Monday, 10 December 2012

Eating in the Forest: 2012 Highlights

I am back in North America, breathing the fresh and cool air, after an adventure-filled year in tropical Costa Rica. Although I am recuperating from changing seasons, a diet change is by far my most interesting adjustment. As I re-experience winter comfort crops, I reminisce about how different my diet was only days ago when I was foraging in and around a lush tropical rainforest.

Here are my 2012 forest food highlights (all are organic!):

Cacao beans - these seeds can be eaten or ground into a paste to make hot chocolate, we flavoured it with fresh ginger.

100% pure cacao - this hand-ground paste is ready to be boiled into pure hot chocolate.


Peach Palm fruit - these fruits are hung over a wood burning fire to give them a smoky and nutty taste.

Photo by Edder Francisco Diaz Segura
The whole peach palm is edible. I'm holding the inflorescence (eaten roasted) and the heart of palm and young flowers (white material) are cooked in this large green leaf.


Purple bananas - it is more sweet and filling than a standard yellow cavendish; Purple bananas are also the special ingredient in Armadillo stew.
One versatile banana - this sweet dessert banana can be eaten as a snack or boiled when unripe to add to a meal; here I was eating this banana with wild greens and eggs.

Roasted bananas - my favorite afternoon snack with a cup of hot chocolate.


Stone-ground corn (we did the grinding by hand) - how often can you make corn tortillas or cornbread from scratch? All you need is corn, water, and a couple stones.
Simple yet satisfying

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Eat Your Weeds

When I visit Canadian farmer’s markets in the fall, I’m sure to find an abundance of succulent orange yams. I imagined that I would be longing for this buttery treat now that I am living in Costa Rica. I was wrong. I found a tropical sweet potato substitute, the purple yam.

My Bribri friends introduced me to this yam substitute (called tu in Bribri, ñampi in Spanish, and Disocorea alata in Latin). Just as in Canada, yams are harvested here in the fall. Although purple yams don’t quite have the same texture or flavour of orange yams, both varieties are used in similar ways. I’ve eaten purple yam soup, fried yams, mashed yams, and, my favourite, boiled yams. Purple yams have a starchy texture similar to a yellow russet potato. Unlike the unique sweetness of an orange yam, the  purple variety tastes quite simple, with slightly more of a kick than a standard potato. 

The purple yam, of asian origin, is widely cultivated in the Costa Rican Caribbean and in other regions of the world, including the southern United States. Spanish and Portuguese traders likely introduced this edible tuber to the Americas over five centuries ago. Purple yams are hearty vines that anyone could plant. Last May, I dug a hole near the base of a dead tree trunk and buried the purple yam pictured above. Now, this vine is taller than me and its roots are almost ready to harvest. 

Because of how quickly purple yams flourish in tropical humid climates, Florida farmers deem them weeds. Where I’m living, elders tell me their grandkids don’t want anything to do with purple yams and in the past two weeks I’ve received over 9 kilograms of yams as gifts, probably because nobody else wants them! If young people stop eating purple yams will they be considered weeds in Costa Rica too?  I hope not. In the Bribri Territory, this purple side dish brings variety and nutrients to a diet that is otherwise primarily meat, bananas and white rice. Whether you love unique foods or want to help eliminate a Florida invasive, when in Tropical America, don’t be afraid to eat some weeds. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

A Bit of Arsenic in Rice Can’t be that Bad, Can it?

BBC Interviewer: If you are accustomed to eating maybe one or two servings [of rice] a week, it’s not going to make that much difference?

Scientist: No, no that’s absolutely the facts

This morning I listened to this interview with a toxicologist about arsenic in rice. I don’t question scientific studies that report that people seem unaffected by trace amounts of heavy metals in food, in the short term. However, I do question the above BBC interview where a scientist claims it’s, “…absolutely the facts” that one or two servings of rice a week is fine for human consumption, no matter where the rice comes from and no matter how long you are exposed to it. For one thing, this scientist doesn’t address the issue of prolonged exposure to arsenic, found linked to bladder cancer in Taiwan. Most importantly, this scientist doesn’t support his claim with any evidence at all.  

