To combat food waste: let’s take a look at our fridge

— Anh NGUYEN

There is nothing dumber than the food waste problem that humans are facing. 

There is nothing more frustrating, horrendous, outrageous than to put so much energy and resources to produce, to transform, to store food and then throw them away. 

Satellite image of green crop fields in Kansas the US using an intensive farming technique
We’ve changed the surface of the Earth to produce food – only to throw a third of it away. Satellite image of circular crop fields in Haskell County, Kansas, in late June 2001. Source

In this video Food waste is the world’s dumbest problem by Vox – kudos to those who came up with this title – they point out simple ways to fight this, applied to people living in big cities who don’t have time for anything. 

A side note: The Urban Monk could be a good book for busy people living in big cities to start changing their eating habit. In this book, Doctor Pedram Shojai gives you evidence of the old saying “you are what you eat”, and how come young professionals in big cities can eat as much salad as they want and still have the vitality level of a sloth. (Nothing against sloths though, they don’t live in big cities or have office jobs. Here are 10 incredible facts about sloths, in case you want to read more on these incredible creatures).

A slot looking straight into the camera on a tree
Hi there…Source

But I digress. Food. Waste

Bigger is not better

What are the simple ways to reduce food waste, according to Vox? First thing first, reduce the size of the refrigerator.

Current home refrigerators have increased in size since the 70s, giving consumers more space to store their food. This leads to the fact that they have a tendency to just fully stock the fridge, one thing upon another – so they forget about what they’ve bought and the food goes expired. Out of sight, out of mind, out to the trash bin. 

I find this to be quite bizarre: also because we have more storage space, we put in the fridge what has been totally fine without being kept chilled before. Worse, they can even become less tasty being put in the cold. A gastronomical disaster. A waste of energy. 

Foods you should never refrigerate google search
My quick search on Google, a lot of people must be confused with the usage of fridge, there are 345 million search results on “which food should not be put in the fridge”. Who stores bread in the fridge though? And potatoes and onions and garlic? What IS going on?
Example of things and food people put in a fridge
Saw this on Wikipedia, why are you putting bananas in a fridge? Source

Maybe it is time that fridge designers and their marketing team worked on reducing the size of our fridges (Yes, marketing team as well, because these smaller fridges are not going to sell themselves.) Maybe instead of waiting for those manufacturers to even bat an eye at this problem, we consumers can learn to live without a fridge. 

I tested this during 8 months when living in Paris: I turned off my fridge because it made too much noise during the night. This means I had to buy food more often than once per week, because there was no longer a storage option. If I bought cottage cheese, I had to consume it all in one go (I didn’t mind). If it was pressed cooked cheese, I could conserve it in a cold dark place for 2 days. I skipped on the butter though. None of the vegetables needs to be put into the refrigerator anyway so we’re good. If I wanted a cold beer or a glass of Chardonnay, I put them all outside the window for at least one hour in the evening, which did the job during chilling months. Basically, it is possible. And you probably will eat much fresher food. 

If you opt for a badass way to store your food, an icehouse made of stone is an option worth looking at. These structures include “underground chambers, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes” or built “with various types of insulation” such as straw or sawdust.

A sketch of an icehouse structure to store ice and food in the US
Structure of an ice house – “During Washington’s time, the coldest days at Mount Vernon were used to harvest…ice”. Source
A plan of an 18th century Ice House found in Sundrige Park, Kent, England
Plan of an 18th century Ice House found at Sundridge Park, Bromley, Kent, England. “Its function was to hold a volume of ice for domestic use during the summer months and also as a cold-storage chamber for meat, game and similar perishable foodstuffs”. Source

I visited one in the chateau of Beaumesnil in Normandy, France that is no longer in use, but my friends at the École des semeurs turned it into a private concert hall due to its perfect dome structure. Even in June when it’s quite warm outside, it’s at least 5 to 10°C colder inside the ice house. 

