Sunday, 26 February 2012

Keeping Traditions Alive: Making Achiote in the Boruca Indigenous Territory

Red Achiote Seeds (Photo by Eileen Delhi under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)

I bet you wouldn’t argue with me if I were to say that our diets are based largely on plants. Then again, some people might. My (not so) little brothers might say that they almost never eat plants. But, they would be wrong. Even foods that we think have nothing to do with plants often do. Take cheddar cheese, for example. The ingredient that makes this food orange comes from a plant called Achiote.
The Achiote Plant (Photo by Joel Abroad under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)
Achiote is the name for a neotropical plant; the same name is also used to describe the natural food colouring that is extracted from its seeds. You may also know it by the name Anatto or by its Nahuatl name Achiotl. Achiote has been well known in the Americas for millennia. For example, Indigenous peoples used achiote to dye textiles, to colour food, and to treat fever, parasites, and even snakebites.

If Achiote’s historic legacies or its role in making cheese ‘cheddar’ aren’t enough to spark your interest in this plant, maybe the following story will:

I’ve recently been making contacts to find a potential site for my research on the use of forest plants in Costa Rica. As a result, last week I was invited to visit Boruca, a small town in the mountains of southern Costa Rica found within the Boruca Indigenous Territory. People living in Boruca are extremely knowledgeable about forests and their ancestors have been using forest plants for millennia. When I stepped off the bus Manuel, a Boruca resident, greeted me. Manuel graciously dedicated his day to teach me about the plants of the Boruca Territory.
The Town of Boruca
We spent the day walking and learning about foods, dyes, and construction materials, all of which were derived from plants. We got slightly carried away learning about plants and I realized I had missed the last bus out of Boruca. Manuel suggested I stay the night and he directed me to a farmer who often had a spare bed for visitors. Staying the night in a new town was not a first for me, but knocking on a complete stranger’s door to ask for a spare bed was!

Lisbeth, a farmer and a Boruca indigenous person, quickly welcomed me to stay the night. I realized Lisbeth had to get my room ready, and this meant taking her away from her gardening, something she did alongside her daughter, her teenage granddaughter, and her three year-old grandson. Although she insisted my staying was no problem at all, the least I could do to lessen my burden was to jump right into the gardening. I wasn’t quite sure what I would be getting into, but as I noticed everyone’s bright red-orange fingertips, I guessed we were working with the achiote plant.

As soon as I sat down on the grass I was handed a bowl, a stick, and a prickly branch of achiote (see below). The first step in preparing achiote is to collect the seeds. To do so, you pop open each prickly achiote seed pod and scoop out the seeds. In the picture, you can see the red pulp that surrounds these tiny achiote seeds; it is something like the pulp that covers a peach pit but quite a bit smaller. Scraping out the red seeds was easy, but Lisbeth’s three year-old grandson quickly showed me it required some skill in choosing the right or good seeds. This little guy quickly became my assistant passing me the ‘best’ seed pods he could find.
Prickly Achiote Seed pods Filled with Red Seeds (Photo by Joel Abroad under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)

As we all sat together sacando el achiote, Lisbeth’s granddaughter explained that we would fill one or two gallon buckets from our pile of hundreds of seedpods. Even though this seemed like a lot of seeds, Lisbeth’s granddaughter informed me that all a couple buckets would only amount to a few baby food jars worth of achiote. I also learned that this was a lengthy process. Lisbeth began to harvest the achiote branches on Wednesday. It was now Saturday and we were only halfway through. To make a few jars of achiote would take at least a week.

For Lisbeth, making achiote is not a business. She explained that commercially processed achoite is available in small jars at every corner store for less than a couple dollars. Because processing achiote is a time-consuming process, Lisbeth would not receive a price worth her time and expertise. I soon realized that Lisbeth makes achiote for fun. She gives her homemade achiote as gifts to her family and friends. Lisbeth also told me she would not think of using store-bought achiote because it is processed and full of additives. When I asked her how many people in Boruca produce achiote, she said that although many people did so 20-30 years ago, now she’d be surprised if any one else did it at all.

Does the continuity of the ancient practice of preparing achiote make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Lisbeth’s 17 year-old granddaughter, Karina, told me that she thought it did. She told me she enjoys helping her grandma make achiote and, most importantly, she loves its natural flavour. This flavour, she told me, is nothing like the achiote you can buy in the store. Karina was eager to list all the foods her family prepares use natural achiote, including picadillos (a type of vegetable stir-fry), grilled fish, and tamales. Karina’s pride in her family’s natural cooking was unmistakable as she handed me my dinner and asked me to try some rice, beans, and potatoes seasoned with achiote, “…todo producido aqui!” (all produced right here!).