In the journal Nature, scientists recently reported that the arsenic-laden rice in the news likely comes from rice crops cultivated on land used in the past to grow cotton in the United States. In the past, U.S. cotton fields were treated with arsenic-based chemicals to kill pests and to make cotton harvest easier.

The current arsenic scare comes from a study on 200 samples of rice and rice products found in the U.S. Scientists from the FDA say this sample is not big enough to recommend changes in people’s diet. So, these scientists have advised the general public to wait on the results of a study based on 1000 rice samples.

After reading the news and science blogs I asked myself a few questions.

Do we need more evidence to find out exactly where arsenic-contaminated rice is coming from and to clean those lands up?

I think so.

But, do we need more evidence to change our eating habits?

Most definitely not.

The interview I quote at the beginning of this blog scares me. I’m envisioning a reoccurring scenario, when scientists from food organizations say its okay to eat a little bit of heavy metals, just not too much. Take tuna for example, many of these fish have methlymercury levels so high, pregnant woman are warned not to eat them at all. This tuna scare has not been enough to stop many of us from eating tuna. Maybe we have limited the amount of methylmercury-contaminated tuna and maybe will eat arsenic-enriched rice in moderation, but, let’s use our common sense, when was even a little bit of these heavy metals ever good for us?

If cotton-farmers 100 years ago knew the chemicals they put on their crops would be absorbed by the rice their great-granddaughters would be eating, would they still use it? I don’t have that answer. I can say that farmers and consumers today should be well aware of how pesticides, and other chemicals, persist in our ecosystem for generations. Today we are talking about arsenic used a century ago. What will it be tomorrow? For one example, my guess is that our descendants will slap their forehead when they think of all the glyphosate we use today to remove weeds (really any other plant) from our soy, wheat, and cereal crops.

So will a little arsenic in our stir-fry harm us today? Will a little glyphosate in our toast harm us tomorrow? I guess it all depends on what we are thinking when we make our eating choices. Are you simply eating to get by? Or, are you are eating to protect your health and that of generations to come?

Monday, 24 September 2012

From Ghana's Grasscutters to Indigenous Wild Rice: Heirloom Recipes Continued

Ghana’s Grasscutter:
In my last blog, I posted an heirloom recipe using an alternative protein, Tucan meat. Similarly, I found an article promoting another unique source of animal protein, the Grasscutter (also known as the Greater Cane Rat) . Read how farmers in Ghana are raising this wild rodent and selling what A. Bergman calls “The Other, Other White Meat”.

Winnowing Wild Rice in a Birch Bark Basket, Manitoba, Canada

Manoomin for Thanksgiving? 
While heirloom recipes are on my mind, I can’t forget to mention wild rice. Thanks to the Anishnaabe people of Canada, I’ve seen how this hearty grain is processed, I’ve even danced in a wild rice pit! This short story takes you to Indigenous people's wild rice foodscape on the lakes of North America. You'll learn how people canoe to sites of rice harvest and hand-pick this nutty, delicious grain. With North American Thanksgiving right around the corner, try one of these wild rice recipes.

Looking for a Food Adventure? 
Try creating a meal with one of the world’s most endangered foods. If you are in the Americas, choose from this list of endangered foods. If you aren’t sure where to find these rare delicacies, don't be afraid to ask around. On my recent trip to Virginia, I was suprised to find my host growing an endangered fruit, the Pawpaw, in her backyard. Still on my list of foods to find are the Ozette Potato and the Tennessee Fainting Goat

Friday, 14 September 2012

Toucan Soup, an Heirloom Recipe

Before I moved to Costa Rica, I did not think I would add Toucan Soup to my recipe book. My Bribri friends in Talamanca have taught me otherwise. I’ve learned that toucan meat can be prepared in a number or forms, from fried to smoked, much like chicken or turkey; here, I share a recipe that is a favorite among my Bribri friends called Wacho, or, as I’ve translated it, Toucan Soup. Pig or chicken meat is now commonly substituted in this soup, but you’ll still find people who treasure this heirloom recipe.

