It’s no wonder Hispanics are notorious for bad health when you consider the kind of stuff that we eat. As a culture, we’re known for food that is loaded with fat and carbs – everything can be fried after all, but whatever is not fried is heavily laced with sugar. Sweet and oily that’s how we roll.
It took me years to get my very Cuban grannie to stop frying everything, to get her away from the grease kettle thing that she loved to overuse, and to get her to stop adding sugar to milk. I started complaining about the way we ate when I was a kid, but who was going to listen to a 10-year-old’s nutrition advice? It was around the time that I was in middle school that I finally started to see some change happening–my grandmother started cutting down on the maduros and reduced the amount of oil she used to cook. Though we had reduced our salt intake around the time that my mom was diagnosed with hypertension (around ’93), it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with diabetes and my grandmother’s cholesterol became a problem that I finally saw them taking their diet seriously.
For the last few years, brown rice has replaced white, olive oil has replaced corn and used sparingly, more vegetables have been introduced, as well as leaner meats. I tend to cook for myself because of my work schedule, so I have more control over what I eat. It’s been a slow process, but we’ve all learned to eat better.
So what got me to think about this today? I’ve been trying to control my weekend eating with the BF (and yes, I know you might be reading this). But what really got me started was my trip to the grocery store this morning. I was picking up some flour for the Mother’s Day meal that I’m going to prepare on Sunday when I came across a package of Panela. This stuff is a “new” discovery for me. I say “new” because I’ve been aware of the little round blocks of hardened brown sugar, but it’s not something that Cubans eat, so I never really paid much attention to it. I became aware of this stuff recently, as the BF’s grannie mentions it often. At first, I thought that there was something more to it, but Panela is just hard unrefined sugar. The one I saw at the store today read “100% brown cane sugar” on the ingredients list. It’s just brown sugar. It has no nutritive value whatsoever.
According to the Wiki, the stuff that I’ve heard her mention is aguapanela:
Aguapanela is made by melting fragments of panela in water and stirring until the fragments are entirely dissolved. The drink may be served hot or cold, with lemon or lime often being added. In the hot form, sometimes milk or a chunk of cheese is added in place of fruit juice.
Aguapanela is the traditional drink served with many dishes in the colombian cuisine, especially in the paisa region, such as to accompany the bandeja paisa and the sancocho soup, and it is often also served alone as a thirst quencher.
Many claims have been made about the beneficial effects of aguapanela, based on beliefs such as having more vitamin C than orange juice or as many rehydrating minerals as Gatorade. Popular belief also considers it a helpful drink for the treatment of colds.
Since panela is a relatively cheap, locally produced food, most of the poor people in Colombia, especially the peasants, obtain the majority of their caloric intake from it. In many cases panela and small amounts of rice and plantain are the only foods available, due to the scarcity and high prices of other products rich in proteins, such as meat and milk.
I can understand now why she believes this is a valuable nutrient; however, it’s just as bad as my grandmother’s obsession with adding milk to sugar — she too thought this was good for me when I was a kid.
I have to admit, I’m a little fascinated by the cultural aspects and associations of certain foods.