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How army rations helped change food (bbc.com)
113 points by ohjeez 6 days ago | hide | past | web | 59 comments | favorite

HN readers who served in armed forces, if you ever got a chance to trade rations with armed forces of other nations, which nation's military rations impressed you the most (either in a good or bad way)? And as a tangent, if you also got to eat in the field kitchens of other nations' armed forces, which nation's field kitchen impressed you the most (in a good or bad way)?

I've heard praise from US armed forces services members for French, Dutch, and New Zealand rations before, curious about others' experiences.

I didn't serve in other countries than my own, but I sort of accidentally came across a Croatian Armed Forces 24-hour MR. 2 packs of orange drink powder, a 50g chocolate bar, 50g of hardtack biscuits, 3x75g (not sure if it was 75) packs of biscuits, 400g of beef goulash, liver patee (which tasted really wonderful, very fresh and smooth), peach- or citrus-flavoured tea, 2x20g packs of good quality, not crystallized, honey which naturally go in the tea, some coffee bonbons, 50g of pineapple & papaya dried bits, a 20g pack of chicken soup, and of course 3 wet napkins.

Absolutely fantastic. Neatly packed and easy to handle and carry around in a cardboard box.

A YouTube video of that very same Croatian Armed Forces 24-hr MR https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21vP5FUuTzg

Yup, that's the one! High quality stuff.

I served in the Canadian Forces. I've tried Canadian, American and British rations. Out of the three I liked the British ones best but that was probably because I had the least exposure to them so they were more novel. On an unrelated note they also made better use of cardboard.

Heating is a big limiting factor for rations. You have to be able to heat the meal up either in a pot of boiling water or with small chemical heaters. To allow for even heating this means the food will have a very high water content and usually have small pieces of solid food. Stews and curries do very well for this kind of heating. Some of the Canadian meals are a larger piece of meat in a liquid. Examples of this were the ham steak (a puck sized piece of ham with pineapple and pineapple juice) or salmon filet.

When it comes to fresh rations my experience with other countries is more limited but based on what I've seen I'll stick with Canadian cooks every time. This isn't meant to bash other countries since all army cooks work hard.

As a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, I ate a few times from a French kitchen. No clue what I was eating but it was good every time.

Unrelated, but relevant LPT: the vegetarian meals would often include peanut M&Ms; I'm assuming to up the protein content of the pack.

Also, the pound cakes (especially lemon poppy-seed) were so delicious I'd search them out, and my favorite pack was the barbecue rib sandwich - basically a McRib.

When I was in the German military the food rations were pretty bad but our cafeteria food was much better than what the Americans I had contact with had. I bet the Italians or French have much better food than Americans. In Italy even the fast food you get a freeway rest stops is excellent.

UK rations were terrible. Some sort of canned cod in tomato sauce was the one I remembered vividly, and not in a good way. The only edible thing I found were some tea biscuits.

In US MREs, the prized items were dehydrated fruit cocktail, peanut butter, and surprisingly, the dehydrated beef patty. The chicken ala king was universally hated. Had a distinct wet cat food aroma.

agreed. The gorilla cookies (which if you're from the UK, taste exactly like Hob Nobs), apple sauce, and fudge brownie also deserve special mention as among the best in MRE cuisine.

but my personal favorite was the dehydrated potato patty, which oddly enough tasted about the same as the dehydrated beef patty (unless you added water).

the chicken ala king...i had almost forgotten about; there's a workaround though which i've done many times: pour it into your canteen cup along with the coffee and hot chocolate packets (inside every MRE), add water and heat it--actually edible this way, and the coffee kills the smell almost completely. Try not to splash any on your skin.

but by itself, the chicken ala king is just hideous--if the Geneva Convention would allow it, could be used it to interrogate POWs.

There are several YouTube channels devoted to reviewing military rations from all around the world.

Yep, thanks, I've seen them before. It is interesting to me however, that without explicitly asking for reviews on taste, former armed forces members only talk about taste. This seems to signal to me that packaging, weight, volume, digestibility, etc. are either all moot or simply shrugged off as "you take what you can get".

This surprised me, because I was actually expecting someone to pipe up and say, for example, "taste was great, but it was too heavy so we ended up field stripping them and only taking the entree", or the packaging was too loud or too unwieldy to pack out, etc. I had expected some of that kind of response, because at least the US Army Natick Labs seems to pay a lot of attention to these other factors as well. And one constant appears to be armed forces members like to complain, so I was surprised they didn't comment about anything except the taste/palatability.