Recipe for Urrék (Toucan in Bribri)

Pluck and fillet the Toucan as you would any wild foul or chicken (boiling the bird may help remove feathers)

Fry the pieces of meat in a large pot with onion, garlic, wild cilantro and peppers, and salt (root vegetables can be added at this step, such as yucca)

Add water and bring to a boil; keep on the fire until the meat is cooked

 Once the meat is cooked, stir in white rice

 Finish cooking your soup until rice is tender and serve hot

Learning about toucan as a food left me with a few lingering questions: What other wild birds are important foods? Why are these foods important to people who eat them? And, what do they taste like? I hope to learn more about these wild delicacies as my time passes in Talamanca. I often reflect on how fortunate I am to participate in indigenous family traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years. At the same time, I’m sorry I didn’t spent more time asking my grandparents to show me how to fillet a chancellor chicken or stuff a moose heart.

If you are intrigued to learn a few more heirloom recipes, check out a favorite book of mine called Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Reading these recipes will be even more rewarding if you can find someone who knows how to prepare them. 

Listen to toucans I recorded while visiting a friends' farm in Costa Rica:

Friday, 27 July 2012

You say tomato, I say Banana Leg

This is a guest post by David Steen; David researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at
Kellogg’s Breakfast
The giant orange tomato dwarfed my hand and its bulbous sides overflowed my palm. As I manhandled the giant fruit out of the back of the farmer’s pickup, I gave the man, leaning on the back of the truck, an inquisitive look.
            He replied, “Now that’s an heirloom tomato.”
            Perhaps he wasn’t used to people wanting to know more, but I did. As I checked out the orange orb, I asked,
            “What’s it called?”
            “Kellogg’s Breakfast.”
            The farmer and I collectively chuckled at the ridiculous name for this variety of tomato before he added,
            “Sometimes I look through seed catalogs and order ones that look interesting.”
            His response brought to my mind a stereotype I have of the American farmer, that of the man in the straw hat forever toiling on a tractor in a homogenous and monotonous field of wheat. Of course, that isn’t necessarily the reality. Farmers, both men and women, can be creative people that are enthusiastic about their work and always interested in trying to grow new things and with different strategies. I wondered if part of the reason this particular farmer raised peculiar varieties of tomatoes was to see the reaction on people’s faces when they strolled through the farmers market. I hope mine didn’t disappoint.
            I later learned that these tomatoes earned their name because of their color, which brings to mind orange juice, often served during breakfast, as well as the fact that someone in Michigan named Kellogg is credited for introducing the variety. Okay, I thought, I can go along with that. However, I did note to myself the irony of giving an heirloom (i.e., not mass produced) tomato a name that brings to mind a mega-corporation that facilitates industrial agriculture and produces what they call food on an assembly line (at least, that’s how they do it in my imagination).
Banana Leg
            Another tomato he was selling included a yellow and elongated variety known as a Banana Leg. I confirmed with him that I could save the seeds from these tomatoes and grow them myself in the future. Sure, he replied. I’m looking forward to it.
            Checking out the options at a nearby truck, I noticed a Frankenstein of a tomato. It was red, which is relatively conventional, but huge and misshapen.
            “What happened here?” I asked the woman at the stand.
            “Looks like two tomatoes just started growing together.”
            I don’t know if that’s really what happened or not, but she was right in that that’s what it looked like. Into the tote bag it went, as did a bin of cherry tomatoes.
            Later that day, while looking at the motley crew of yellow, orange, red, and Siamese-twin assortment of locally produced tomatoes I had acquired, I thought about how much we lose when we automatically think of a tomato as the uniformly-colored red and perfectly shaped object we mechanically throw in the shopping cart when we hit the grocery store. We’re not just losing weird colors and shapes, but we completely miss out on all kinds of new tastes and textures.