The outside of a domed Ice house in Florence, Italy.
A domed Ice house from outside – Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy. Source: Ghiacciaia

A side note: Persian engineers produced ice in the desert by 400BCE by building Yakhchāl (“ice pit” in Persian). Here’s a quite complete guide of how it works. 

Illustration of a Yakhchāl structure in Iran
Structure of a Yakhchāl. It’s huge: 11m x 11m. Source: Max Fordham

Yakhchāl is immensely cool but it seems too complex to build without slavery. Ice house requires quite a few land and materials to install. But this DIY evaporative cooler – as explained here in this guide – can be a much simpler option.

Illustration of how a Zeer Pot works
Explanation of how this evaporative cooler, called Zeer Pot, works: “Food is stored in the inner pot which can be covered by a wet towel or a lid. As the water evaporates from the wet sand, it cools the inner pot and its contents.” Source
How a Zeer Pot works to preserve food like sweet peppers and tomatoes
Zeer Pot looks like this in real life. This page (in French) gives you a step-by-step. Source

Preserved food

There are several main ways to preserve food, either through storage in specific conditions (physical), through fermentation (chemical) or by making a fruit jam (as the name indicates, this is mostly applied to fruits).

Ancient storage techniques 

Root crops can be kept up to 6 months in the sand. In this guide, you’ll find different ways to store root crops with sand, including storing them directly in the ground, building a root cellar or even using broken refrigerators (hah!).

Store vegetables in sand as food preservation technique
Root crop stored in the sand (Guide here)
Root cellar to store and preserve food and vegetables for several months
Root cellar – meaning an underground cellar to store root crops in controlled temperature (1°-3°C) and steady but extreme humidity (90–95%). Source
What to do with a broken fridge
Don’t worry honey, your fridge can still store food. Source

Fermentation

Fermentation is a universe in itself. In fancy terms, it means “a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes”. 

Gif I know some of these words
Metabolic what?

In more common terms, it means your food normally will turn sour, but still consumable and can be kept longer than its non-fermented state. Why? Because organic molecules (normally glucose) are converted into acids, gases, or alcohol in the absence of oxygen or any electron transport chain

Simplified illustration of the Fermentation process
Illustration of a (simplified) fermentation process (source)
Overview of fermentation process of fruits and vegetables using different ingredients from the thesis Fermented Fruits and Vegetables of Asia: A Potential Source of Probiotics
Really cool: overall fermentation process of fruits and vegetables using different ingredients. This graph is from the thesis “Fermented Fruits and Vegetables of Asia: A Potential Source of Probiotics”. Source

Fermented food is what we consume on a daily basis: beer, wine, bread, yoghurt, cheese, chocolate, miso, pickles, Tabasco sauce (what?) etc. Here’s a list of fermented foods on Wikipedia worth checking out.  

Kimchi made with fermented vegetables and various seasonings is buried underground for long-term preservation
Kimchi – made with fermented vegetables and various seasonings, is buried underground for long-term preservation. Source
Fruit kefir jars to preserve fruits
Fruit kefir – not my cup of tea, but it is said to do wonders to your intestines. I opened a bottle of fruit kefir once and the cork shot straight to the ceiling, as well as half of the bottle, but no one was killed. Source

I came across this article on Low-Tech magazine on Vietnamese fermentation technique, where the author takes me back to the delice of dua chua, fish sauce, shrimp paste…A moment of pride in silence.

Although food spoils much faster in a tropical climate, the Vietnamese will often store it without refrigeration, and instead take advantage of controlled decay.

