A Recipe for Conservation*

* Disclosure: this was written as an assignment for partial completion of BIO 675

This past May I had the opportunity to travel to Guyana as part of my graduate studies with Miami University’s Global Field Program. Last summer took me to Baja, Mexico, where my classmates and I were given a crash course in environmental fieldwork. This time our focus would be on traditional knowledge and methods of conservation.

Flying from Georgetown to Iwokrama Forest

Guyana is a land of unfathomable greenness. Somehow resisting the pitfalls of its neighbor Brazil, Guyana remains largely (80%) forested. Bullet wood and mora trees soar high into the canopy; star-shaped kofa seed pods litter the forest floor. Frog songs fill the night; a harpy eagle keeps watch by day. Nestled near the Brazilian border is a unique biome, the Rupununia flooded savanna. We spent the majority of our time in the Rupununi learning from the Makushi Amerindian people. While we hiked mountains, saw petroglyphs, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a jaguar, some of my strongest memories revolve around food.

Seed pod from a kofa tree (Clusia grandifolia)

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that food is a recurring theme. Perhaps that is because, as a child of immigrants, the deepest ties to my cultural roots revolve around the smells, tastes, and textures of my mother’s improvised Japanese dishes. Or could it be that, as a woman, I inevitably see the preparation of food as both my birthright and my burden? In Guyana, these themes of culture, food, womanhood, and preservation seemed inextricably—perhaps essentially—twined.

Peeling cassava (photo by Adam Dewey)

One of my most memorable experiences was the day we spent learning about the many ways in which the Makushi use cassava (Manihot esculenta). While you might think you’ve never heard of or had cassava, you may have encountered it as yuca, manioc, tapioca, or another name for “sweet cassava.” Sweet cassava isn’t actually sweet, it is simply a different variety.

As with all Earth Expeditions (EE), we learned through participation. In the photo above we are peeling “bitter cassava” at a community cassava “processing plant” (that’s me in the foreground, sporting a “Volunteer” t shirt from Elephant Nature Park). Because bitter cassava can contain lethal levels of cyanide, it must be prepared carefully. After peeling, the roots are washed and grated. The grated pulp is then put into a hand-woven tube called a matapi, which is used to squeeze out the poisonous liquid. The liquid is then reduced to make a sauce base called cassereep.

Two images of cassava preparation: squeezing out poison and making cassava bread.
L: packing grated cassava with a matapi
R: making cassava bread

The pulp itself can be toasted into a grain dish called farine or made into a flat bread, as seen above. I marveled at the tireless strength of the women, the ingenuity of their methods, and the variety of foodstuffs they produced from a single crop. Not even the poison was wasted! And the unwashed cassava leaves were used as part of a fermentation process to transform soaked, browned cassava bread into parakiri or kasiri, a cassava beer (Henkel, 2005). We sampled a mild version but were told that the alcohol level could be increased to hangover-inducing levels through prolonged fermentation.

While so much of what we saw and did on that day showcased women’s knowledge of a single crop, farming and food production are deeply tied to land usage, conservation, and biodiversity. In the developed west we are facing the possible extinction of coffee and bananas because of our dependence on single crops; the Makushi cultivate 29 varieties of cassava (Elias et al., 2001). America leads the world in food waste; the Makushi know how to turn a poison into a product.

Making kasiri, a wild yeast-fermented cassava beer

Women have long been called the bearers of culture. Among traditional and immigrant communities it is they who pass on folktales through bedtime stories, prepare and preserve traditional recipes (Beoku-Betts, 1995; Singh, Rallen, & Padung, 2013), and whose very bodies act as symbols of culture through prescribed dress and behavior (Winter, 2016). I do not mean to romanticize the Makushi in this post. Like many indigenous communities they endure problems ranging from a lack of opportunity to domestic violence. But my time in Surama Village has made me more attentive to the ways in which activities such as gardening, cooking, and pickling can constitute acts of conservation. A dusty jar of muscadine sauce in a cellar pantry holds remnants of the previous season. The humble okra plant is a botanical memory of the slave trade.

