Asia’s first big Slow Food gathering focussed on introducing children to a wide spectrum of flavours that will change their perception of food.

The three-year-old with spiky hair has his nose plastered against a hive of bees. As he watches them buzz busily through the cool display glass, his pig-tailed sister joins him balancing a cone of drippy honey ice-cream. At the next stall a group of children stand in a circle, carefully rolling out stretchy dough, which is then baked and handed to them with a drizzle of olive oil. A young father balances a small coconut in the pram he’s pushing, tilting the straw so the wide-eyed baby can take deep, thirsty sips. There are children everywhere. Trying everything. They’re slugging back shots of apple cider vinegar. Eating handfuls of salty fried fish. Tasting squares of crisp seaweed. In the picnic area, parents take out snack-boxes, and hand their kids boiled eggs, baked yam and fruit. There isn’t a canned juice, bag of chips or cookie-pack in sight.

Namyangju, in South Korea, may have been chosen to host Asia’s first big Slow Food gathering – AsiO Gusto — because of their organisational skills and exhibition space. However, over the six days that the festival runs, drawing more than 5,30,000 visitors, the locals also show the Slow Food movement the simplest way forward: Create a generation that cares about what they eat by introducing children to a wide spectrum of flavours.

Slow Food, an international member-supported non-profit organisation, which began in Rome in the 1980s has grown far beyond its original mandate, a simple opposition to fast food. Now this eco-gastronomic movement — once criticised for being Europe-centred and elitist — works with grassroots organisations around the world to fight for food that is “good, clean and fair,” and promote biodiversity.

AsiO Gusto’s brings together small-scale sustainable producers, chefs and young leaders from 40 Asian and Oceanic countries so they can share experiences and learn from one another. It’s an inspiring community, liberally peppered with dynamic people and heart-warming stories. This year, however, the most powerful lesson came from an unexpected source: the little Korean children who eagerly sample everything from New Zealand apple vinegar to sharp Tibetan yak’s cheese at the stalls, impressing all the delegates. Perhaps this is the Asian advantage: A combination of gastronomic tradition and food diversity with economic prudence, resulting in dinner tables filled mainly with local, seasonal and native produce.

South Korea — where multinationals are already making inroads with mass-produced, standardised, Westernised food — may just be one of the last frontiers. So it’s encouraging to see their children still enjoying porridge instead of switching to heavily processed, nutritionally inferior, but undeniably slick breakfast cereals. To drive home the point, South Korea celebrates its latest entries to the Ark of taste at AsiO Gusto. (Created to bring attention to foods that are at the risk of extinction — from fruits and vegetables, to rare breeds and cured meats, to sweets and cheeses — the Ark Catalogue currently lists more than 1,300 products from 74 countries.)

There’s Pureun Kongjang, a soybean paste. Anjeunbaengi Wheat, which is low in gluten. Hanson’s Lily, an edible flower originating from the Ulleung-do Island. The entirely black Yeonsan Ogye Chicken. And Chik-so, yellow and black striped “tiger cattle”. Why is this important? “Because deliciousness is sustainability,” says Benedict Reade, Head of culinary research and development at the influential Copenhagen-based Nordic Food Lab. He continues, “Think of your favourite food. Then think about eating it every day — breakfast, lunch, dinner. We need diversity. We love tasting something new.” Reade suggests that teaching people to appreciate quality food “removes much of the need to learn about sustainability, ecology, nutrition, distribution and food systems.” He adds, “People have to learn to taste. Learn to listen to the components to food. Taste enables you to recognise nutrients and toxins.” We are a generation biased towards sweet and salty flavours, thanks to a lifetime of processed food, layered with sugar, salt and fat. As a result our taste buds are so over-stimulated that we crave exaggerated and familiar flavours constantly. The market responds with dumbed-down food, creating a vicious cycle.

Serena Milano from the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity says we are losing hundreds of varieties of apples, potatoes and rice as a result. “In the past 50 years, agriculture has transformed into an industry. To be efficient, it concentrates on just a few varieties that have standard flavour and long shelf life. Quantity over quality. In few years, 75 per cent of the vegetables will have disappeared. From thousands of varieties of apples, today you see four in the market.” The result: a disappearance of collective memory, breeds that have no links to territory, standardised taste. And a dangerously skewed diet. “Today 60 percent of our calories come from three cereals: rice, wheat and corn. Monoculture is a fragile system. Remember, when a fungus attacked just one variety of potato in Ireland, there was a famine.” Milano adds, “We think of bio-diversity as something important for botanists. Slow food is working to convince farmers, universities that bio-diversity is crucial to all of us.”

Former lawyer Heliante Heman, who supports Indonesian artisanal ingredients, talks of how her country once had 7,000 types of rice in purple, pink, black and white, all nurtured by indigenous wisdom-based agriculture. Discussing how she brought up her baby on food from her garden, she states, “You don’t need to be rich to bring your baby up on a healthy diet; you just need to be informed.” Then adds, “This is not just poetry… We need to go directly to the communities.  Build alliances and organic organisations. Demonstrate that sustainable agriculture on a small scale has a future. It’s the only way to ensure that everybody has access to food that is good and healthy.”

It’s worthwhile to remember that most farmers don’t eat what they grow for the market, because they know how pesticide-laden crops theirs are, choosing instead to keep a separate organic garden for their families’ food.

A Japanese farmer at the conference talks of how he realised the chemicals were making him sick, and then switched to organic farming, committing to protect and preserve native seeds. Seed-banks like these are an insurance against a future of flat flavours. Which brings us back to the children. Benedict Reade suggests it’s time to focus on educating them. And expanding their palates. “Teach them what a good carrot is. When you taste a carrot from the ground it can be an epiphany. I can tell when it was picked and where it was grown.” Introducing children to a wide spectrum of flavours will change their perception of food. “It will change what they like eating,” says Reade, adding, “And what future generations will eat. It will change what’s available in stores. If we have good taste we have a healthy ecology… Because the markets will respond as they always do.”