Potato Latkes at BUBALA; Tackling the Climate Emergency

Potato latkes are the epitomy of Chanukah - and latkes at Bubala are the finest in London

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.”

Greta Thunberg, Davos World Economic Forum, 2019

 

*

The year is 160BC. The temple is on fire. The Seleucid Army is threatening to annihilate the Jewish community in ancient Judea, whose existence is poised on a knife-edge. But then come the small plucky band of Maccabees. Through their dedication and self-sacrifice, they manage to repel the might of the empire. Yet when they discover the temple all wrack and ruined, hearts turn from joy to sorrow: there’s barely a drop of oil to keep the sacred flame alive.

But this drop miraculously ends up lasting for a whole eight days. And so this story is celebrated – year after year, century after century – as Chanukah, the festival of lights. To remember how a community saved themselves against extinction. And how one little light fought against the dark for so long.

*

I gaze into the flames as they flicker and glow, little dervishes of light pirouetting between the burning wicks. Melting wax slips down the thin candle shafts, transforming them into misshapen stalagmites of red, yellow and blue.

Staring at these lights, I’m like a child again, all transfixed and enthralled. We chant the songs and recite the prayers; the smell of frying latkes lingers in the air.

Such a timeless ritual. And yet one that also marks the passage of time. And it makes me wonder: how much time do we have? Not me, I mean. Not even my family. But all of us. The whole world. How many more Chanukah lightings are there left before we find ourselves in a world so different from now? A world devastated by the ravages of our deteriorating climate.

For as I stare back at those candles, I now begin to see them as burning edifices of carbon, a reminder that our planet is choking. Choking to death.

*

Our thirst for oil has got us to this point. What was once heralded as the Holy Grail – the remains of ancient botany that drove our magnificent industrial revolutions – has become a Poisoned Chalice. And by continuing to drink from it in such greedy excess, we’re risking our very own destruction, not to mention that of the beautiful natural world around us.

Even the current best-case scenario – an increase of 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels, the target agreed by the Paris Accords – will still cause untold harm to people, their health, their livelihoods, their sustenance, and their security. In other words, all the key elements of civilisation.

To keep warming to just a semi-catastrophic 1.5°C, net global carbon emissions would need to fall by 50% by 2030, and reach ‘net zero’ around 2050. But as things stand right now, carbon dioxide levels are not only not falling, they are actually rising. And most of the world’s worst carbon-polluting countries don’t even have a timeframe for ‘net zero’.

And if it goes above 1.5°C?.. Well, we’re not quite in doomsday territory just yet. We’ve got ten years to sort it out, ten years in the last-chance climate saloon, albeit a saloon where the drinks are toxic and the bartender is Donald Trump.

Our only hope involves swallowing some tough truths, and for each and every government, company, and individual to decide that it’s time to fundamentally make a change on how we go about things. And change fast.

*

Yet, in those Chanukah flames, I also see a way forward.

For that little drop of ancient oil to last for eight days – some call it a miracle, I call it impeccable fuel economy. After all, that’s a carbon footprint of just one-eighth of regular temple oil, efficiency that scientists nowadays can only dream of.

And if there were God behind it, one may wonder why the Almighty can’t just reboot the whole Chanukah miracle right now, but this time encompassing all the world’s oil (and coal and gas). That would get us out of this climate mess pretty pronto.

But I guess that’s not really God’s modus operandi, is it? Rather than doing all the legwork himself, he’s more an apocalypse-stroke-redemption type of deity: performing radical acts to compel us humans to sort things out ourselves. A Project Noah v2.0 then, but one that redeems all of humanity, rather than just a bearded bloke, his immediate rellies, and a load of animal couplets.

Whether there’s a God or not, the message is there in the Chanukah story – that in the face of impending doom and formidable odds, the solution lies in people coming together, overcoming the narrow barriers of national and personal self-interest, in order to save ourselves. And all the world around us.

*

When it comes to global solutions, investing in greener technologies and industries with a vastly-reduced carbon footprint – eighth-fold or otherwise – seems a good place to start. But it’s going to take a while, and time is a luxury we just can’t afford.

