Radishes can be cooked, wrote Jane Grigson in 1978, but ‘they are rarely eaten with enthusiasm’.  If only she had lived longer. I can think of few vegetables that now provoke more enthusiasm than a cooked radish.  Where once they tasted like a turnip gone wrong, now they have stylish Korean overtones.

When you bite into a juicy roast radish – bleeding pink juices and sprinkled with coarse salt – it is as if you are experiencing this vegetable anew. It tastes like a modern summer.


It’s not as if there is anything new about radishes.  Since ancient times, they have been celebrated as a pick-me-up. Supposedly, radishes formed the staple diet – with onions - of the Egyptian slaves who built the Great Pyramid. This feels hard to believe. There’s not much nourishment in a radish.  But I’m guessing the slaves used their radishes as a bit of freshness to alleviate the boredom of bread. In Britain, too, we’ve been nibbling on radishes with bread for over a thousand years.  In centuries past, they must have been especially welcome for those who didn’t have access to expensive spices.  A radish seems to come loaded with its own store of pepper. The radishes we used to eat in Britain were far closer to a Japanese daikon: sizable peppery roots, whether globe-shaped or long, something you’d slice up rather than pop whole into your mouth. Those familiar baby pink radishes only took off in the late eighteenth century, a fashion adopted from Italy.


The pinkness and freshness of radishes never gets old.  As Emile Zola wrote in his 1898 novel Paris ‘Ah! And here’s the surprise, something dainty, some radishes, some pretty pink radishes. Just fancy!’  Compare with Nigella Lawson, another radish fan, who wrote in her latest book Simply Nigella  (Chatto and Windus £26) ‘and oh, their pink-cheeked prettiness!’ Nigella’s recipe for roast radishes in that book must have converted many cooks to the idea that radishes do not have to be raw. She halves them, coats them with olive oil, roasts for ten minutes and tosses with salt and chives. The translucent globes look otherworldly, like Japanese porcelain.


Radishes have taken on different connotations: less French, more Asian and Middle Eastern.  Once, if you saw a bunch of crisp leafy radishes, you might think only of eating them – following Elizabeth David- with cold butter, coarse salt and baguette.  A tangle of raw French breakfast radishes is still a lovely way to start a meal. The best I’ve tried lately were from Natoora: a vibrant bunch, cerise at the top and white at the bottom, with a flavour that was both mild and fiery (£3 from www.natoora.co.uk).  Munched with oil and salt, they were sublime. But a second bunch was equally good tucked under some browned chicken legs in a cast iron pan and roasted in the oven until plump and savoury from the chicken fat.  I took some of the green radish tops and stirred them in at the end, like spinach. We’re moving on from the idea that radishes mustn’t be tampered with. More unusual varieties are popping up, from the coarse skinned black ones (which have actually been eaten in Britain since the sixteenth century) to bunches of purple, white and gold ‘rainbow radishes’, which positively invite experimenting.


Food writer Sybil Kapoor has been cooking with radishes since the mid 1980s.   She worked then at a ‘very hip’ New York restaurant called Jam’s where they would briefly drop radishes into hot water along with a whole selection of other spring vegetables, drain and mix with butter. Kapoor’s buttered radish recipe in Simply Veg (reissued this month from Pavilion, £17.99) is an excellent place to start for anyone anxious about moving from raw radishes to cooked. The blanched crunchy roots are glazed in a pool of melted butter – a soothing side for white fish.


The Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules grew up eating raw radish salads made from chopped radishes, dill, sour cream and tomatoes, a quintessential late spring dish in Ukraine (the recipe is in her wonderful Mamushka, Octopus, £25).  She remembers her mum chopping the radishes into a big bowl; the juices stained the cream candyfloss pink. But now, Hercules says, out of nowhere, ‘I’m into cooking them’. She roasts them for twenty minutes before mixing with a vast handful of chopped green herbs. And eats them with great enthusiasm.