            It doesn’t have to be that way. The food we eat doesn’t have to be just the items that are most cost-effective for companies to produce and manufacture in bulk. We don’t have to settle for eating the tomatoes that are engineered to look identical (especially because they don’t taste as good!). Making food identical is what fast-food restaurants do with their products because they know people tend to choose the things that they are used to.
            Well, let’s get used to some weird tomatoes! Let’s get used to some non-conformity in our ingredients. If variety truly is the spice of life, don’t hesitate to throw some Banana Legs into the salad you’re having or put some thick, orange slices of Kellogg’s Breakfast onto that sandwich for lunch.
            Whenever I extol the virtues of these locally produced fruits and vegetables, someone is surely to bring up (or at least think about) how the costs of these items are prohibitively expensive. Well, I’m pleased to note that they’re not at the farmers market that I go to. And, I suspect that if you purchase your food from local farmers instead of from the grocery store (which, in all likelihood, ships in that food from all over the world), you will be pleasantly surprised at the price tag. It’s moot as far as I’m concerned though, I don’t know why the cost should even be a consideration when you’re talking about what you decide to put into your body. If you have an income, then you can afford to buy good food. You can compromise on other things.
            Have you had any luck growing Banana Legs or Kellogg’s Breakfast tomatoes? Tips appreciated.
Fermenting Tomato Pulp to Save the Seeds

Sunday, 8 July 2012

My Three Favorite Tips for Staying Connected to your Food While Living in the City

Farmers Market in Montenegro

As a University student, I often find myself sitting indoors and in front of my computer. While studying, the closest I get to a farm is the Saturday market. Because it is important for me to remain connected to my food, I’ve reflected on how to do so when stuck in the city; here are three ways to do so. If you have any of your own tips, please post them here.

1. Be creative with space.

Plants can grow almost anywhere; many will grow just fine in your house or apartment. Garlic is the perfect example. If left in storage, even in your cupboard, garlic cloves begin to sprout on their own. Although this isn’t the recommended method of growing them! All you have to do is bury the clove in soil in a small container and a few months later you will start to see your garlic plant sprout. Many people are extremely creative with space in the city. One example is the art of window gardening. Window gardens are a great place to grow herbs and spices for cooking. Another example of a creative use of space is the rooftop garden. Rooftop gardens are the answer to finding space for gardening even in the most confined living arrangements, such as high-rise apartment complexes; because these spaces are often communal, they also become a great way to share gardening tips with your neighbour! You may not be able to grow your entire meal on the roof, but many plants are content with such a space. Some examples include: garlic, chives, basil, arugula, swiss chard, tomatoes, small pepper varieties, or radishes.
Chicago Rooftop Garden (photo from

2. Read food labels.

We don’t always have the luxury or the time to graze solely at farmers markets. But, if eating local and in season is important to you, read your food labels to see where your food was produced. I’ve often made the mistake of assuming that if a plant can grow in Canada, that finding it in the market means it must be locally grown. But, that is not always the case. Take garlic for example. Garlic is a crop that grows well in Canada, but most garlic I find in the store is shipped in from China! Because some stores and markets have yet to reveal product origin information, it is often necessary to shop around for stores that do.
Estonian Wild Mushrooms
3. In one word: seasonality

Living in Canada, it is hard for me to ignore seasons! In other parts of the world, seasons are not so clear-cut. No matter where you are, plants, believe it or not, are very in-tuned to seasonality (when I talk about seasonality I’m referring to the natural growth cycles of plants). So, knowing what time of year to start planting a food will make a difference in what grows well in your home garden. Being attentive to seasons, will also allow you to organize your garden so you can enjoy your own food year-round. If you buy seeds, the package will often display the best time of year to plant local varieties. If you go to farmers markets, ask your farmer. My best advice on when to plant seeds has come directly from farmers who are highly in tune with plants' seasonal needs.

If you know what foods grow in what season you can also begin to enjoy wild edibles. Mushrooms are a great example. Many mushrooms grow wild and their harvest is often regulated and seasonally in nature areas. Some city-dwellers have taken to the art of foraging in the heart of urban areas. You’d be surprised how many edible greens are growing under the guise of weeds! Some examples include, dandelion leaves, sorrel, and mustard greens. Remember to check whether or not urban foraging areas are chemical-free. Also, wild foods should not be consumed without consulting with an expert
Wild Young Morel Mushrooms (photo from

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Forest Foraging: Recipes from Cameroon

A few weeks ago, I was in France with an international group of students for a short course in Ethnobiology. During this course, I was paired with my friend from Cameroon, Ntumuwel Bonito Chia, to cook breakfast. It was quite interesting because we were asked to create a meal using only select French ingredients. When we asked each other what we should make, we quickly realized our ideas included many things we could not find nearby. We managed just fine with bread, eggs, and cheese, but I left France very curious about the West African foods my friend suggested we make that morning.