Aaron Vansintjan – Low-Tech Magazine
Dua chua is made from fermentation of veggies with a lot of salt and a bit of rice vinegar, sold in open markets in Vietnam
Dua chua – roughly translated to “sour veggies” – is made from fermentation of veggies with a lot of salt and a bit of rice vinegar, sold in open markets in Vietnam. Source
A traditional Fish sauce factory in Phu Quoc, Vietnam
Fish sauce is fish fermented with salt only, and up to 2 years. Source
Shrimp paste fermented with only salt for several weeks in Vietnam
Love it or hate it, shrimp paste is commonly used across South East Asia. Shrimps or krills are crushed and fermented with only salt for several weeks. Put this holy sauce next to fried tofu and you got a wonderful treat of Bun dau mam tom! Source

Fruit preserves

There are so many different variations around the world when it comes to fruit preserves. I made a table here to make our lives easier. 

Variations DefinitionIllustration
CheongSweetened foods in Korean cuisine. The name means “crafted honey” to describe human-made syrups.

To make Cheong, you wash the vegetable or fruit of choice – put in a jar – add sugar – wait – remove the vegetable – wait that’s it. (Guide in French here). No cooking needed. 

This practice is also common in other Asian countries (Vietnam, China, Japan…) 

(source)
ChutneyCondiments or sauces in the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. Similar in preparation and usage to a pickle, simple spiced chutneys can be dated to 500 BC. 

They are almost always spicy. Chilli or chilli powder is one of the main ingredients. Adding sugar is optional and the amount is very little if added.

In India, chutney refers to fresh and pickled preparations indiscriminately; however, several Indian languages use the word for fresh preparations only. 

(source)
Confit (or jam)The past participle of the French verb confire, “to preserve“, is most often applied to the preservation of meats, it is also used for fruits or vegetables seasoned and cooked with honey or sugar till jam-like.

Confit is a cooking term describes when food is cooked in grease, oil or sugar water (syrup), at a lower temperature of 90°C

(source)
Conserve (or whole fruit preserves)Traditional whole fruit preserves are particularly popular in Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus)

Often the making of conserves can be trickier than making a standard jam, it requires cooking or sometimes steeping in the hot sugar mixture for just enough time to allow the flavour to be extracted from the fruit, and sugar to penetrate the fruit, and not cooking too long such that the fruit will break down and liquify.

Not suitable for fruits with tough skin, due to short cooking time.

(source)
Jelly (or gelée in French)Similar to jam, with an additional step of adding extra liquid (or gelatine or pectin) and filtering out the fruit pulp.

(source)
MarmaladeA fruit preserve made from the juice and peel of citrus fruits boiled with sugar and water. 

The word “marmalade” is borrowed from the Portuguese marmelada, from marmeloquince‘.

(source)
Ô maiÔ mai (meaning black apricot in Vietnamese), is a medicine in the traditional medicine of some countries such as Vietnam and China, but now it has more the meaning of “preserved fruits”. 


The Chinese prepare it as follows: harvest the almost ripe apricots, then place them in macerated straw ash until they are ripe and finally they are dried in the sun.


The Vietnamese steam the almost ripe apricots to soften them and dry them in the sun 3 or 4 times. After drying, they impregnate them with bồ-hóng (type of fruit) juice and then bring them back to drying, and repeat this procedure several times. Another way to do this is to dry the green apricots in the kitchen to reach the black color.


Nowadays, ô mai means dried preserved fruits in a larger sense, and you can make ô mai out of any fruit available in South East Asia and add salt, sugar, chillies, ginger and other spices to your liking. 


Ô mai can be kept for years in your pantry.


Traditional ô mai from apricot (source)



Ô mai made from lemon and green rice (cốm)

I find this fascinating: when omitting one obvious option (e.g the fridge), we will be introduced with new constraints that eventually lead to a myriad of other alternatives, and each alternative itself will offer you a universe of options and techniques. 

If you are particularly interested in fermentation, I recommend this book on the Art of Fermentation (praised as “the most comprehensive guide to DIY home fermentation ever published“). This could be a good start to step up our pantry game.

Book the Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Ratz : an exploration of essential concepts and processes around the world
The Art of Fermentation: An in-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Source

If you want to read further on this topic:

Beyond zero-waste restaurants: celebrate local yields

To combat food waste: let’s take a look at our fridge

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