Bit of a gripe, bit of a rant … I was after bulgur wheat and cocoa powder. Not for the same dish, I hasten to add. I thought both would be relatively easy to find in one or other of my two local supermarkets. I was wrong. Totally wrong. Neither had any bulgur, let alone a choice of fine or coarse. They had pre-mixed combinations of grains, gluten-free this and that, packets of seeds, quinoa, flavoured cereals and rows of so-called health bars—but no bulgur. Yet bulgur is a staple of Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, used in salads, stuffed into capsicums, made into pilaf, and much more.
It was the same story with cocoa. A pantry essential for anyone who bakes. On the shelves six, seven, eight varieties of drinking chocolate—whose main ingredient was sugar—but 100% cocoa powder was nowhere to be found.
I live in Pyrmont on the western edge of downtown Sydney. An area of about one square kilometre it is one of, if not the, most densely populated suburb in Australia. We have two supermarkets: Coles and a Woolworths Metro. Until recently we had an excellent IGA supermarket that as well as the big brands, also carried lines from smaller and independent producers. The Woolworth’s Metro that’s replaced the IGA is, to be blunt, a pretty crappy supermarket. Heavy on instant salads and ready-meals and low on single ingredient foods.
As I stood in the supermarket aisle, I realised that the kind of shop I wanted was one that no longer seems to exist. Wholefood stores and food co-ops with their sacks of loose beans and chick peas, lentils, buckwheat flour weighed to order, organic sultanas and unadulterated peanut butter, have gone. In their place shops selling canisters of vitamin supplements and protein powders.
A lot of what’s marketed as health food is heavily processed. Vegan ‘meat’ is an obvious example, but check the fine print on the back of products in the ‘health’ sections of supermarkets and see what that low-calorie, no added sugar snack actually contains. There’s a great article about the rise and rise of ultra-processed food in The Guardian: How Ultra-processed Food Took Over Your Shopping Basket by by culinary journalist Bee Wilson. Highly recommended.
‘Ultra-processed foods (or UPF) now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. UPFs are now simply part of the flavour of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed—and on sale in supermarkets everywhere.’
BTW I did eventually obtain both products. I ordered Dutch cocoa powder online and bought bulgur wheat from Harris Farm in the nearby Broadway shopping centre. I wanted the cocoa for chocolate and almond ricotta to accompany poached pears, and the bulgur for a Kurdish pilaf with tomatoes—a recipe I picked up forever ago from an anthropologist friend who’d done fieldwork in eastern Turkey.