Governments have to act in other, more pressing, ways. This includes getting on with penalising or restricting those things that contribute most to carbon emissions, as well as urgently incentivising and investing in greener energy, transport, and agriculture.

It’s going to be hard. Our economies will take a hit, for sure. At least at first. But it’s an inoculation that’s needed to protect our long-term ecological and existential health.

And it will need governments to deliver public awareness initiatives to help us through, make us understand the necessity, and to guide us on what we can do as citizens, each and every one of us.

For any one country however, it also requires a daunting leap of faith that it’s not all going to be in vain – that other nations will also all pitch in and leap together.

It’s like some ultimate-stakes version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma – that renown scenario from Game Theory whereby if everyone agrees to work together, then everyone wins. But if one of the prisoners decides to screw over the rest, they win the jackpot at everyone else’s expense.

But in this Climate Emergency version of the game, the victory of those greedy nations is hollow and fleeting, for the rising tides and searing droughts will not respect borders. They’ll go under just like the rest of us, and everyone will lose; it’s just that the poor will lose first.

So when certain countries continue to pump out carbon molecules with contemptible abandon, refusing to sign up to more stringent standards including at this month’s United Nations conference in Madrid; when Brazil seems hellbent on destroying the Amazon rainforest to make way for cattle, unlocking swathes of carbon in the process; and when climate-denial America withdraws from our only global plan of rescue – well, they will still all lose. For everyone will lose.

*

“The world is loaded,
It’s lit to pop and nobody is gonna stop.
No one. No way..
One come a day, the water will run,
No man will stand for things that he had done.
And the water will run.”

“Stop!” – Jane’s Addiction, 1986

*

But let’s hold on to some hope. At least there are scientists, who are determined to advise us of the truth in this Trumpian post-truth world. At least there are children, whose impassioned voices are getting increasingly loud and angry. And at least there are role models like Greta Thunberg, and grassroots movements like Extinction Rebellion, to galvanise and inspire us. For they are the new Maccabees.

And at least there is a Paris Accord, a coming together of nations. At least there is a plan, even if many of the world’s main leaders – generally men in their ’60s and ’70s – are still in effective climate denial.

But we have a part to play too. Individuals matter. Each and every one of us. But for those who are willing, what is one to do? How far do we need to go? How far are we prepared to go?

For, even though I see the Climate Emergency as a real and present danger, I confess to say: I still drive, I still fly. I still use gas, I still eat meat.

Okay, so my mea culpas come with some well-meaning caveats. I need a car for work so that I can get about quickly between hospital emergencies. I aspire for an electric car one day, or at least a hybrid, if I can afford it. I fly at most once a year, and usually just short-haul. I use gas to cook, but at least my electricity is 100% renewable. I source my meat locally, from the farmer’s market, to keep food-miles low and from animals that were free-range and ethically-reared.

Oh, worthy me!.. But this is not enough, not by a country mile. For if I were truly determined to do my bit, to be able to look my kids in the eye and say with all honesty, hand on heart, “look boys, I did my best, I did all I could..“, well I’d be going much further.

So what’s the block? Why aren’t I going further?

After all, if one person makes an effort, then maybe their neighbour will make an effort too, and then maybe their neighbour. And then suddenly there’s a neighbourhood that’s all doing their bit. Soon enough, it’s the done thing in that part of the world, and collectively everyone’s actions start to add up.

And then technology companies take note: there’s a burgeoning demand for renewable energy and a thirst for energy-efficient devices, all of which become cheaper and more accessible. Manufacturing companies begin to reduce the carbon footprint of their products, even making this an actual selling point. All the while, the power and influence of polluting belching industries and fossil-fuel companies start to wane.

And then political parties realise that taking the Climate Emergency seriously is an actual vote-winner – heck, it may even be a virtuous cause in its own right! And the crucial political decisions start to get made.

Things change, things happen. And then those Paris Accords look just that bit more achievable.

Indeed, it was heartening to see all the progressive parties in the UK prioritising the Climate Emergency in their respective election manifestos. But equally dispiriting that the newly re-elected Tories, whilst referencing “green infrastructure” in their manifesto, show little of the urgency as compared to the other parties; it didn’t even make their ‘top four’ priority list.