Seems like someone has been working with Natick on a way to shake loose unbound water using sound waves [1].

[1] http://www.betaboston.com/news/2015/01/20/natick-lab-strives...

This is probably primarily because there's been many decades of work by governments and private companies on the packaging and design of these meals to make them lighter, less hassle, more practical, etc. If you watch an unboxing of a modern meal from some of the YouTube channels linked, they're actually impressively compact, easy to deal with, and thoughtfully engineered. (Even examples from some developing nations seem pretty respectable. A lot of countries even put contact information on the packaging to solicit user comments!) Much of the food is put into small bags, meant to be thrown in a pocket or pouch to snack on later. It's even common in Europe to just put snack foods in pretty standard branded packets, which is a well-tested solution.

Military personnel tend to cheerfully gripe about anything that was annoying about their service—it's an almost universal bonding thing across cultures. When it comes to packaged meals, the griping seems to focus on 1) how it tastes and 2) whether it gave them digestive problems. I think, admittedly as a layman on military packaged food, that the state of the art of packaging design/engineering is pretty solid.

Maybe it's because expectations. If you want to complain about food, what will you complain about? Taste, texture, aspect. I guess that's what they complained about because that's what they are used to seeing when they see food. Show them a gun sling or whatever, and I guess they'll start seeing other things, more in tune with its purpose.

"Let's get it on a plate. [. . .] Alright!"

A recent video about a United Arab Emirates 24hr Ration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMSse6J-wfU

That's one of my favourite youtube channels. I'm not sure why.

I think his review of Israeli rations might be an example of a less appetising ration - a lot of olives and a lot of tuna.


Hah, I'm a big fan of his as well. It's a very small and weird internet world. I never thought that MREs would be something that's interesting enough to subscribe to.

It's ironic because he's a gourmet of the ultimate pre-packaged food. And he's so infectiously enthusiastic about it, even when something tastes nasty he's so upbeat about it.

"Hmm... yeah... that definitely tastes a little off... (another bite, chews thoughtfully) yeah that's definitely starting to go... /nods sagely as he chews."

"(opens bulging can of creamed corn) Oh yeah that stuff definitely has botulism... the smell is AWFUL! /shit eating grin"

"Oh. Ugh. Hmmm... Yeah, that's bad. It's like cardboard infused with old gym socks and a bit of...lemon, maybe? another obvious crunch of him taking a bite"

It's very much like he treats his mouth as an instrument of historical study. If he doesn't taste it, how will anyone know? Given he avoids eating things he thinks will certainly make him sick, it seems more "weird, but strangely admirable" than "demented". At least, to me.

Occasionally, very occasionally, you'll hear him hit a point where the food is so awful that he goes, "Why am I eating this?" But even then, it seems like a damn fair question, so you feel for the guy. :D There's a reason my friends and I nicknamed the channel, "Steve, Don't Eat It!"

"Nice hiss!"

I also ran across his channel a few months back. Only took a couple videos before I subscribed. He's just so relaxed and laid back about it. I really like his reviews of the included cigarettes in some of the older rations too, even though I've never been a smoker.

The ration depicted there is not entirely representative of a 2009 manat krav. At the end of the video you can see there's a note referring to how the loof/spam is "10 years old" since it is dated to 2006. In reality it expires in 2006, making it likely to be a 2005-2006 ration (loof lasts 1.5 years IIRC).

In my experience with rations around 2009 you can expect them to contain:

1. Less Tuna (which is actually bad IMO, the tuna is the most important part :))

2. Possibly Sardines

3. Salted peanuts (to my understanding, meant as a tuna replacement for vegeterians/vegans)

4. Possibly pickles instead of olives

5. Hummus spread (which is awful)

6. "Vegeterian spread" (which is inedible, and it is unclear to me what it is actually made of)

7. The canned halvah is most often replaced with a vanilla halvah bar (which is sweeter than the one he ate)

8. The chocolate spread he showed was the rare good kind, there was also another version that came in a plastic container and was awful (has a sand-like texture).

So less tuna than you saw, though I still wouldn't recommend it.

At around 2010 (I think) they realized the rations were terrible and decided to revise them. I'm not sure exactly what is in those now, but I know the legendary loof which no one wanted to eat was replaced with goulash, which looks horrible (would you really like to eat unidentified meat chunks floating in liquid fat?) but is not bad in practice.