I was inspired by the sense of pride Lisbeth and her family showed in keeping achiote-making alive. Participating in the activity helped me to gain a deeper respect for the plants and cultures we share the land with. I was particularly moved by Lisbeth’s grandaughter’s vision. How many times have we heard or said, “you know the youth today, they don’t appreciate food/work/tradition like we did in our day”? Here in Boruca, there are youth that do appreciate growing their own food, cooking naturally, and carrying on family traditions. Through this appreciation for tradition, these Boruca youth are keeping their ancestors' knowledge and practices alive.

The real names of the people mentioned in this blog have been changed to respect anonymity. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Food in Unsuspecting Places: Not Fruit, Nor Flowers, but Unripe Palm Inflorescences

In the process of finding a place to begin my research, I have been fortunate to experience a taste of life in farmland surrounded by tropical forests. I was particularly intrigued with the food I found in unsuspecting places.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced trying a new food either while travelling or even from our own backyard. In my garden, I have often discovered something thought a weed was in fact edible. My most recent unique food experience was on a visit to an organic farm, La Finca Agroecologica El Progreso, in the Caribbean Region of Costa Rica near Tortuguero National Park. Because of my interest in plants and particularly in their different uses as food, I asked my host, Nuria, to take me on a short walk to see the foods growing in her garden.

Chamaedorea tepejilote Palm (the arrow is pointing to the edible inflorescence growing on the stem)

Walking only a few hundred meters from Nuria’s house, to my surprise, I found myself in a patch of dense tropical forest. This was not your typical garden that’s for sure. In fact, it was a pasture that had been converted to a forest patch through the dedicated effort and creativity of these farmers. As I marveled at the colourful tropical flowers and fruits, Nuria drew my attention to a skinny green palm tree. At first glance I thought was she was showing me an edible species of heart of palm. Heart of palm is a well-known source of food harvested from the inside of a palm tree stem and often used in salads. But, after a closer look, this palm tree was much too skinny to produce a ‘heart’ worth harvesting. Sure enough, Nuria was not interested in the heart of palm; instead, she pulled off a few green fleshy spikes from the top of the palm stem. She explained that these fleshy spikes were the unripe inflorescences of the Chamaedorea tepejilote or Pacaya palm.

Freshly harvested Chamaedorea spikes or unripe inflorescences

Now I bet you are thinkng, just what exactly is an unripe inflorescence? Let’s start with an inflorescence, which is a plant structure where a bunch of flowers develop; kind of like a stem to support multiple flowers.  Perhaps the best way to explain an inflorescence is to look at a sunflower. As its name suggests a sunflower may appear to be a single flower, but a closer look reveals that one sunflower is a bunch of tiny flowers all growing on a single structure known as an inflorescence. Each one of these tiny flowers produces one sunflower seed. If you get the chance to pick sunflower seeds you are picking them from multiple flowers on one inflorescence. Thus, what we commonly call a ‘sunflower flower’ is actually a ‘sunflower inflorescence’. Now, if an inflorescence is a plant structure where the flowers will eventually develop, an unripe inflorescence is simply a flowerless ‘fruit and flower’ stem.

A Sunflower Inflorescence - here you can see the seeds developing within each tiny flower (photo by bixentro under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)

Ok, back to the topic at hand, what were we going to do with these unripe palm inflorescences? I have eaten fruits, and even flowers in a salad, but what dish could become of unripe flower stems? Back in Nuria’s kitchen we were soon to find out. First, we peeled the palm inflorescences and began cooking.

Peeling the Chamaedorea spike - the edible portion is found inside the green casing

Nuria told me of many different recipes and uses for this delicacy. For example, you can roast the inflorescence in its casing and enjoy it on its own, or you can chop the inflorescence along with spices and other veggies in a Costa Rican dish called picadillo. This particular day Nuria shared her personal favorite, a sautéed mix of these inflorescences and Chayote squash. This simplicity of this option allowed me to experience the true Chamaedorea inflorescence flavour.

Now to the hard part, describing the flavour. I guess I would describe it as slightly bitter with a texture similar to that of cauliflower. Chamaedorea’s bitter flavour reminded me of another species of palm called súrtuba. Súrtuba (also the subject of my Masters research) can be found in Costa Rican cloud forests and this palm is harvested for its bitter tasting heart. For those not familiar with súrtuba, the Chamaedorea inflorescence flavour was also similar to that of cooked Yucca flowers (or Flor de Itavo). Something tells me these comparisons are not much help; maybe the lack of well-known foods to compare to Chamaedorea is an indication this food was unique.

During lunch, I was pleasantly surprised that the Chamaedorea inflorescence was the perfect complement to the mild flavour of the Chayote squash. I don’t know what exactly converted me to a fan of eating unripe palm inflorescences. Maybe I’m a fan of bitter and interesting foods. Most probably, it was the fact that we simply walked into a forest patch and picked this unsuspecting green spike for lunch. Either way, I entered this venture with a palm-bias and left with a greater appreciation for the multiple uses of this incredible group of plants.