I am not a gardener, and some of the plants linked to my cultural heritage are considered invasive here in the US, such as kudzu and bamboo. But I do like to cook. Each time I visit the farmer’s market, I seek out interesting produce I’ve never tried and will return home with Bishop’s Crown Peppers or Dragon Tongue Beans, More often than not the vegetables and herbs I discover are not ones from my mother’s childhood memories (like me, she takes great pleasure in food), so I take comfort in the fact that my impulse buying supports local growers and agricultural biodiversity. Sometimes, however, I think about the complex spice routes and imperial endeavors that brought Latin American chilis to Szechuan and South Indian cuisines. It is in those moments that I see my cooking as more than mere sustenance. Trained by my mother’s discerning palate, I try to create dishes that not only capture the past but render it too tempting to forget.

How I cook, sometimes

References

Beoku-Betts, J. A. (1995). We got our way of cooking things: Women, food, and preservation of cultural identity among the Gullah. Gender & Society, 9(5), 535-555.

Elias, M., McKey, D., Panaud, O., Anstett, M. C., & Robert, T. (2001). Traditional management of cassava morphological and genetic diversity by the Makushi Amerindians (Guyana, South America): perspectives for on-farm conservation of crop genetic resources. Euphytica, 120(1), 143-157.

Henkel, T. W. (2005). Parakari, an indigenous fermented beverage using amylolytic Rhizopus in Guyana. Mycologia, 97(1), 1-11.

Jordan, J. A. (2010). Landscapes of European memory: biodiversity and collective remembrance. History & Memory, 22(2), 5-33.

Singh, R. K., Rallen, O., & Padung, E. (2013). Elderly Adi Women of Arunachal Pradesh: “Living encyclopedias” and cultural refugia in biodiversity conservation of the Eastern Himalaya, India. Environmental management, 52(3), 712-735.

Winter, B. (2016). Women as cultural markers/bearers. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, 1-5.

Little Steps, Bigger Impacts

What a difference a week can make! I often end up eating on the run. Sometimes I pack a snack, but often I end up patronizing a favorite food truck or grab a salad from somewhere like Honeygrow or Sweetgreen. In the past I’ve reused utensils from a food truck multiple times. More often than not, I’ve lost or broken the utensil and ended up having to grab a plastic fork or spoon from supplies lying around the office, essentially offsetting my own efforts. In the spirit of progress, I decided to order a set of portable utensils by Numu Goods and keep them in my backpack. The set comes, as seen above, with a spoon, fork, and chopsticks—all rolled into a handy carrying case. They are made out of organic beechwood, which is supposed to be more durable and harder than bamboo (I read many reviews complaining about bamboo forks splitting). I’m happy to report that since the set arrived, no plastic utensils have touched my lips!

Sunday Dinner and Food Prep

I’ve also found that just starting this action plan has made me think twice while meal planning. I was out quite late Saturday night, and it would have been very easy to justify ordering Sunday night delivery from any number of local restaurants. But just thinking about not cooking made me feel pretty guilty. I decided to use the opportunity to try a new grocery store that opened up fairly close to where I live. It’s called Sprouts Farmers Market, and people have been raving about it ever since it opened. While I wasn’t blown away by the selection, I did manage to pick up organic cauliflower, kale, and sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, the source or location wasn’t listed, so I have no idea how far my veggies had to travel to get to Philadelphia.

Brown Rice “Buddha Bowl”

While reading about invasive species for this week’s homework, I roasted both the cauliflower and sweet potatoes in coconut oil, stir-fried tofu and a zucchini that had been sitting in the produce drawer of my refrigerator and with ginger and sesame oil, blanched the kale, and made brown rice. I laid everything out, made a quick Thai red curry sauce, and my boyfriend and I put together brown rice bowls for dinner. On Monday, I reworked the sweet potatoes, tofu, and zucchini into a hash that I seasoned with Sundry Mornings JHC Spice Mix. We had that with tomato soup and a toasted “Philly Muffin” (like an English muffin—but square). Philly Muffins are made by the Philly Bread Company, which sources heirloom grain directly from the farmer and mills on site. They’re also really tasty!

Monday Remix

All in all I’d say that my Sustainability Action Plan is off to a solid start (I’m giving myself a generous 5 out of 10). I’ve cooked more, ensured that “emergency plastic” will no longer be a problem, and am trying to meal plan more effectively. Next week I’m hoping to present some of the information I’ve gathered from reading about the sustainability of various diets.

