ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Monday, March 26, 2012

In support of Shisha

Like a lot of people I’ve started taking ‘x is bad for you’ and ‘a increases your chances of developing b by c%’ stories with a dangerously generous pinch of salt.

I'm sceptical because if you do the maths and calculate the purported compound effects based on real life it soon becomes farcical, with scenarios giving you a greater than 100% chance of dying before the age you've already reached.

And that's because even if the conclusions are technically correct, they’re only correct within an isolated study and reflect averages rather than realistic expectation. Like how nobody has exactly 2.4 children, I guess.

But the media loves this shit, and the latest doomsdayish revelation is that smoking a shisha pipe is the equivalent of 100 cigarettes, apparently.

Don't worry, it's probably just scaremongering?

Now, for a non-smoker (or indeed a very occasional recreational smoker as I am) 100 is a lot of cigarettes. I rarely smoke the things as I dislike mainstream tobacco brands, but I'd hazard that the total number of cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, bidis, spliffs and bowls of pipe tobacco I get through is probably somewhat fewer than 100 a year.

Ah, the reverie... the languid contemplation...

I might partake of a shisha once or twice a year - usually on a balmy Summer evening following a nice Middle Eastern meal and it has always seemed rather pleasant - even my militantly anti-smoking mother will have a puff or two.

I'm convinced that, like a good Cavendish in a briar pipe, it's conducive to creative enlightenment and profound relaxation, as well as having a delicious flavour.
But, according to the experts it's worse than all the rest of my annual smoking combined, is it? Hmm...

I can't help but wonder if they're only banging on about it now because shisha is increasing in popularity, with a younger audience discovering the delights (not that something becoming trendy makes me any more or less likely to do it, obviously).

Dodgy statistics may damage your health

One of those dubious health stats we were routinely taught at school was that ‘every cigarette takes 15 minutes off your life’, which never seemed to stand up to close scrutiny because there are heavy smokers who live into their 80s having smoked 40 a day throughout their lives. If the ’15 minute’ claim was accurate, then these people would all have been super-Centenarians if they hadn’t smoked, so in which case, why aren’t there more people in the non-smoking population living that long?

I can possibly believe the claim if the figure is reduced to five minutes, as seems to be the case these days, but even then it’s based on so many statistical vagaries that its relevance to any one individual borders on meaningless.

I'm not in denial. I know plenty of people die from smoking-related illnessess, but I believe strongly that the establishment feels the need to hugely overstate the risks and struggle to accept that there are myriad impossible-to-predict variables at hand.

Say somebody smokes half a million fags in their lifetime and dies of lung cancer or emphysema because of it. The assumption is that if they hadn't smoked all those cigarettes they would not have contracted that particular fatal illness, which seems reasonable.

OK, suppose they'd smoked only 499,999 cigarettes. Would it still have happened? Presumably. And what if they'd only smoked 12 cigarettes. They wouldn't have got it then, right?

Can you see where I'm going with this? What if they'd smoked 250,000? 100,000? 25,000? 1000? If it's true that smoking half a million cigarettes over their lifetime was the killer, and smoking no cigarettes over their lifetime would have been safe, their must therefore be a number of cigarettes smoked which is the fulcrum between a fatal and non-fatal quantity, and taking this argument to it's logical (and ludicrous) conclusion, their must have been one cigarette that effectively killed them by taking them over the threshold.

So, a delicious, cool shisha with apple or grape or mixed fruit flavours is like 100 cigarettes, which means 25 hours off your life... actually, even if that's true it kinda seems worth it when you think about it because shisha is such a yummy, blissful way to end a meal.

Doctor Ben's recommendation today is that, even if the doom-laden statistics are an entirely accurate predictor this time and in no way overinflated for scare value, you should still enjoy the pleasures of a shisha pipe occasionally because it tastes great and it's so fruity it's practically one of your five-a-day!

I'm sure I'll be widely criticised for promoting smoking, but views like these have been surpressed for years and years - ever since the 1960s when a medical report showed that pipe smokers lived longer than non-smokers.

Truly objective research went out of the window after that, even though just years earlier, tobacco companies were able to claim that their products were good for you. As usual, the black-and-white philosophy doesn't accomodate the many shades of grey (or indeed the many flavours of Shisha tobacco!)

There are Shisha bars opening up across London but for my money, your best bet is to find an authentic Lebanese restaurant with a courtyard or back garden where you can have a leisurely smoke after your meal. 'Cedar' and 'Ayo', both in the South Wimbledon area are splendid, and I've heard good things about the Momtaz chain which I'm hoping to try soon.

And if it really is equivalent to 100 cigarettes, it's exceptional value at around £10 for a seemingly never-ending pipe. How much would five packs of ciggies be after last weeks Budget?!?

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