A particularly fine bunch of radishes from Natoora.

My Dad took Me There

‘My Dad Took Me There’.


Over the years, I’ve periodically gone into my kids’ school to talk about healthy eating.   Sometimes, I’ve talked to them about flavour; sometimes about eating more vegetables and fruits; and lately, about how to change their palates for the better.   I always enjoy doing it, but also come away with a sense that I am not really reaching all of the children. The keener ones put their hands up and tell me about ‘five a day’.  Some tell me their loves and hates: how tomato pips are too slimy but they have a passion for green beans.  I try to tell them that just because they don’t like something now, it doesn’t mean they will always hate it. I talk about how it’s easier to try a new food if it’s as small as a pea.  They nod and smile and some say they will try.


I enjoy these school talks, but it all feels a bit hypothetical.


Today, I went on a school trip to a museum with some six and seven year-olds as a parent helper and felt I got closer to the heart of what drives their food passions.  The children walked in a long crocodile, holding hands in twos. To get to the museum, we had to walk past a row of fast food places.  A doughnut shop, a pizza place. ‘Ahhhhhh, doughnuts!’ shouted a cluster of boys. The crocodile started jumping up and down. ‘My dad took me there’, said one of the boys.   He repeated it over and over. ‘My dad took me there, he did. We had doughnuts’.


How can any schoolroom lesson on the benefits of broccoli ever compete with ‘My dad took me there, we had doughnuts’?


It felt like a vivid confirmation of something I write about in my book First Bite.   Our food desires are mainly the product of memory.   What makes junk food so dangerous is not that it is unhealthy – though it is. It’s that it is intertwined with so many other memories, especially those of family, that are good and true and pure.  A parent treating his son to doughnuts is a sweet, loving thing.


When we hear someone suggesting that we eat less bacon or give up white sliced bread or stop eating our favourite brand of ice crean, we feel a kneejerk hostility because it is as if our loved ones are being attacked.   Whether we are children or adults, it’s hard to let go of these foods and find a better way of eating without a sense of loss.


Speaking from my own experience, the new way of eating does not come because you know about 5 a day. It comes when – bit by bit - you forge new food memories and find yourself gravitating towards different flavours.    The hardest part is seeing that you do not have to reward yourself with food in the same ways that your parents did.  Your dad took you there.  But where you go next is up to you.

Of Carrots and Sticks

Back in my dieting days, I would periodically try to convince myself to ‘snack’ on nothing but raw carrots.    At the start of the week, I would make up a big bag of peeled carrot batons and put them in the fridge: a totem of my good intentions.   When hunger struck – which was often – I would force myself to chomp joylessly on these raw carrots, instead of the stack of toasted teacakes I really wanted. If only I swallowed enough of them instead of what I really wanted to eat, surely I would lose weight.


But a few days on, the carrots started to taste like a chore. They felt cold in my mouth and insubstantial in my stomach.


Come the weekend, I would be back on the teacakes.


My trouble, I now see, is that I had turned the carrots into sticks, to beat myself with.  I put them in a box marked ‘health’ not ‘pleasure’.  I treated them as something punitive that needed to be swallowed as quickly as possible, like a pill, rather than a true food, to be savoured. No wonder I couldn’t stick with the diet.  Every time I ate a raw carrot, I was thwarting my own desires.


I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of carrots and sticks.  My new book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Fourth Estate), is published this week in the U.K .  When I first saw the cover, designed by Jo Walker, I almost burst out laughing, because it so perfectly encapsulated the themes I grapple with in the book. It shows a beautiful carrot with thick green foliage being dangled on a stick, like bait.  The image is saying: what if carrots really were carrots and not sticks?  What if you could reach the point where – give or take the odd plate of fish and chips - you wanted to eat the foods that do you good?