Is My Veganism Sustainable?

Back in October I wrote that I had recently enrolled in a new degree program, and right now I’m deep into my second full semester. One of my courses is Issues in Biodiversity. In addition to doing a lot of reading and writing, we have all been tasked with designing a personal Biodiversity or Sustainability Action Plan for the semester. Some of my cohorts are elementary school teachers, and they’re devising wonderful projects that involve their students, such as planting a pollinator garden or creating compost for a community garden.

The assignment directions note, “Making a behavior change that positively impacts sustainability can be done simply through your choice in which products you buy, or how much you use your car.” As someone who doesn’t own a car, is an all-weather bicycle commuter, shops at farmers markets for a lot of my produce, carries all my groceries in my backpack, keeps my thermostat set at 65-67 degrees in the winter, and refuses to install central air conditioning, I jokingly said to some classmates, “What? I have to give up more?” But the idea of making a personal change struck me as a terrific challenge.

Some of My Vegan Cooking

Lately I’ve been coming across articles claiming that veganism was less sustainable—less eco-friendly—than several omnivore diets. In some cases, the conclusions were based on false comparisons, like imagining that vegans lived solely on exotic foodstuffs with high carbon footprints (avocados, for example) and pitting them against omnis subsisting on locally grown organic meats and vegetables. Still, I found these articles to be somewhat troubling. Cowspiracy (2014) contributed to my decision to go vegan. Since its release, critics have debunked several facts presented in the documentary, especially the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrial farming. Nevertheless, it still seemed—at least to me—to make implicit sense that eating a plant based diet was more environmentally sustainable than one including animal products.

For my Action Plan, I’ve decided to investigate the sustainability and carbon footprint of my diet and see how many positive changes I can make. I’ll be blogging about my discoveries, the changes I make, and posting recipes here. This blog will also be linked to my Instagram account, so that people who like my food photos will have the opportunity to learn more about the ecology of their diet. Wish me luck!

photo of lunch buffet

PAN Vegan Pledge – Chef Lenka, Queen of Cashews

photo of lunch buffet

During our fourth Saturday meeting (at the end of week 3), we were treated to a second cooking demo, this time by vegan Chef Lenka Zivkovich. Pictured above are some of the wonderful treats she prepared for our lunch: veggie hummus wraps, bbq jackfruit sandwiches on mini bagels, and cumin-spiced carrot “meatballs” ringed with crostini. When we entered the kitchen, much of what you see above had already been prepped in the interest of time. One think that I found particularly wonderful about both Chef Lenka’s and Miss Rachel’s demos was that although both work as professionals in the cooking industry, they provided us with easy and low-cost options. Both of them passed around ingredients with which we might not be familiar (like canned jackfruit), but they also used items they had picked up at the local Trader Joe’s (like raw cashews and barbecue sauce).

photo of cashew fruit
Cashew Fruit! source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angiud/4646618700

Chef Lenka devoted most of her discussion to, you guessed it, cashews. And I just couldn’t resist, the photo above is of a cashew fruit – the stem-like growth on the underside of the fruit is the nut. Lenka first made a thick and creamy custard of cashews and water in a blender. She explained that the cashew to water ration could be altered to produce a variety of basic products. A 1:2 ratio yielded a creamy custard that could be flavored with a little vanilla and used as the “batter” for french toast. Since Chef Lenka offers a wildly popular vegan brunch at a local restaurant, you know this recipe is winner! If the water content is increased to a 1:3 ratio, the result is a vegan substitute for half and half. Lenka made us a quick smoothie with this creamy base, bananas, and spinach.

photo of lunch table

One of the amazing things about the pledge meetings is that there are always surprises. Local sponsors have donated wonderful items, such as the tempeh wraps above from Hip City Veg – and mentors have taken it upon themselves to make additional dishes like the gorgeous salad above or the tempting desserts below.

photo of dessert table

One of the biggest surprise treats came when our organizer mentioned that Chef Lenka had offered to create a late afternoon Happy Hour for our group at Plough and the Stars, where she works. Not only did I immediately sign up for the event, but I emailed some of my vegetarian and “veg-curious” friends to invite them.