And we need to be angry about that. Remind our leaders that – to coin Greta Thunberg – their houses are burning too. And then we need to all do our bit. For if the Climate Emergency is a vicious circle, what we need is a virtuous circle to reverse it.

And to reverse the circle, to yank its levers and get its cogs turning the other way, there needs to be emotion. We need to feel. Feel some anger. Feel some fear. Feel some guilt. We’re not feeling it as much as we should right now.

It can admittedly feel hard to be stirred by data and statistics. Hard to feel the urgency from models of complex regression analysis. It’s all too easy to sweep such things under our mental carpet.

So we need to connect with the issue emotionally. We need to see images of mass flooding, melting glaciers, and emaciated polar bears stranded on floating shards of ice. We need to hold these images in our heads, day in day out, and see the issue as though our home is on fire. Because it effectively is.

And once we’ve contemplated our need to change. And then accepted it. Then there’s only one next step. We need to act. Act now. And act together.

*

It can be hard to know where to start. Perhaps let’s begin with our relationship with our consumerist lifestyle. Do we really need to buy all this stuff – clothes, gadgets, plastic? All of which consume so much energy in their production. Can we make do with less?

And the same goes for food too. Globally, a third of all food goes to waste. A third. That’s grotesque on so many levels, but not least in the utter waste of energy used up in its production.

It’s not just about how much food we buy, but what type. Livestock accounts for around a fifth of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to a combination of methane release, mass deforestation, and the energy-inefficient production of animal feed.

Meanwhile, scientific reports in Nature and The Lancet advocate that a significant reduction in meat consumption will be “essential” to mitigate climate change – something also echoed in a United Nations report this year.

Some argue that the U.K. is a different case – our green and pleasant pastures are centuries-old, and farming here has developed a (relatively) more harmonious relationship with the land.

Does that make a difference when it comes to the carbon footprint? Perhaps a little.

But our cows still fart out methane, intensive farming still goes on, and many argue there is still the opportunity-cost of using land in a way that better promotes carbon capture and habitat diversity.

There’s no getting around it folks: the way forward, if not to go fully vegetarian, is to at least eat less meat, and less dairy too. And for the produce we do consume, to choose animals that are locally-sourced and ethically-reared, rather than intensively-farmed.

For people to change their diet though, it’s not just about taking the proverbial stick of making do with less meat, but it also needs the carrot of appealing alternatives.

*

So when a new restaurant opens, one that champions vegetarian food, pushing the boundaries and doing amazing things with it, it should be whole-heartedly celebrated.

Bubala is very much in the same spirit of other excellent Israeli / Middle-Eastern eateries to grace the capital right now – Honey & Co, Rovi, The Palomar, Bala Baya, to name but a few. Except Bubala does it without the meat, a fact you barely notice since the food is just so captivating.

A seasonal dish of pumpkin tirshy comes as a sweet earthy canvas of the smoothest pureed squash, spiced with harissa, livened with preserved lemon, and lent a lick of salt from a sprinkle of Kalamata olives that have been dried and finely chopped. Quality olive oil is liberally drizzled, lending both a richness and a reminder that this cuisine is steeped in antiquity.

From this subtle plate of adroitly-balanced flavours, the next dish is a more full-blooded thwack-about-your-chops affair. It starts with salt incarnate in the form of halloumi. Except it’s not halloumi but an alternative called Anglum, made in glorious Cheshunt – just as tasty but with far fewer food miles.

It’s grilled to that magical point when the outside is crisp and the inside all warm and gooey. At this point, don’t dare faff around with your phone. And stop talking immediately. For to properly enjoy this dish, you’ve got to capture it in this precipitously-dwindling window.

Your mouth will then enjoy the full euphoric contrast of texture, plus the glorious foil of sweet pine-scented honey against that warm savoury cheese. It’s the ultimate ‘milk and honey’, and the biblical associations don’t stop there.

For when it comes to dessert, we find that most ancient of dried fruits – dates – as chewy little nuggets studding a luscious scoop of tangerine and tahini ice-cream. It’s draped in yet more date syrup, just to reinforce the theme.

But amidst all this Sephardi-style exoticism, stands one dish that’s perhaps a little incongruent, one that waves a little flag for the simple stodgy Ashkenazi food of my upbringing.

