Why a leftovers sandwich is like Singapore

Why a leftovers sandwich is like Singapore

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… and other stories from Professor Ha-Joon Chang, Distinguished Research Professor at SOAS, University of London and author of Edible Economics: A Hungry Economist Explains the World

I think the best economic recipes come from the willingness to mix ingredients in unconventional ways. So in that regard the best example of a leftovers sandwich would be Singapore. When you hear about Singapore you think about these free-trade policies, the welcoming attitude to foreign investment, but you never hear that ninety per cent of land is owned by the government and 85% of housing is supplied by government-owned housing corporations. Or that a staggering 22% of national output is produced by what’s called GLCs - government-linked corporations which the Singapore government have at least 20% ownership in.

I openly challenge my students to give me one economic theory that can explain Singapore. It doesn’t matter what school of economics it is, there’s no such theory because Singapore is a product of very pragmatic decision-making on the basis of their assessment of the situation and addressing their vulnerabilities like land shortage. You cannot just leave it to private developers. So a good leftover sandwich is like that - what do you have in your cupboard?

Ideally you might want to make a Reuben sandwich, or cheese and pickle but you’ll often lack the ingredients so you have to find a way to create something with what you have. You have to be a bit adventurous with your combinations because you have to put together a sandwich with ingredients that you might not have used together before. So what is this semi-dry piece of turkey going to go with? Will it go with mayonnaise or Sriracha sauce? You’ll put things in an unusual way and sometimes it doesn’t work but sometimes it works well.

I think a lot of good economic policies have been invented by that route. Just like the Singapore government realising that in general they want to have a less regulated economy but when it comes to land they are so constrained that there’s no way they can let the private sector decide on it. They lack the local entrepreneurial skills so they’ll invite multi-national companies but don’t have to completely cede control of their economy so they’ll set up state-owned enterprises in key sectors – even though they are not a socialist country.

When we look at any culture for main holidays or birthdays then you have a lot of leftovers. And a lot of recipes have been developed to take advantage of those things. I think a lot of cultures have that leftover tradition, but in Britain and America and I’m sure some European countries they have developed this culture of using the Thanksgiving or Christmas leftovers to make sandwiches which I think is a great idea because you don’t want to eat the same thing all the time. People make soup and curries and sandwiches out of turkey. Personally I don’t like turkey but at Christmas time I’d cook roast pork or chicken. Very often after Christmas there’s meat and potato left and a long time ago I picked up this roast chicken recipe from one of Nigel Slater’s cook books – it’s a simple thing, you basically use the chicken fat and butter to fry diced potatoes in the pan and it becomes really crispy. I refry the chicken with garlic – Korean’s are mad about garlic – and put some mayonnaise and chicken along with some potatoes if there are any left. Then maybe some rocket leaves and it’s one of my favourite sandwiches.

So with random ingredients and some imagination, experience and what it takes to make this combination work, you make do with what you have. Singapore’s an extreme example but if you look at other countries they all have unexpected combinations and unusual arrangements. For me making sandwiches is to make do with what you have. That’s the spirit of it.

The world is really complex and each economic theory is based on often hidden theories of human nature, ethical values, political values and different understandings of how economics works. Neo-classical economic theories, which is the dominant school of economics, is mainly interested in the market exchange, other schools like Keynesian are interested in the so called macro economy. Rather than looking at how people buy and sell electricity in the market, they are looking at the aggregate values like inflation or unemployment. There are also schools like the developmentalist school, which is more interested in how to raise productivity and how to industrialise the poor economies.

Given all these, no theory can cover everything. Of course, combining different things doesn’t always work, but if you combine them well, then you can have a better understanding and a tastier meal. 

I have been writing these economics books for the general public for the last 15 years – my very first mass market book was called Bad Samaritans and it was basically trying to explain how the global economic order was set up by the rich and powerful countries and how the advice that these countries gave the developing nations didn’t help.

They were recommending policies that are not suitable for them. Things like free trade, which is good in the short run but meant these nations were forever stuck as producers of soy beans or bird guano etc. They could never diversify. The colonialist view, even though they’ll never say it, is, in essence “we have the best recipes, and you have to follow it.” Like governments trying to impose potato-based diets in countries that are based on rice. I like potato but if I had to eat it as my staple that would be a problem for me. That “we know better” idea is very much leftover thinking. When I finished writing Bad Samaritans I had this brainwave of making economics even more accessible by ‘bribing’ the readers with interesting stories about food, which is my other passion.

For one reason or another I didn’t get to write Edible Economics for 15 years. In a way I’m glad I got to write it now because between 2006 and the present I’ve had literally tens of thousands more meals and I’ve visited hundreds more restaurants and a dozen or so countries! On a more serious note, I wrote the book in this way because my view is in a capitalist economy, without people knowing at least some economics, democracy is meaningless. There are so many decisions made through the lens of economics – it’s not just standard things like interest rates or government spending but culture, education and national heritage. People need to think about and learn economics but the subject is famously dry and boring. I wanted to find a way to entice people to it. Even if people just read one or two of the stories in the 18 chapters of the book at least they will have become more interested in these issues.

One of the first chapters I wrote is called ‘Acorn’. Most people don’t consider it as a human food but Koreans eat a lot of acorns. We make it into a vegetable jelly, it’s an earthy basic food, it’s not a delicacy really. But there is a way to make a delicacy out of acorns and that is to feed it to Spanish pigs called ’pata negra’ and then turn it into Iberico ham. Ham is so important to Spanish culture – what other country could have come up with a movie with Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz called Ham Ham? My theory is ham and pork in general is so important to Spanish culture because they arguably built a nation fighting people who don’t eat pork. I go into a discussion about stereotyping cultures and how Muslim countries are nearly always portrayed in a negative light. I contrast it with the stereotypical view of the East Asian culture, which is usually cast in a positive light and portrayed with a focus on education and hard working. But there’s a lot of negative elements in this culture - it’s very conformist, which is bad for innovation and in traditional hierarchies the merchants and artisans were at the bottom of the social castes. We need to get rid of stereotypes to truly understand how culture and economics interact and can benefit each other.

There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Banana’ and it starts with The Elvis Sandwich. Some of the stories are more personal to me – The Elvis is one of my wife’s favourite breakfast items. It’s peanut butter, banana, honey drizzled on top - we rarely put bacon on it like many people do. But it starts with that and talks about how having a banana as a sandwich filling is rather unusual because most people eat it as a fruit. But that’s only the case in countries where they don’t actually produce bananas.

In the countries where they do produce it, the banana is a main carbohydrate – it’s like the potato in the UK. We never think of other ways to eat it but in other cultures they always have different ways. The main theme of the chapter is how the food was adopted as a food for slaves by the Portuguese and Spanish invaders and then later Britain and France as well. It was encouraged by these plantation owners for the slaves to plant banana trees on the small plots they were given. Because in the right climate condition it just grows – you don’t need to tend to it, and the slave owners wanted the slaves to spend the least amount of time on their own plots. The banana becomes another vehicle of exploitation in what’s known as banana republics around the basin of the Caribbean and Central and South American countries. There’s a dark history to the banana but on the other hand all these stories about the banana and multi-national companies show that these companies can be very useful and productive if you use the right policies and encourage them to invest in their workers. It’s a kind of convoluted story to go from the Elvis Sandwich to multi-national companies but it’s that kind of a book, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

As told to Josh Jones. 

Edible Economics is available in paperback from 28th September.

A version of this story was originally published in Sandwich Magazine Issue 6: The Leftovers Issue. You can buy the latest issue here or follow Sandwich on Instagram.