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Preservation techniques: Making food last longer

Zubin Dsouza
Somewhere in the late nineteenth century a couple of intrepid Egyptologists cracked open the entrance to an ancient tomb tucked within a pyramid that lay in the famous Valley of the Kings. As was to be expected, a huge chunk of the original treasures were missing having been laid to waste by grave robbers.
The shards of pottery left behind as well as the numerous hieroglyphics were something that excited these men of learning anyway and to them represented the true treasures and clues to a civilisation gone by.
Curiosity turned to amazement as they opened jar after jar filled with anthropological treasures and were truly left stupefied when they came across a six-thousand-year vat of honey that still was fit for consumption.
They conjectured all manners of reason as they needed to know how the honey had stayed good! It was a little too early for science to admit that honey was the only food that never spoiled.
But the investigations into food preservation techniques had gone on almost forever. Making food last has been something that has intrigued the human race since its inception.
It is our primal instincts that kick in and our need to survive. We know we can’t survive without food and cling on to every available resource for as long as we can.
Attempts have been made since we first left the primordial swamp and we still continue to research alternative techniques that could help food last longer, outwit rot and stave off hunger.
Neanderthals needed to preserve food to tide over harsh winters or when animals moved away during seasonal migrations that made game scarce. Vikings preserved food so they could undertake long voyages and explorations of the new world unhindered.
People all over the world for one reason or the other needed to use preservation techniques to ensure that the food they owned did not spoil faster than they were able to consume it or would at least last till the next harvest season.
Preservation techniques encouraged civilisations to exist. Normally food starts spoiling from the moment it is harvested or an animal has been hunted down. Sometimes a change in seasons can spur on the spoilage process leaving one rather lean in the months when harvests or game is scarce. When food can be made to last longer, people could cease their wandering life and settle down in a place and be part of a community.
The first preservation process that people found was drying. It drained out the moisture leaving absolutely nothing for bacteria or microbes to thrive on. Drying used a combination of the sun and the wind and folks in the bygone era like the Romans went about drying almost anything that they could lay their hands on – fish, meats, fruits and vegetables. In certain places when the sun wasn’t readily available, small structures were created with a fire placed right in the centre to facilitate the drying process. The smoky flavour obtained from the use of fires made the food even more palatable and simultaneously propelled smoking as one of the favourite methods of preservation.
Coastal civilisations realised that when they hung their fish out to dry, the salt that clung on acted as a natural preservative and speeded up the process of drying food. Salting was an important method of preservation that has lasted well into modern times.
For most landlocked habitats, salt was a very expensive commodity and alternative methods had to be experimented with. Burying food was quite a popular method and done especially for cabbage and root vegetables. The comparatively cool temperatures of the sub-surface coupled with a lack of light and oxygen made it quite a popular method.
To even the most rudimentary of our ancestors, it was clear that food tended to last longer in the cold. People started freezing or chilling food by making sure that they were being stored in caves or cold streams and sometimes buried under snow and frost.
When a container of grain was left out one day, it got filled with rainwater and beer was made. Our quick-thinking ancestors immediately realised that this was a great way of preserving food and making it more nutritious. Unfortunately, they were still on the cusp of developing the kind of intellect that we now possess because they never thought of opening up pubs back then. However fermentation and brewing as preservation techniques were here to stay.
It was the discovery of beer that made our ancestors turn towards developing an agrarian society but preserving grains and vegetables came with their own challenges.
Rice used to spoil faster in the old days because the oils present in the bran used to go rancid. Milling sorted that issue out immediately and we now have packets of polished rice stored everywhere that can last us for years.
Then we stumbled across the creation of pickling and making preserves where housewives correctly observed that adding sugar or salt could alter the acidic-alkaline balance and create a hostile environment for bacteria thus making food last longer.
Emperor Napoleon who coined the famous remark that an army marches on its stomach spurred the invention of canning which has in some cases allowed food to not spoil for about a hundred years (of course it helped that the cans were trapped in the Arctic circle).
We have made major strides in food technology where we now have short and quick bursts of irradiation that preserves food for longer.
I am not a fan of the technology because I fear that we may witness a mini-Chernobyl and turn into two-headed mutants. The rest however can make food seem even more palatable than what one would normally achieve.

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