To my own astonishment and gratitude, I honestly can say I’ve reached this point myself.  When I was a compulsive eater as a teenager, I never would have believed it was possible.  But now when I think of carrots, it is not as something that I eat to be ‘virtuous’, but something sweet and nourishing that I can enjoy in many different forms.  Sometimes, I make carrots into a smooth buttery soup with chicken stock and crème fraiche; in other moods, I grate them and mix them with Indian spices and chickpea flour and fry them as delicious crunchy fritters.  Another way I love to eat them is roasted with honey and nigella seeds and tossed in a salad with avocado and spinach leaves.


In my unhappy dieting days, I never would have lavished such love on these orange roots.  I saw them as fuel, to be ingested in the form that gave me the fewest calories, which meant raw or plain steamed.   And because I ate them in such a meagre way, they gave me little pleasure.


Things look very different when you start from the presumption that carrots – or any real wholesome food – can be something delicious.  You start to cook and eat them in more interesting ways. Maybe you appreciate the vibrant texture of a grated carrot salad with oil and lemon; or the soft comfort of a carrot and potato curry, stewed in coconut milk.


My teenage self would be incredulous to hear it, but I would now be very sad if you told me I had to give up carrots.  As for teacakes, I’m still partial to them, once in a while – especially made to Dan Lepard’s recipe from Short and Sweet  but I can’t say they form a staple part of my diet.

Good things happen when we learn to treat carrots as carrots and not as sticks.


Good things happen when we learn to treat carrots as carrots and not as sticks.

The Problem of January



Each year, the siren song of January gets louder.  It is full of terrifying hope. ‘I will change you’, it cries.  ‘I will give you abs of steel and a clean colon.   I will make you half the size you were in December’.  January calls to the part of us that yearns for fresh starts. All you need to do in exchange is to give up all the things you love to eat and drink and adopt a punishing exercise regime. On these unforgiving mornings, you must deny yourself the very comforts you rely on to warm you up and force yourself outside to grow breathless on dark roads.


And each year we wonder why it doesn’t work.  Maybe we blame the diet but most likely, we blame ourselves, for lacking the willpower to stick it out. From the years when I was a yo-yo dieter, I remember the sinking feeling of self-recrimination as the jogging was abandoned and the carbs resumed.  Suddenly, a slice of buttered toast feels like failure.  And since you have failed already, you may as well have another one.


The problem with January is not that we try to change the way we eat but that we go about it in such a self-defeating way.  Plenty of us in the affluent West would do well to change our relationship with food. Two-thirds of the population in Britain is either overweight or obese.  Nor is overeating our only issue.  Around 0.3% of young women are anorexic and another 1% are bulimic. Meanwhile, thousands of adults are such ‘picky eaters’ they will only consume a handful of foods and avoid all vegetables, as if they were still toddlers spitting broccoli from a high chair. Apart from being an unhealthy way to live, it can be socially isolating. The adult picky eater may avoid invitations to eat with friends, in case they are offered something they know will make them gag.


What statistics are not very good at telling us are just how many people – whether overweight or underweight - are trapped in a perpetual state of anxiety about what they consume, living in fear of carbs or fat grams and unable to derive straightforward enjoyment from meals.  In 2003, a survey of 2200 college students in the U.S. suggested that 43% were worried about their weight most of the time (across both sexes), with 29% of women describing themselves as ‘obsessively preoccupied’ with weight.  This is no way to live.


There is a general view – which the diet mania of January does nothing to help – that you can never really change the way you eat.  Yet nothing could be further from the truth. All the foods you regularly eat are ones you learned to eat.  It follows that we can learn to love new ones. It isn’t easy, but the evidence suggests that it is possible.


We could start by making a different kind of January resolution.  Instead of renouncing our passions, we could aim to adopt new ones.  My daughter has a friend called Lily.  She used to be one of the pickiest eaters we knew: no ‘mixed-up’ food, no sauces, no fruit except for raspberries. Aged ten, she decided to try a new food every month for a year.  Unlike most January diets, it felt like a fun project rather than a form of denial. By the end of the year, she had a completely new repertoire of ‘likes’ and had adopted a far more balanced diet. She learned to like tomatoes and chicken curry and apples and spaghetti bolognaise.  She still wasn’t crazy about bananas or fish, but no one has to like everything.


