Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Farms Forests Foods In 2013: A Thank You To My Readers

When not blogging, I try to stay connected to my food.
Here I am stone grinding corn using Bribri techniques
in Costa Rica. 

Today's post is a thank you to my readers for tuning into Farms Forests Foods in 2013. I extend a special thanks to those readers that contributed to and have commented on the blog. 

Blogging can become a very lonesome feat; your questions and feedback on the blog remind me someone else has benefitted from my writing. Most importantly, your comments and discussions on the blog help to create an interactive community of food enthusiasts, a community united by goals of just and sustainable eating for healthy lands and people.

Here are 5 things our Farms Forests Foods community has achieved:

1) Over 71,000 Blog Views! 

I started this blog in 2011 to share my research and knowledge about food sustainability and food justice; your visits to my blog have helped me achieve this goal. 

When you click on the blog, I get a notification that someone passed by the blog. With that notification, I assume something I wrote was at least remotely interesting. If you want to help me improve this blog, please comment directly on the blog posts you read. Your comments help me understand what you've liked, disliked, or what questions you still have after a post is written. So, even if it is a short commment, such as "Interesting", or a short question,  such as "Where was that picture taken?", I learn more about what caught your attention in a post.

2) A Space for Group Discussion and Learning: 

Your comments on the blog are not only important for my growth as a writer, they are critical for other readers. Take your questions, for instance. Posting your questions on the blog allow me (or another contributor) to answer them where everyone can see them and learn from them. So, instead of emailing me your questions, post them directly on the blog where the answers can be read and appreciated by all. 

And, as readers of the blog, don't be shy to answer other readers' questions. I'm not an expert in all themes that come up in our discussions, so I could use your help. And, the more teachers we have commenting, the more we all learn.

3) A Space for Food Sustainability and Food Justice on Twitter

Your interest in my blog motivated me to join twitter in June 2013. I was reluctant to join at first because I thought twitter was just an extension of facebook. I was pleasantly suprised with twitter because it helped me connect with people dedicated to sharing information about food sustainability and food justice (something I was not able to find on facebook). 

Follow me @farmsforests if you are interested in connecting to food discussions! 

4) A Space for Guest Contributors

Your interest in this blog has motivated others to contribute to this blog. In the 2.5 years this blog has been running we've had 12 guest contributions from six countries. Of those 12 contributions, 11 have been from males writers. I am conscious of this gender bias and would like to encourage more females to contribute their knowledge to my blog. So, for 2014, I encourage females to share their research and everyday food harvesting experiences here

5) Outreach Beyond the Blog

My blog posts have been used in school and university classrooms as case studies. My most rewarding experience in 2013 was connecting with a grade 8 Global Studies class in Minnesota through my blog. Their teacher contacted me because she was interested in using my blog post on the Coca leaf as a case study on globalization and food justice. The students read the blog and then I talked with them via Skype. Their questions were thoughtful and their interest in food justice was inspiring. This experience was proof that we'll soon be hearing from a motivated new generation of food justice supporters.

Thank you again readers and I look forward to another year of blogging with you in 2014!

New Year's Eve Food Challenge: What Is This Fruit We've Been Eating Over The Holidays?

It's the holiday season and, for many of us, that means sharing food. I'm sure today, New Year's Eve, is no exception. In fact, I'm sure that the majority of readers have shared this mystery food at some point over the holiday. 

Readers, can you tell us the name of this fruit? 

If you're stuck, here are some clues:

How do you eat this fruit? This fruit is unique in we eat its pulp as well as its seeds. The pulp can be eaten raw but the seeds need to be roasted or at least dried in the sun before eating.

Where is this fruit from? It is native to Central America although it is grown all over the world in tropical areas. And, Ghana is one of the world's largest producers of this fruit.

Please share your answers in the comments section below!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Food Challenge: What is this Purple Neotropical Fruit?

Readers, here is our second food challenge: what are the round purple fruits pictured above in the foreground? 