photo of Chef Lenka

When we arrived, Chef Lenka welcomed us and explained what she had prepared. She had organized the dishes on a beautiful buffet table and portioned everything small so that we could try a bit of everything. The dishes included inventive items like a “crabcake” made of both artichoke and palm hearts and a savory grilled watermelon.

photo of buffet table

Some of my favorite items included (pictured below, clockwise from the left) a truffled mushroom bruschetta, the “double-heart crabcake,” a mini kebob with king mushroom, mock chicken, and fresh papaya, and a fried “shrimp” with a creamy sriracha sauce.

close up of small plate

Although the buffet was so bountiful, Lenka had one more surprise in store for us: her celebrated raw, vegan creme brulée. Not surprisingly, she used a cashew base. But the dessert also included hints of coconut and vanilla. She browned the raw sugar topping on site with a portable torch and brought the custards to us herself.

photo of creme brulee

The happy hour left us all completely sated, and we vowed to return to Plough and the Stars for one of Chef Lenka’s prix fix vegan dinners once she returns from a well earned summer vacation.

PAN Vegan Pledge – Produce-Palooza!

Logo Farmers Market Week

In honor of National Farmers Market Week, I’m posting two recipes that spotlight vibrant, local summer produce.

First up we have an Arugula and Beet Salad Plate with Chick-Pea Tabbouleh that I made last Sunday. For the tabbouleh, I simply added diced fresh tomato (in this case 4 small Indigo Rose beauties that were red on one end and black on the other), about half a bunch of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, a cup of rinsed canned chick peas, the juice of 1/4 a lemon, and a generous tablespoon of olive oil to a box of Near East Tabouleh (this would work just fine with a cup of plain bulgur, you would just need to add salt to taste).

photo of a bowl of tabbouleh

For the salad I boiled some gorgeous and strikingly pale chioggia beets, peeled and sliced them into eighths, and arranged them over a bed of arugula. About a week ago I had bought Kite Hill’s Truffle, Dill, and Chive almond-based “cheese”; this salad provided the perfect setting for it. Although the texture reminded me a bit of silken tofu, it crumbled well and had a mouthfeel reminiscent of fresh goat cheese. Coarsely chopped pistachios added salty, crunchy goodness – and seemed more interesting than the usual almonds. Because the plate already contained so many flavors and textures, the salad needed nothing more than some olive oil, a bit of aged balsamic vinegar, and freshly cracked black pepper for dressing.

photo of salad plate

Fast forward to later in the week when I was home alone (my boyfriend flew off to visit his family) and feeling hungry and lazy! For some, the mouse surely plays while the cat is away – but this little rodent’s idea of “play” usually entails eating her way through as many perishable odds and ends as possible, cleaning out the refrigerator, and maybe indulging in a night of Netflix and take-out on a Friday night. Although I was tempted to call out for Thai food, two small but gorgeous eggplant sat waiting in my refrigerator. So I put down the laptop, picked up my knife, and put together a simple meal of Soy and Citrus-Glazed Eggplant With Baked Marinated Tempeh.

photo, eggplants

Because this striped variety of eggplant tends to be less bitter than the more common dark purple variety, I simply sliced them crosswise, placed them on a lightly oiled cookie sheet, and put them under the broiler for a few minutes (turning once after about five minutes) with the oven set to 400 degrees. For the tempeh, I placed thin slices in a baking dish and poured about about a tablespoon of soy sauce and a teaspoon of liquid smoke over the them. The tempeh baked uncovered while the eggplant broiled below.

photo: broiled eggplant and baked tempeh

In the meantime I made a simple glaze of a tablespoon each of soy sauce and mirin (Japanese rice wine, but you can use cooking sherry), squeezed in a bit of orange juice (about a tablespoon), and added brown sugar to taste. This lent the eggplant both sweetness and sheen. Blanched baby kale and brown rice rounded out the plate. And that dollop of spicy goodness you see? That would be my new favorite condiment, Trader Joe’s Sambal Matah. After I finished my first jar back in March or April it disappeared from the shelves, and I panicked. When it miraculously reappeared in June I bought 3 jars. If you enjoy chile and lemongrass and live anywhere near me, you might consider doing the same!

photo, dinner plate

PAN Vegan Pledge – Cooking and Community


Photo of Cooking Demo

One of my favorite aspects of the PAN Vegan Pledge is the weekly meetings. Every Saturday, we meet for about 2 hours. The Peace Advocacy Network (PAN) provides us with plenty of tasty vegan food as well as helpful information. During the meetings, pledges can ask questions, share shopping tips, and generally just get to know one another. In addition to casual socializing, we also enjoy a weekly speaker or two. In all honesty, I was a little afraid that the lectures would be filled with horrifying photos of slaughtered animals. It turned out that the fellow who sat next to me last week had exactly the same fear. We bonded over this and laughed as we realized how counter-productive it would have been to make potential vegan-converts lose their appetites over lunch.