After returning to Cameroon, my friend Bonito kindly sent me some recipes for cooking Cameroonian plants. I’ve shared two of these recipes that use plants gathered directly from the forest. I hope to take Bonito up on his offer to visit Cameroon to learn more about these plants and to taste these recipes!

Eru Leaves (Gnetum africanum, photo courtesy of Bonito)

Eru (pronounced ‘e,ru) is a traditional meal of the Bayangi people that live in the southwest of Cameroon. Eru is also the name of the plant that is the main ingredient in this dish, Gnetum africanum. Below you can see the Eru leaves cut into thin strips to be cooked.
Sliced Eru Leaves (photo courtesy of Bonito)
A dish Bonito enjoys combines boiled Gnetum leaves, crayfish, dried fish, cow meat, and a red oil (from the African oil palm). Eru is served with a side of plantains and fufu. Fufu is a dish made from yuca or cassava (Manihot esculenta). Although I believe fufu recipes differ regionally, in Cameroon Bonito explained that fufu is made by boiling and pounding the cassava root.

Bonito explained that cooking eru leaves changes their flavour from slightly bitter (uncooked) to sweet (cooked). Interesting, even when cooked, eru leaves retain an odor reminiscent of the forest. Because eru leaves are fibrous, people boil them with leaves called “water leaves” to help to tenderize the eru fibers. People living outside of Cameroon report that spinach can be used as a substitute for water leaves in a pinch!


Ndole with Fried Plantains (photo from

Ndole (pronounced ndo ‘le) is a traditional meal of the Douala people from the costal region of Cameroon. This meal is cooked using leaves from the ndole plant (Vernonia amygdalina) also commonly known as “bitter leaf”. As its common name indicates, ndole is bitter; this flavour is due to the high levels of antioxidants it contains.

To remove the bitter taste, Bonito explained that ndole leaves are washed several times in water or boiled with limestone. Ndole leaves are then cooked along with groundnuts (also known as peanuts in North America; Arachis hypogea) and groundnut oil. After this process, Bonito told me that ndole tastes sweet.

Thanks again Bonito for sharing these forest-plant recipes!

Ntumuwel Bonito Chia is a forest engineer working on his Masters in the Forestry Department at University of Dschang, Cameroon. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Eating Ferns

For over a month I’ve been living in Talamanca, Costa Rica. In Talamanca, I spend most of my time cultivating and harvesting foods and many of these foods are new to my diet. Now, I am away from the forest for an ethnobiology congress where I’m discussing themes related to forests as sources of unique and important foods. Here is one example of foods I’ve been talking about!

What is a fern?

A fern is a type of plant and there are thousands of different kinds of them. The ferns in this picture are called “Ar” in Bribri, which is the language spoken where I’m working. The name Ar is actually a general term used to describe many different kinds of edible forest greens.

Where can you find ferns?

The ferns in the picture above can be found in tropical forests, but finding enough of them to make a meal isn’t always easy! Some Bribri women have taught me to look for these ferns in areas of the forest that are used for other activities, activities such as harvesting firewood or planting fruit trees.

What do these ferns taste like?

If you like asparagus you’d enjoy these ferns because that is what I think they taste like. People of all ages enjoy eating these ferns boiled and served with meat or other root veggies.

Are these ferns healthy?

I’m not sure for this specific fern, but my guess is yes. Women I’ve talked to love that these plants grow naturally and chemical free in the mountains. Yesterday a woman told me that although forest greens in Tanzania are low in calories they are high in micronutrients. Ferns are likely a source of important micronutrients for people who live near forests – especially where I’m living since this is one of the few greens we eat! 


Ahenkan A, & Boon E (2011). Improving nutrition and health through non-timber forest products in Ghana. Journal of health, population, and nutrition, 29 (2), 141-8 PMID: 21608423

Arnold, M, Powell, B, Shanley, P, & Sunderland, T (2011). Human health, food security and forests. International forestry review, 13(3), 259-264

Thursday, 5 April 2012

“One Generation Plants a Tree – The Next Generation Enjoys the Shade”: Rainforest Alliance Certification in Uganda’s Tea Estates

Early morning in a Ugandan tea field

Farmers can choose among many different ways of certifying their crops. In the past, I have discussed well-known certifications, including Organic and Fair-trade, as well as less well-known ones, such as Certified Local Sustainable. One that I have not described is the Rainforest Alliance certification. To do so, I brought in an expert!