Corrections to the video: The chocolate halvah spread he showed is just a chocolate spread (actually named "cocoa spread", probably since for kosher reasons it contains no milk). The powdered juice he had was raspberry flavored (I don't think any other flavors are actually available).

Some extra lore: To get the loof to come out you need to slightly open the other side so air can get sucked in. Since you are not supposed to put sugar in your canteens (they'll start to smell and you'll have to clean them) the sugar and juice powder are often added to the halvah or chocolate. How you are supposed to make tea I don't know. If you can manage it (usually not in actual combat situations), you partially open the can of tuna so the oil seeps out, cover it with some toilet paper and light it on fire, the TP acts as a wick sucking the oil out, and the flames cook the tuna (assuming you set several cans up together and enclose them with stones etc.), leading to an improved experience. Another possibility is to stick the tuna and loof into your tank's engine for a slow roast. As for the can opener, you'll notice there's only one. The first thing you'll learn in basic training when you encounter a manat krav is to keep the can opener for the next one so you can start opening them more quickly. Another is that in a real combat situation you'd rather bring your own since these are kind of terrible.

He's unlikely to see it here, but he'd probably appreciate your information if you commented on the video. (Assuming someone hasn't corrected him already—it's a small internet, sometimes.)

Yah, that's too much tuna. But I want some of that Halva LOL :)

I love the step of going the extra distance to taste the honey on its own before putting it in the tea -- "very floral" and "natural".


"Yeah, Nice."

I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing military food except from the stuff here in New Zealand.

I don't know if it's still the case, but the one or two times that I managed to glean some NZ Army ration packs, they had several items that need water and/or cooking to be eaten, for example, ramen. So not so convenient when you're on the move, and you then also need to pack a source of heat (hexi tabs or a gas cooker) as well.

NZDF chefs are great though, the food they serve up on the navy bases is especially great. Good quality food, nutritious, and you can eat as much as you can fit on a plate, with seconds if you manage to hang around until the end of serving without a PO yelling at you to fuck off. Air Force food was terrible though, since they RNZAF doesn't have chefs any more, they use private caterers (I think from memory they use Compass Group, who make universally bad food).

My Dad used to work for the British Army when I was a kid. Some of the stuff in the UK ration packs wasn't bad - the chocolate, and the dried apple were my favourites.

The basic chocolate bar was something like 20% Coca-Cola and pretty bland, but sometimes you'd get a commercial bar like a Mars or Kitkat. This was back in the 90s when I was in the TA.

If I ever see a 'bacon grill' again it'll be too soon. Overall they were ok, especially the chicken curry one.

I think you mean 20% cocoa. 20% Coca-Cola is just weird.

Isn't it a Yorkie in British ration packs?

Hilarious. Blasted auto-correct.

I didn't trade, but Italian army rations looked pretty good.

U.S. MREs are obviously awful when compared to pretty much any prepared food, but when you're genuinely hungry you mind that a lot less.

Today's MREs are far better than the ones introduced in the 80's. Let me tell you about the joys of the "Dried Pork Pattie", which strongly resembled something you'd find out on the ranch, a few days after the cows had moved into another part of the field.

Based on this soldiers recommendation army rations of India seem not very impressive


One of my favorite cheeses - Cougar Gold - was developed with military funding. Typical cheeses will build up carbon dioxide gasses, which makes putting cheese into a sealed container problematic. Washington State University was doing research into making can-able cheeses without that gaseous build-up in the 1940s, and got a grant for it.

TIL that Washington State University makes and sells[0] its own cheese from its own dairy herd.

[0] http://cougarcheese.wsu.edu/DirectionsWEB/webcart_itemBuy.ph...

I had no idea. I love this cheese, occasionally we get a gift of it from a WSU alum.

And it all started with Nicolas Appert.

> In 1795 the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. After some 14 or 15 years of experiment, Appert submitted his invention and won the prize in January 1810 on condition that he make the method public


Just curious, how much money is this in today's dollars (or Euros)?

The online calculator I found only goes back to the middle of 1901, so 12,000 FF back then is worth about 47,110 Euros today. Going back earlier than 1901 would require some interesting historic research. But a guess would be that it would have been serious money.

If it helps at all, enough to build a canning factory according to Wikipedia.