 When you actually find yourself craving salads and soups more than doughnuts, half the battle is won.  The same is true of exercise.  When I was an overweight teenager, I never believed I could find exerting myself anything other than a humiliation and a pain.  Now, I discover, slightly to my amazement, that half an hour of yoga or swimming can be an enjoyable interlude, rather than something so unpleasant it requires chocolate to compensate.


It isn’t the urge for change that is wrong but the way we approach it. To adjust our food habits is one of the hardest things anyone can do, because the way we eat is bound up with so many deep-set memories.  It takes time.  But it can be done.  Instead of trying to force ourselves to eat what we dislike, we would do better to work on changing what we like. Bite by bite.


You know you have changed when many of the foods that bring you comfort are also ones that do you good.  When January is just another month.


Barbara Ketcham Wheaton and The Archive of Eating


What a joy to get the chance to write about one of my food heroes in The New York Times Magazine. For 53 years, 84 year-old food historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton has been working on an extraordinary labour of love, a database designed to analyse every cookbook published in Europe and the U.S. up to 1900.  I've known and admired Barbara for around fifteen years through the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. But it was only this summer, when she gave a talk about her beloved database, that I fully appreciated what she had been working on all these years. It is a project of Borgesian ambition, but also one with great charm.  Barbara - BKW, as she signs herself - remains genuinely entranced by these books and the puzzles they hold about how we cook and eat.

My article on Barbara and the database is here. 








BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour: Girls Should Eat Man Food


Why, after all this time, do women and men still bring different expectations to the table when we sit down and eat?  And why does the view persist that men are chefs - something glorious and inventive  - while women are cooks - something humble and domestic?

One of the people who has done most to break down this dichotomy is Nigella Lawson.  When her book How to Eat first appeared in 1998, I felt angel trumpets go off in my head. At last, here was someone making a claim to everyday domestic food as something more central and important to human life than the creations of restaurant kitchens - however magnificent those may be when you're in the mood.

So I felt hugely excited to get the chance to talk on the radio with Nigella about this very subject, along with another of my food heroes, the cookery writer Diana Henry. On 9th October, to celebrate the publication of Nigella's new book (Simply Nigella), Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4 gave over the whole programme to the subject of food and women.

You can listen again here


For the first segment, Nigella made a poached salmon, avocado and pumpkin seed salad (it was delicious, by the way, with a gentle acidity from cloudy apple vinegar).  She talked eloquently about her approach to cooking and how the kitchen fits into the rest of her life.

For the final part of the discussion, Diana and I joined in (with Cara Nicoletti phoning in from the U.S.). We discussed the rich - and loaded - topic of food and feminism. My only regret was that we didn't have longer. Presenter Jenni Murray asked 'What are the sexual politics of cookery when chefs are so frequently male and women are generally cooks?' Nigella talked about the 'savage need to denigrate any activity that belonged traditionally to the female sphere'. Cara talked from experience about the complications of working in restaurant kitchens as a woman.  Diana discussed  how troubled she was to hear of a young woman who announced she was going to be 'too important to cook' when she grew up because she wanted to be a barrister.

One of the things I mentioned - it's around 30 minutes in - was the strange and persistent idea that boys and girls are worthy of different food. You wouldn't think, in this day and age, that families would still think that boys needed mountainous portions while girls should restrain their appetites.  This stereotype goes back to the old days when the man was the bread-winner who had first claim on any protein that came into the house. But, as I found while researching my  book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, many parents do still treat boys and girls differently at the table. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon. It can be seen in cultures as different as France, Japan, India and the United States. 