At the first meeting, Christopher McJetters shared why he sees veganism as more than a simple food or even lifestyle choice; for him it’s an issue of social justice. At the second meeting Dara Lovitz explained many of the environmental effects of animal agriculture. I plan to devote a separate post to “what I’ve learned,” so please hold on to your questions for a few weeks.

But not all of our speakers are lecturers. This past week we were treated to a cooking demonstration by Rachel Klein (pictured above), owner of Miss Rachel’s Pantry in Philadelphia. I had heard wonderful reports of Miss Rachel’s weekly Farmhouse Table Dinners, so I had been anticipating this meeting all week. Needless to say, she did not disappoint!

photo of food prep

Rachel made two dishes: a simple carrot ginger soup and a baked tempeh sandwich. As you can see, carrots and ginger were two of the primary ingredients in the soup. To this she also added potatoes (she recommended yukon golds or red-skinned potatoes over russets for a creamier texture). To make the soup even richer, she added coconut milk. Much of this was prepped in advance, because we couldn’t really devote the entire two-hour meeting to food prep. Instead Rachel focused on showing us how to make baked tempeh. First off, she recommended slicing the tempeh into thin strips for maximum flavor and a pleasing texture.

photo, marinating tempeh

She then poured soy sauce and liquid smoke over the sliced tempeh, all the while chatting with us and answering questions. “Where can I buy tempeh?” “Can I substitute Braggs Liquid Aminos?” It turns out that Rachel buys her tempeh from Hardena Resto Waroeng Surabaya, a little Indonesian restaurant that also makes their own tempeh, and yes! you can make substitutions (although one pledge pointed out that Braggs actually has a higher sodium content than soy sauce or tamari). As we were shuttled out of the kitchen for Dara’s lecture, Rachel baked the strips on well oiled baking sheets and then constructed the sandwiches. Everything was so fresh and so delicious! Whole grain baguettes were spread with homemade sun-dried tomato cashew “cheese,” layered with the savory tempeh, and topped with thickly sliced, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil.

One thing Rachel noted was that while vegan cooking doesn’t need to be expensive, prepared vegan food can be pricey due to the amount of prep work involved. As an example, she pointed to the lunch she made for us. Carrots, potatoes, coconut milk, tempeh … none of these are high-priced luxury items. But making a cultured cashew cheese requires significant time, labor, and knowledge. Buying what’s organic and in season and producing quality food in small batches also adds to the cost. For me this was a real “lightbulb moment.” Factory farming is heavily subsidized; small family-owned farms that sell at farmers’ markets or direct to restaurants and caterers are not. Now that I know this, and especially because I’ve sampled Miss Rachel’s cooking, you can bet she’ll be seeing me at one of her dinners in the very near future!

photo of produce from farmers market

Duly inspired by the fresh flavors in Rachel’s cooking, I went straight from the meeting to the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market. Peaches, cherry tomatoes, and “fairy tale” eggplant are only some of the wonderful items that I purchased. As I biked home with both my belly and my backpack full, I started planning a Sunday dinner that would highlight fresh summer produce but also leave us with some leftovers for a busy Monday.

photo of tofu and asparagus

Sunday was a real scorcher, but luckily my boyfriend loves to grill. We marinated the eggplant in a mixture of balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Squares of pressed firm tofu were slathered with a simple mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil. And the asparagus was drizzled with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and sea salt. As the my boyfriend set the coals to fire, I started on a pot of quinoa.

photo of dinner

Once everything was ready, I drizzled a bit of vegan pesto onto the tofu to accentuate its flavor.

photo of leftovers as a salad

On Monday I turned the leftovers into a gorgeous salad for a super easy but equally delicious dinner.