The more research I do for the Live Below the Line Challenge, the more furious I get. The dichotomy between rich and poor, and how they interact with their food, really riles me up. On one hand, you have 2.2 billion people living a subsistence life on less than US$730 per annum; while rent in Sydney is often more than $700/week. It is almost impossible to live in Sydney and imagine what life is like for people attempting to survive in poverty.
The thing that upsets me the most are the diet fads. So many fad diets, like Paleo and Atkins, encourage people to eat less carbohydrates in a bid to “feel healthier” and “lose weight”. Recent research in Australia highlights the impact of these diets – average servings of grain based foods in Australia have fallen by nearly 30% since 2011.
Contrast this to the diet of someone living in poverty-stricken Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, etc. The staple foods in every poverty hit country are carbohydrates – rice, maize, corn, yams, potatoes, wheat, oats, etc. Why? Because they fill you up and provide a decent energy source. Meat is rare in poverty diets, as are fats and oils. Only the rich can afford to follow Paleo or Atkins. Only the rich can afford to be gluten-free. Wouldn’t it be simpler, and less wasteful, if wealthy people just ate less, rather than spend more on fancier food that only gives you the dream of losing weight? And that’s without looking at the nutritional balance (or not) that you get from following a fad diet.
For people living in poverty, who can’t afford the luxuries of meat or even vegetables, these diets look completely absurd. And yet, how poor people eat shows the creativity of the human spirit even in the most desperate conditions. The variety of ways that simple foods are cooked around the world is staggering.
The Live Below the Line Challenge gives people in wealthy circumstances the opportunity to “feel” what it is like to cope with life on a miniscule budget. The idea is to eat on $2/day for five days – or $10 for fifteen meals.
With this minimal budget, coffee and alcohol are obviously out. A daily caffeine hit would use all the budget, and alcohol is just not possible, although if you really hunt for it, you can buy a bottle of clean skin (unlabelled) wine for less than $5. How do I know this? Bismark and I once set ourselves a challenge to find the cheapest bottle of wine that a particular family member would drink and say “Oh that’s really nice”. The current leader is Bismark at $3.99. Even if you can beat that, it’s not a wise spend of the budget!
My challenge was to create 15 meals from $10 using inspiration from the African continent.
This is how I spent my $10:
- 2 cans of tomatoes $1.18
- Noodles 5x85g $0.99
- 2 Plain Flour $1.50 (12 cups)
- 1kg Rolled Oats $0.99 (6 cups)
- 750g Split Peas $1.49 (2 cups)
- 500g ½ Cabbage $1.19
- 2 Onions $0.82
- 3 Carrots $1.23
- 1 chicken wing $0.45
While doing the research for this post, I walked around the supermarket and noted everything for under $2. You can buy a bulk packet of five packets of two minutes noodles for $1.20 – and the important part of this is that it allows you to buy flavours. All the spices are too expensive for a $10 budget (50g of pepper is $1.50, salt is 90c for 500g, and the others are much more), but the flavour sachets in two minute noodles are usually very strong so you can divide them between several meals and still add some taste. I created the broth first, as it could be kept for the whole five days, and used in several meals.
- 5 Lt water
- 3 flavour sachets from noodles
- 1 chicken wing
In your largest pot, boil 5 litres of water, 3 flavour sachets and the chicken wing. This broth can then be used each day for lunch by adding one packet of noodles, 1/2 a carrot (sliced or grated) and 1/5 of the cabbage. Boil until the noodles are soft, and then use a slotted spoon to take out the ingredients, leaving the broth behind. Spoon some of the broth over the noodles, and eat for lunch. Leave the chicken wing in there as long as you can – it will slowly fall off the bone and you can eat a little of the meat each day.
Nshima is a flavourless spongy carbohydrate dough that is eaten across most of Africa, and is cooked similar to porridge but with cornmeal flour. I’ve used the Zambian name, but the concept is the same everywhere. It is made from cornmeal flour and I really wanted to make some for this challenge, but cornmeal flour was just too expensive. By contrast, rolled oats are one of the cheapest bulk items at the supermarket with 750g costing $1. I measured out the 750g of rolled oats into cups, and it works out to 6 cups.
- 1 cup oats
- 1.5 cups water
To make basic porridge, one cup of oats and 1.5 cups of water cook together nicely. Ideally, you’d want to add a pinch of salt while cooking, and serve with a spoon of sugar and some milk. Salt (90c for 500g), sugar ($1/kg) and milk ($1/litre) are all fairly cheap, but on a limited budget it doesn’t seem wise to spend a whole dollar on sugar when you may not use it all. The kids were happy to eat plain porridge, and while it was boring, it is filling, so useful for breakfast, or as a side with dinner.
Savoury Oats - version 1
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 can of tomatoes
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 flavour packet from 2 min noodles
Place oats into a pot and heat so that they get toasted, then add 1 can of tomatoes and 1/2 cup of water. Once boiling, turn down to a low heat and simmer until the oats turn into porridge. Sprinkle the flavour packet over to create a savoury tomato dinner.
Savoury Oats - version 2
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 onion
- 1.5 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 flavour packet from 2 min noodles
Cook the onion over a gentle heat until it softens. As you don’t have any fat/oil, you’ll have to stir to stop it sticking. Then add chicken broth and oats to create porridge, then add half of the flavour satchet. This recipe would be great with mushrooms or spinach if you had them. You could put some of your cabbage, finely sliced, into this as well.
Split pea broth
In a large pot, add some chopped onion and carrot. Stir in some split peas and add some chicken broth (from your noodle soup). Cover and simmer for an hour (or longer) until the peas are soft and mushy. Puree with a blender to create a nice thick soup. Eat with flat bread on the side. Again, this would be gorgeous with some cracked pepper and sour cream, but you’ll just have to dream about that this week.
- 1 cup of flour
- 1/2 packet of salt flavour (from noodles)
- 150ml of warm water (about 2/3 cup)
- Most recipes use a tablespoon of olive oil, and I tried to render some fat off the chicken wing, but it was too small to get anything worthwhile, so I just went without.
Put the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the warm water and mix together with your hands until the dough is soft and elastic. Cover the bowl with a tea-towel and ignore (let it rest) for 15 minutes.
Roll the dough into a sausage shape and cut into 8 balls. Sprinkle some flour on your work bench and roll out each ball into a flat very thin circle (like a tortilla). Leave them for about 5 minutes.
Heat up a heavy based pan until hot, then turn down to a medium heat. Lay one flat bread in the pan. Cook for one minute, then flip and cook the other side for about 45 seconds. Repeat until you’ve done all eight.
Best eaten hot, but if they go old and hard, you can use them as croutons in a soup (such as your split pea broth).
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 cup water (you could use the broth from your soup for extra flavour)
These are basically the same as the flat breads, (similar method), but are crunchier and more filling due to the rolled oats. They remind me a little of ‘hard tack’ ie Anzac biscuits without the sweetness. However, they are filling when you are hungry, and if you dip them in the noodle broth, or split pea stew, they are quite edible with good texture. If you cook them long enough to brown (almost burnt), then they also get a good nutty flavour.