Across the world, many boys are given the impression that it doesn't matter so much if they eat vegetables, because salad is (supposedly) effeminate.  Meanwhile, girls are brought up with the equally damaging view that they should deny themselves hearty main courses - steak is for men - and somehow survive on lettuce leaves and cupcakes.  

But if anyone needs red meat - or its vegetarian equivalent, which might be a hearty bowl of black bean chilli - it is not men but adolescent girls.  What is so damaging about our gendered approach to food is that it encourages both boys and girls to feed themselves in ways that go against what their bodies require.  

The single greatest nutritional shortfall in our diets right now is not that we don't eat enough superfoods, whatever those might be. It is the iron deficiency of girls. Across the globe, rich or poor, fat or thin, millions of teenage girls are anaemic. When periods start, a girl's iron needs jump from 8mg to 15 mg a day. Plenty of boys are anaemic too, but girls are disproportionately affected. A European survey from 2001 found that as many as 40% of girls aged 15-16 in Sweden had depleted iron stores ( as against 15% for boys).

Too many teenage girls are pressured by their families to lose weight when what they in fact need is better nourishment.  Iron-deprived girls need to be 'built up' with roast lamb or griddled flank steak; filling bean soups and soft boiled eggs; dark leafy greens and seeds.  Pink macarons and diet soda will not cut it.

Boys suffer too from these gendered ideas about feeding. Many boys are stoked with dangerous delusions about how much food they need - and how few vegetables.   Over the course of childhood, the trend is for boys to eat declining quantities of fruits and vegetables. In Thailand, girls eat many more vegetables than boys and twice as many boys are obese.

We need a complete rethink on how we feed boys and girls. We should feed our girls Man Food. And for our boys, a salad or two wouldn't go amiss.

Karl Duncker: how to make children forget they love chocolate.

So much of what we think is personal taste is really the product of outside forces over which we have little control. The stories we hear  are sometimes just as powerful as the flavour of food in determining what we eat, and how we feel about it.

Karl Duncker was a remarkable scientist (1903-1940) whose food experiments speak to the way we eat now.  He is one of the heroes of the first chapter of my new book (First Bite: How We Learn to Eat). Duncker showed that we are - disturbingly - very easily influenced when it comes to our likes and dislikes. By making a group of nursery-age children listen to a story, he was able to convince them to forget - for a time - that they liked chocolate.  And this was in the 1930s when chocolate was a far more luxurious substance than it is today.

Duncker was a psychologist, a Gestalt theorist who fled Hitler's Germany in the 1930s and found work at the University of Cambridge.  He is now best known for his work on problem solving and the way we perceive different objects visually.  But in his short life, he also made some very important contributions to the psychology of eating. Duncker once wrote that his definition of the pleasure of anticipation was a child 'who has been told that he is soon to have a piece of candy ...glowing all over with happiness'.

Working with a nursery in Camden Town, London, Duncker devised a series of experiments to look at the role of social suggestion in forming food preferences. One of these was the white chocolate experiment. He took two substances. One was white chocolate powder flavoured with lemon - something practically guaranteed to taste delicious to young children. (As chocolate experts sometimes comment, white chocolate has the sweet blandness of babymilk). The other was valerian sugar, valerian being a very bitter and unpleasant herbal root used as a medicine.

Duncker then asked the nursery teacher to read the children a story about a hero, Mickey, a little field mouse, who hates one food - "hemlock", a poison - and loves another - "maple sugar". When Mickey discovers maple sugar in a tree he realises he has "never tasted such good stuff before". The hemlock in the story is "sour and disgusting". Apparently, the teacher read the story in quite a boring voice, yet the message was clearly heard.

After the story the children were invited to taste some real "hemlock" and "maple sugar". The "hemlock" was in fact - you've guessed - white chocolate. And the "maple sugar" was the mouth-puckering valerian. Yet when asked to choose the substance they preferred, 67 percent of the children opted for the "maple sugar" because of the positive associations. Only 13% chose it in a control group with no story. After the story, the majority rejected the "hemlock" even though many of them recognised that it tasted of chocolate.