> Unfortunately for Appert, the factory which he had built with his prize money was razed in 1814 by Allied soldiers when they entered France.


You can see a list of rations from around the world here http://imgur.com/gallery/BvExp9V http://imgur.com/gallery/USkcw

There's an entire community of ration reviewers on youtube, one of the best is gundog. If you watch enough videos they'll start to reference each other in trades of hard to get rations.


You can also just buy them, they aren't cheap though


I've eaten a few of the U.S. ones. Most of the menus are surprisingly good. The thing that blew my mind the first time was the flameless heater. If you're clever with it you end up with a nice hot meal. Kind of amazing considering they specifically don't want to use any chemical preservatives, but still have long life and thermal range stability.

In the first link they all look surprisingly edible. I think that the french one also includes some brandy which is pretty cool. The caption on the Russian one about the "Cblp" (Сыр, pron. "seer") made me smile :)

A lot of medical breakthroughs also come out of the military.

The Military: A strangely civilizing force for reasons most people are largely unaware of.

The entire field of plastic and reconstructive surgery basically came out of The Great War.

I read or heard somewhere that a lot of modern brain surgery techniques came out of Vietnam. Thanks to the basically new invention of military helicopters, they could rapidly medivac people who previously would have just died in the field with no hope of survival. They had people out cold with dirt in their hair, etc, and they began doing things like going in through the mouth which was cleaner, had less hard structures between it and the brain than the scalp and generally healed up better.

I also saw a video, probably a TED talk, by a guy who was asked by the military to revolutionize prostheses for military members who had lost an arm. He initially said that their ambitious goal for improved functionality could not be done. They inundated him with stats on people who had lost an arm serving their country. Their punchline was the number of soldiers who had lost both arms. At that point he caved and accepted this crazy sounding, "impossible" task which led to radical improvements in the tech, iirc.

I recall reading that the peak of medicine under the Roman Empire was not reached again until The Great War. Quite interesting, and it makes me wonder how far we would have come had the Roman Empire not fallen.

It's amazing how many of these things were only understood and put into widespread practice in the past one or two centuries. Wide-ranging aspects of modern life are impacted by the fact that we can depend on grocery stores with quality food, and it's all too easy to take for granted how this changes the way we live compared to our recent ancestors.

Although mentioned near the end of the article, the beginnings of food canning are fascinating (if you're into that sort of thing): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canning#History_and_developm...

I happened to be researching this for a book a few months back. I noticed at the time that article on Wikipedia appears to be missing a bit of history although much of that missing information actually appears elsewhere on Wikipedia (and is sourced).

Canning seems to have originated with the Dutch navy in the mid-1700s and there was a small salmon canning industry in Holland by the end of that century.

There was a 99% Invisible episode about this: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/war-and-pizza/

The 99PI episode is great. It goes into a bit more detail about how it's not only important to develop these food technologies but also get the overall food industry to adopt them as well.

If a war does happen, the manufacturers are already prepared to ramp up ration production.

Well, this is a subset of the things the military has given us. It has also given us duct tape, for example. And NASA gave us velcro.

The common theme here, it seems to me, is that when people are working in hostile environments for high stakes, problems which are normally easy, such as preparing and storing food, fixing leaks, or keeping things put, can become insurmountable barriers which warrant a great deal of ingenuity and investment. The solutions found in those contexts can apply to the rest of us and make the problem easier.

So I would expect, for example, long range spaceflight to yield medical advances in self-diagnosis and treatment.

"Under high pressure, microorganisms burst, and the food is sterilised, a process that today yields preservative-free lunch meats, packaged guacamole that stays green under its wrapper, and fresh-tasting bottled juices (the process is sometimes called cold pasteurisation)."

A confusing bit of nomenclature, as "cold pasteurisation" is also used to refer to using ionizing radiation on food for the same purposes.

I ate a lot of UK ration packs in the UK and while I certainly had favourites, they were remarkably good

I recently stumbled on a youtube channel of a guy who goes through and samples food from various ancient ration packs. Even 50 years down the road, many of them are still edible and very tasty.


This is such a weird, niche thing but it's actually fascinating to me. The internet is a weird, weird place.

edit: Hah, someone else posted a link to another of his reviews of a UAE ration, and another reviewer who does the same thing with MREs. Turns out the internet is a smaller world than I imagined.

French, German, Dutch, Korean. French wins hands down for yummyness.

Why do BBC articles do so well here?

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