looks very minimalist.  I have many questions about her home- for instance, I see that she has two children but she only shows us the minimalist wardrobe of only one of them.  But I am still inspired by her and think that she is doing a lot of good. Long before Bea Johnson started talking about her basic premise of Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot, in my work I was using similar words except for the first and last ones.  My basic premise for being ecological is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Reward.  In reality, Refuse is another aspect of ‘Reduce’.  As far as ‘Rot’ is concerned, I do compost (and I will put a blog post on how to do this without buying a composter, worms or any other kit) but as I do not have a garden my composting is limited.  But as I reduce the amount of food scraps or food waste to almost nothing, there is no need for composting.  If everyone were to reduce their needs as well as their waste, we would not have the ecological problems we see today.  We’d also be healthier by eating a little less and not stressing about paying for unnecessary things. By reward, I refer to little treats costing nearly nothing that comes with living a low impact life such as the joy of sharing a hot chocolate and having a laugh with friends and family, knowing that you have little to worry about. Reward could also be about complimenting or sending thanks to people or organisations that help you live a balanced and good life- and you never know, it might encourage them to do even better!

As I lead a very busy life, all the things I do had to be easy to do, cheap and available and needed to be self sustaining without much maintenance.  So here comes the ‘Middle way’ which is for me is about living a good life with as little harm to others as possible.  As long as we live, we are consuming and producing waste- lets not fool ourselves that a perfectly zero waste lifestyle is possible.  Even a monk or a nun living in a monastery is producing waste and consuming things.  There are so many Ted Talks with speakers holding up a trophy jar with bits of plastic and foil in it, who declare, ‘That’s my waste for the entire year!’ Really? That is not true- that person must have many other types of waste including bodily, food waste and other things that they’ve recycled or composted.  That is the reality of human life- we create waste as part of our time on this planet.  So lets just try our best to reduce it and be responsible for our own waste.  There is a triangular relationship between our health, money and the environment.  So if you walk a little bit more and use your car less, then you are saving money, improving your health and helping the environment- three benefits in one action. It is also good to remember this relationship with each decision making process that you take. So if you want to buy food, what is the kind of food that is healthy, good for the environment and also cheap?  For me, buying an organic vegetable box every week for about £10 and making it last as long as possible is doing all the three things.

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi about whom I have written previously propounded the theory of ‘Value Creation’ i.e. what kind of values are we creating.  Values, he said, were relative, not absolute- in other words, needs must as the phrase goes.  According to Makiguchi, there were three ways of creating value for the individual and society- beauty, benefit and goodness.  William Morris said, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ so here Makiguchi’s values of beauty and benefit (usefulness) have been covered. By ‘goodness’ Makiguchi meant sustainability or ecological values which Morris, perhaps as it was not relevant in his time, did not allude to. As Makiguchi’s values are always relative to the situation, there is no need to compete or do things in set way.  As long as you are doing something, however small, it counts.  You can then take small steps until you can expand to doing bigger things. There is no need to throw everything out as in extreme Japanese minimalism or talk to your socks if they spark joy in you (KonMari method). Just do things your way in the manner that gives you the best life without harming anything.