Can our likes and dislikes be so easily influenced? Scarily, it would appear so. One simple story is enough to make children change their view of chocolate.  For Duncker himself, this was no surprise. Duncker had witnessed Hitler's rise to power. He knew just how "suggestible" human beings could be. To him, children being influenced in matters of food were in a similar situation to the population of Nazi Germany. At the time he was doing his peaceful chocolate experiments, Duncker's brother Wolfgang was living in exile in Moscow; he would eventually be arrested during the Great Purges of 1938 and died in the Gulag.   Duncker himself had been driven out of his academic post in Berlin because he had once been married to a Jewish woman.

'If educated adults can be made to discard their ingrained preferences because the leader has contrary ones, why should children [be different] even in such a vital domain as food?,' Duncker wrote.

Duncker's experiments were on a very small scale, but they should worry anyone who is interested in persuading children to eat a more balanced diet.  If a single story about a mouse hero could make children change their mind about chocolate to such an extent, what is the effect of the daily barrage of advertising we are all subjected to?  A child watching Saturday-morning TV is told many such stories. We are bombarded with images of godlike athletes drinking sweetened fizzy drinks. Why is it that the least nutritious, most sugary cereals are the ones with the cutest characters on the boxes?  In our own culture, it is not white chocolate that has "hemlock" status but green vegetables.  Many children grow up knowing that they are not expected to actually enjoy such foods as spinach.

The real question raised by Duncker and the white chocolate is what any of us can do in the face of the social pressure to eat in certain ways. How can we resist and find a way to eat the foods that do us good rather than the ones that are marketed at us?

Duncker offered himself up as an example of how individuals cam train themselves to enjoy new likes, through "inner reorganisation".   When he first arrived in Britain from Germany, he was disgusted to encounter something called "salad cream", a condiment beloved in the U.K. but nowhere else. It has the creamy texture of mayonnaise but a harsh tang from spirit vinegar. For Duncker, the taste of salad cream came as a nasty shock:

"When I first came to England, I was made to understand that raw green salad leaves could be made into 'salad' with the aid of a bottled substance of a yellowish colour, called salad dressing. It looked like mayonnaise; I expected mayonnaise - and I dare say I was deeply disappointed. No, I did not like it. But as I did not like raw laves either, I was therefore prompted to adopt the most favourable and adventurous attitude.  I tried it again, and I still remember the day when suddenly I discovered that this was not an unpleasant variant of mayonnaise but a kind of mustard which was no unpleasant at all. Thus by accentuating the mustard potentiality and suppressing the non-mayonnaise aspect, I came to like it".

There is huge wisdom here, about how we can change our preferences for the better, by adopting a more 'favourable and adventurous attitude'.  The change does not happen all at once, but through multiple exposures.   When the change comes, it is as if you are tasting a different food, one that reminds you of other familiar, homely foods that you love (for Duncker this was mustard). You might suddenly recognise that cabbage - once hated - has the same sweet crunchiness as broccoli.  Or maybe you wean yourself off sugar in your tea and one day find that the sugarless one actually tastes better.

We could read Duncker's experiment in a negative or a positive light. The negative aspect is that our tastes are learned in the face of colossal social pressure of one kind and another (from families to advertising). The flipside, however, is that because our tastes are so open to outside influences, we can learn new ones at any age, as the example of Duncker and the salad cream illustrates. Our tastes are not a life sentence.

Sadly, Duncker himself was struggling with problems that were harder to solve than his own food preferences. By the time he was working with the children in Camden Town, he had been suffering from poor mental health for years .  He yearned for his old life in Berlin but knew it was impossible for him to return while the Nazis were in power.  In 1938, he moved from Britain to the States to take up a new academic post at Swarthmore College.  Duncker committed suicide there, aged just thirty-seven, in 1940.