Potato latkes are perhaps the ultimate antithesis to what has come before – there’s none of that clever delivery of contrasts or intriguing flight of flavours. Instead, it’s just a case of moulding grated potato and onion into little round patties and frying them up till they’re crisp.

When I was a kid, latkes in our house were synonymous with these little frozen discs, mass-produced freezer-aisle fodder under the kosher brand Rakusen’s. I confess I still hold a little candle for them, even now.

But these Bubala latkes are different beasts altogether. Clearly inspired by the iconic confit potatoes of the nearby Quality Chop House, they are lighter than air, with a meltingly-soft inside and a crisp ethereal shell.

Okay, there’s an attempt to Middle-Eastern-it-up – a sprinkle of Aleppo chilli here, a side of Lebanese toum there. But make no mistake, this is a dish that harks from the shtetl, not the souk.

Along with doughnuts, latkes are the archetypal Chanukah dish – deep-fried in oil, they remind us of that other oil, the one that burned for eight days, just at the point when the Jewish world thought they were at the point of destruction.

And as we are on the cusp of another form of destruction, this time one facing the whole planet, let us remember that all is not lost. At least not just yet. But we need to act. And act now. Whether it’s about what we put in our mouths, or how we travel, or how we keep our homes warm, it’s time to make choices. Tough choices.

So, what will you do?

 

*

 

If you’d like to read more around the Climate Emergency, I’ve included links to some articles below. In the meantime, here’s a shout-out to my friends Marc and Helena – both ‘good neighbours’ who have helped kindle my own sense of urgency when it comes to needing to change. Indeed, Helena has founded her own environmental consultancy firm – Lightswitch – which works to accelerate climate action by facilitating inter-organisational knowledge transfer and innovation in energy and other climate-critical areas. Finally, for a quite different take on an ecological issue – here’s my short fiction piece ‘Plot’ – a dystopian eco-thriller about a kick-ass clone trying to save the world..

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Bubala London – latkes and more

Pumpkin tirshy at Bubala London, a puree drizzled with olive oil, and perfect with latkes.

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Halloumi fried to the perfect point of crispness, drizzled in honey - the ultimate in 'milk and honey'

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Date, tangerine and tahini ice-cream with date syrup at Bubala London restaurant

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Bubala restaurant interior in Shoreditch London includes bar and dining areas

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Some articles:

On the Climate Emergency

The Myth of Green Growth, Simon Kuper, Financial Times.
Emissions Inequality: a Gulf Between Rich & Poor, N. Beuret, World Economic Forum.
Climate Change: Bleak Outlook as Carbon Emissions Gap Grows, Matt McGrath, BBC.

On the impact of livestock

Eating Animals. Dan Saladino and Sheila Dillon. BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme.
We Can’t Keep Eating As We Are, George Monboit, The Guardian.
If You Want to Save the World, Veganism Isn’t the Answer, Isabella Tree, The Guardian.
Revealed: Industrial-scale Beef Farming Comes to the UK, Andrew Wasley, The Guardian.
Eat Less Meat: UN Report Calls for Change, Quirin Schiermeier, Nature.
Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission. Various. The Lancet.

On what tips us to change

The Tipping Points for Transformative Climate Action?, Susannah Fisher, EIT Climate-KIC.
We Can’t All Be Greta, But Your Choices Have a Ripple Effect, Justin Rowlatt, BBC.
Active Hope, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.

On food waste

Food Loss and Food Waste, U.N. Food & Agricultural Organization.

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Carbon footprint information on the packaging of Oatly oat milk

Carbon footprint information on Oatly’s packaging – surely the way forward?…

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18 Comments

  1. 21st December 2019 / 8:25 pm

    Aaron you’ve done it again, another thought provoking incredible article. An important topic close to my heart. I will be scoping out some of this reading list and as for Latkes I’m sold. Never tried but they sound divine! Thanks for another fantastic eye opening piece!

    • aaron
      Author
      24th December 2019 / 7:54 pm

      Thanks so much, Bejal – that’s really kind of you. I ended up going through a bit of a journey whilst writing this article, reevaluating my own situation and making decisions to do some things a bit differently. Not that I’m getting it all right by any means, but just trying to do my bit!..