Denis Twinamatsiko
Our expert is Denis Twinamatsiko who is currently working with Rainforest Alliance certification programs in Uganda. To help me here, Denis has kindly answered some questions regarding this certification process in the Ugandan context (all quotations and photographs are Denis's). 

How and why did you get involved with Rainforest Alliance in Uganda?

Denis told me he became involved with Rainforest Alliance certification through his work with black tea crops in Uganda. His firm works with six tea estates (and over 400 smallholder farmers) along the legendary Rwenzori mountain ranges.

Denis explained that although his firm met multiple food safety and environmental standards, they chose Rainforest Alliance certification to improve overall sustainability in the tea estates.

“We have been re-energized by a recent report released by International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) titled “Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda’s Tea Growing Areas”, which revealed that climatic suitability of much of Uganda’s tea growing areas will decline significantly by 2050 and hence a wakeup call for everyone involved in the tea sector here in Uganda.”

Tea tasting 
What makes the Rainforest Alliance Certification different from other Certifications, such as Organic?

Denis explained that Rainforest Alliance considers economic, environmental, and social issues, whereas organic certifications strictly address environmental concerns. While organic certification prohibits the any use of agrochemicals, Rainforest Alliance allows farmers to use a limited amount of agrochemicals in a controlled manner. At the same time, Rainforest Alliance requires farmers to engage in ecosystem, water, and wildlife conservation, to create an agriculture-ecosystem continuum across landscape (for a list of all the requirements click here). In addition, Rainforest Alliance requires that farms provide fair wages and safe working conditions for their farmers. So, although the Rainforest Alliance certification may not be 100% organic, its farming standards take into account people and wildlife too.

Forest patch next to tea factory

In your experience, how has this certification brought positive change to farmers and farms in your region?

Rainforest Alliance certified crops appear to be a win-win situation for farmers and the environment. Denis shared that certified farmers maintain patches of natural forests within the tea estates. Keeping forests in the tea-landscape helps farmers lower agriculture costs because they become less reliant on fertilizers or pesticides and more reliant on natural ecosystem processes for crop-care. For example, forests are sources of natural predators (meaning they will need less chemical pesticides) and forests can help maintain soil health and prevent erosion. At the same time, when farmers keep forest patches within tea estates it is one form of conserving biodiversity. Tourists have recognized that Rainforest Alliance tea estates are important for biodiversity conservation, Denis shared, and they are visiting these estates to observe the fauna that can be found there!

Denis made another important point. When farms become certified, farmers start documentation of the process as a form of an internal control system; farmers can use these records to help predict long-term tea production patterns and this can benefit their business.

I was surprised to learn that Rainforest Alliance is not just important locally, but international tea buyers are showing a preference for Rainforest Alliance Certified Teas, and offering higher prices for them. Denis explained that “Lipton, one of the largest tea buyers in the world has committed to sourcing all of their tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified estates by 2015”.

Tea field next to forest patch

In light of the positive aspects of this certification, why aren’t all Ugandan tea estates becoming certified?

Denis mentioned that owners of tea estates can be reluctant to become certified because they would need to provide workers with fair wages. In Uganda, for example, there is no national minimum wage, and some farms may prefer to keep underpaying their workers.

Government support for environmental and social well-being is very important to gain wider acceptance of Rainforest Alliance, says Denis. He explained that without national standards people may be less willing to learn about or even adopt the sustainable practices. For example, Uganda does not have a national soil-conservation policy. Thus, many farmers prefer to burn a patch of land to clear it for agriculture rather than try some of the integrated soil management techniques proposed by Rainforest Alliance.

Denis’s work reminds us that even the simple things in life, such as tea drinking, have direct impacts on how the landscape looks, and, more importantly, how it will look in years to come. Denis said it best when he recalled the African proverb, “one generation plants a tree – the next generation enjoys the shade”.

Tea field