Please tell us what you think this fruit is by writing your guesses in the comments section at the bottom of this blog post. If you have tasted this fruit, please include where you ate it and what it tasted like. But, before you guess, I'll give you some more information. 

This purple fruit is found all over the globe even though it is native to the American tropics. Although the exact origin of this species has not been reported, it appears to be native to southern Central America. Because this fruit is widely culitvated by humans, botanists refer to it as semi-domesticated, meaning the plants humans cultivate are very similar genetically to their wild plant relatives. 

But, you don't need to be a botanist to know what this fruit is. If you have visited a tropical country, I'm sure you have seen it. Here is a list of some areas where you can find this fruit: The Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobagao, Haiti, Jamaica, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, French Guiana, Peru, Bolivia, Vietnam, India, and Singapore. 

Eating this fruit is an art. People have developed unique ways to prepare it to avoid biting into its skin. This is because the skin produces a sticky and bitter white liquid that should not be eaten. I have only eaten the flesh of this fruit but people have reported that the bark of this fruit tree can also be used as a medicine.  

Readers, with this information in mind, can you identify this fruit? 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Ethnobotany of Costa Rica's Palms

In Costa Rica, I am known as "chica del palmito" or, the heart of palm girl. I was given this nickname by heart of palm harvesters, national park employees, and univesrity professors while conducting research for my Masters degree and some how the name stuck. But my interest in palms runs deeper than heart of palm; palms are a group of plant species that provide unique sources of food and medicine for people all over the world. In this blog post, I will share a few ways people use palms for food, not only did I study this topic for my Masters research but it was also a part of my Ph.D. For more information on how people use palms, check out our article here.

Eating palm flowers 

Palm inflorescence on top of chopped heart of palm
Palm flowers are edible. But, because palm flowers are often very tiny, people harvest and eat the whole flowering structure, called an inflorescence (see picture on right). So instead of having palm flower salad, you can strir fry, boil, or roast the whole inflorescence. One of the species commonly eaten in rural costa rica is Chamaedorea tepejilote.

While working with Indigenous people in Costa Rica, I learned that people eat palm flowers from many palm species. My favorite palm flower dish was prepared with inflorescences from the versatile peach palm (Bactris gasipaes; pictured above). I first tried this dish while living with a Bribri family and learned the dish was a favorite of Bribri Elders. I like the fact that palm inflorescences are edible because palms produce many of them in their lifetimes; and, you do not have to chop down a whole tree to harvest them. I do require help, however, to harvest an inflorescence for palm species that grow tall. In the case of peach palm, chopping down an inflorecence requires a large pole and it requires careful attention to the stiff peach palm spines that can easily make harvesting unpleasant.  

Drinking Palm wine 

Making wine usually takes a lot of work, from smashing the grapes to fermenting the final product. But palm wine, on the other hand, can be harvested directly from the plant and does not require too much extra processing. Palm wine is basically the natural sap of the palm which is harvested and left to ferment. 

Harvesting palm wine from the Coyol palm (Acrocomia aculeata) is popular in the Pacific side of Costa Rica as well as other areas of Central America. But, to harvest quality palm wine, farmers explained to me that you must work in concert with lunar cycles. To ensure a good harvest of wine you should extract palm sap three days before or after a full moon. 

I first tried palm wine while driving through the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. During March and April you can buy this wine along the road side, but I chose to seek out a family who produced it at their home. Back in 2008, I was invited to join this family for a cold glass of off-white coloured palm sap. I had two options, with or without sugar. I opted for wine with no sugar added and surprisingly it had a sweet and tart taste. The idea of palm wine reminds me of maple syrup because it is a product produced entriely by a plant and its consumption requires only modest processing by people.

Eating palm hearts

Palm hearts are a unique food that are harvested from the inside of a palm tree stem. Large-scale palm farms can be found in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Brazil and these farms supply canned heart of palm to supermarkets all over the world. Eating farmed heart of palm is like eating farmed bananas, these species are grown to be harvested and exported. 