  2. 23rd December 2019 / 5:25 pm

    Thank you for jotting down your thoughts on such an important subject – we all need to do what we can, where possible. I always marvel at the beauty of nature, especially when I’m by the beach or walking through a park or forest and it makes me so sad to think of the damage we’ve caused as a society. Re: Bubala, I’ve heard great things, and am glad that you also loved it – will be going with a vegetarian friend soon hopefully!

    • aaron
      Author
      24th December 2019 / 9:30 pm

      I think you make such an important point, Seetal – I do wonder if civilisation has become just too disconnected from nature. We’ve built cities, shrouded ourselves in glass, concrete and brick, communicate through technology – yes, this all comes with positives, but detachment from nature isn’t one of them. If there’s some way people, including the world’s leaders, can really connect with nature again, maybe the environment would have had received greater priority…

  3. 24th December 2019 / 10:58 am

    Aaron your posts always wow me! Such a beautiful piece on so many hot topics all brought together. It is a tough world out there and sticking together and spreading the world definitely helps. The food at Bubala- wow. Nice to see a vegetarian Middle Eastern ish place on the map

    • aaron
      Author
      25th December 2019 / 8:33 am

      Thanks so much, Neha! I took a bit of a risk encompassing so many themes and topics, but hope it’s all come together okay. I do like taking the scenic route at times!..

  4. 24th December 2019 / 6:02 pm

    Very thought-provoking piece. Polish version of latkes (placki ziemniaczane – potatoe cakes/pancakes) is not a dish I particularly enjoy, because deep-fried food gives me indigestion, but I’d not mind trying Bubala’s version.

    • aaron
      Author
      25th December 2019 / 8:37 am

      Thanks so much, Anna. I’m now intrigued by placki ziemniaczane – think I need to try them! What I loved about Bubala’a latkes were just how light and crispy they were.

  5. jkblooming4gmailcom
    29th December 2019 / 8:20 am

    Very interesting article. And, I’ve never seen latkes that look like that before, so that was also interesting.

    • aaron
      Author
      5th January 2020 / 8:06 pm

      Yes, these are probably pushing the boundaries of latke! But still brilliant!..

  6. 29th December 2019 / 8:29 am

    What a thought provoking and informative piece. I wanted to know more about these Latkes and would normally scroll to the end to do so, but I was drawn in by your style. Ever since watching ‘What the Health, I’ve cut down on meat and dairy consumption and am always looking for tasty veg alternatives. Thanks for a great read.

    • aaron
      Author
      5th January 2020 / 8:07 pm

      Thanks so much! Glad you liked the piece, and appreciate your kind words..

  7. Catherine Davidson
    1st January 2020 / 3:53 pm

    Great post Aaron, and a useful tip on a restaurant to check out in the New Year. When I left my family in LA and married my English husband I did not think about my future carbon footprint. I am supporting tree planting and hoping for biofuels invention – but I can’t face giving up these trips yet. At least I do feel guilty – and maybe that’s a start.

    • aaron
      Author
      5th January 2020 / 8:15 pm

      Thanks so much, Catherine. It’s such a difficult conundrum in terms of any one individual, and what they should be doing to reduce their carbon footprint. Visiting close family is such an important and personal activity. I guess it’s working out what changes we can make, and then doing what we can to mitigate against the carbon emissions we do produce? The fact that it’s on our radar at all I think is a big step, and that we’ve got an emotional connection going on too…

  8. Helena
    8th January 2020 / 4:27 pm

    Thanks Aaron for a wonderful text on this extremely complex and challenging theme that we, and all foreseeable generations to come, will have to struggle with and relate to. The only thing we can do is as much as possible and a little bit more…

    • aaron
      Author
      9th January 2020 / 6:35 pm

      Thank you Helena for all your help! It’s been fascinating discussing the issues with you, and really appreciate all the links you sent. You’re doing such amazing work in this field, Helena!..

  9. 13th January 2020 / 10:04 am

    Such an important issues, you words describe it well . . .

    • aaron
      Author
      16th January 2020 / 2:47 pm

      Thanks so much, Laura! Really glad you liked the piece..

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