The most commonly farmed palm species is the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes). But, in the tropics you can feast on multiple species of palm heart each with their own unique flavour. Some species are bitter and others are sweet, some even taste rich like butter. Many of these palm species are wild. Eating wild palm species is an activity that rural peoples have done for hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of years. Unfortunately, eating these unique wild species has caught on with some upscale businesses in Latin America and resulted in uncontrolled harvesting of wild species. 

In Costa Rica, I worked on the issue of uncontrolled harvesting of palms that occur in forest areas. This is a particularly complex issue. Palms are often harvested from protected forests and by Costa Rican law this is illegal. This makes sense to me for people who are harvesting bags of hundreds of palm hearts to sell in high end restaurants; it does not make sense, to me, for people who harvest only a few palms to eat with their families. Currently, to my knowledge harvesting foods in protected forests in Costa Rica is still illegal and this is something that I have been analyzing with Indigenous peoples as part of my Ph.D.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Solving The Spice Mystery: Where Do Pepper, Turmeric, and Vanilla Come From?

Our global food system does a good job hiding how and where our food is grown. Despite these tricks, we live in an era where we can find out food origins using tools such as smart phone food labels. Still some foods slip through the cracks. Spices are examples of those foods.

A few years ago at a dinner party, we got to chatting about where certain spices are produced. We made a bunch of pizzas from local ingredients (tomato sauce and cheese included) but we did not manage to source our salt and pepper locally. We read that our sea salt was from Israel but we couldn’t find out where our pepper came from (despite asking later at the shop we bought it from). As we chatted further, most of us didn’t know what geographic region black pepper was grown in or, for that mater, what a pepper plant looked like.

To give spices the attention they deserve, I’m going to share some of their interesting facts. I chose to talk about three spices that are not particularly well labeled in the super markets I frequent: pepper, turmeric, and vanilla; if you want me to talk about any others, just shoot me an email. 

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Black pepper is a fruit that grows on a small shrub in bunches and it comes from a family of plants called Piperaceae. Green peppercorns are unripe fruits from the same black pepper plants. This species is native to South India and it is commonly grown in the Kerala state. Major producers of pepper include: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. But, this plant grows in other regions too, such as Costa Rica.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Turmeric is a root or rhizome that grows underneath the ground. And, it looks a lot like ginger root. Many of us living outside of the tropics don’t’ realize the edible part of turmeric grows under soil because we buy it in powdered form. I was first introduced to turmeric root while living on the south Caribbean of Costa Rica and I had a fresh source of this spice growing in my backyard. Turmeric is not native to Costa Rica however, it is native to the Southeast Asia region. Although turmeric’s place of origin of is not identified in my botanical references, some botanists suggest it is native to south India.

Like many spices, turmeric is both a food and a medicine. Most of us know turmeric because it is a staple ingredient in Indian curry. But, turmeric has been used as a medicine since at least 250 B.C. Powder from this root can be mixed with honey to soothe a dry cough, which is a remedy from Ayurvedic medicine. In my family, we boil the fresh turmeric root with other medicinals such as ginger and garlic and take it as medicine for colds. I learned this recipe from a healer in Peru and my dad tweaked it by adding fresh turmeric root to the mix.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Vanilla is an orchid. I first saw this orchid while wading in a palm swamp in the Peruvian Amazon. These are the same palm swamps where you can spot Anaconda snakes, if you are lucky! Vanilla plants are stunning, especially the one I saw flowering. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
We don’t eat the flower, however; we eat extracts from vanilla seeds or pods (pictured on right).

Vanilla is native to Mexico and was used by Indigenous people such as the Aztec people to flavour a drink made from chocolate (cacao) beans. The website of Kew, a famous botanical garden, reported that vanilla is also a medicine with anti-microbial and antioxidant properties. Because of the spice trade, vanilla has become a staple in kitchens all over the world. Spanish people took vanilla to Europe in the 1500s. Much later in the 1800s vanilla was taken to Madagascar. Today, most of the vanilla we buy is from Madagascar, Indonesia, or Mexico.

If you have spice queries, feel free to ask them here in comments section of this blog post and I’ll try my best to find the answers.