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.

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.

Kicking Off 30 Days of Vegan with Sloppy “Jacks”

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Guess who’s back? After two trips to Thailand – December and May – to volunteer with Elephant Nature Park (I know, I should devote a post or two to that) I fell off the blogging wagon. But I recently signed up to join a 30 Day Vegan Pledge and decided that it would be an experience worth sharing.

Now you might be wondering, “What is the PAN Vegan Pledge, and how it is different from just, well, going vegan?” The PAN Vegan Pledge is organized by the Peace Advocacy Network, and it’s quite a comprehensive program. The program coordinators have paired each of us “pledges” with a vegan mentor and put together a series of 5 weekly group meetings that include lunch, lectures, and a few exciting cooking demos! I’ll be blogging about those meetings and my experiences with the pledge as the weeks pass, but I wanted to kick things off by sharing a recipe.

For at least a year or two, I’ve been hearing a lot about using jackfruit as a meat substitute, especially for some form of barbecue. Since it was fairly close to 4th of July, I thought I’d give it a shot. I decided to aim for something that resembled the vinegar-based sauces of Southern pulled pork but with some of the additional textures and flavors of an old favorite, sloppy joes.

Serves around 8:

  • 2 20 oz cans of jackfruit in brine or water
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 red onion
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, minced
  • 1-2 tablespoons cider vinegar*
  • 1 tablespoon grainy mustard
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar (more to taste)
  • 2 teaspoons blackstrap molasses
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

* For a sweeter flavor, use only 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar and double the brown sugar

photo of canned jackfruit

Some recipes will specify jackfruit in water and not brine. I checked the sodium contents on a variety of brands and found that they varied wildly. I chose the brand with the lowest sodium content per serving, and it turned out to be packed in brine and not water. Just make sure that the jackfruit is “young” or “green” and not packed in syrup. Open the cans – then drain, rinse, and chop the jackfruit. It will look like this.

photo of jackfruit after it has been rinsed, drained, and chopped

Smash and mince the garlic, and chop or dice the pepper and onion according to your preference. In a large, heavy pot, heat 1-2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Throw in the garlic, paprika, onion, and pepper. Sauté everything to mix and soften the vegetables.

photo os chopped green peppers and onions

After a few minutes, add your jackfruit and sun-dried tomatoes. Full disclosure: I originally wanted to make this more like a saucy sloppy joe, but I didn’t have any tomato paste lying around. Then I remembered that bag of sun-dried tomatoes! They are optional, but they do add a wonderful flavor, color, and texture to the recipe.

photo inside cooking pot

Add the cider vinegar, mustard, brown sugar, and molasses. Give everything a stir, lower the heat to medium, and cover. If the mixture is dry and everything is sticking to the pot, then add 2-4 tablespoons of water before covering. Let everything simmer until the vegetables are tender and the flavors have melded, about 20 min. I served this on sandwich flats topped with a bit of bbq sauce and a quick and easy slaw made of napa cabbage and a store-bought lemon tahini dressing.

photo of open-faced sandwich

Chia Paradise Pudding

Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh
Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh

For years now, I’ve had this idea that Morocco would be the perfect place to spend Christmas. Years ago I’d been fixated on Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky. And while I have no interest in wandering lost in the desert, the prospect of spice markets, sandstone walls, maybe a holiday hammam has always seemed alluring. More recently, the double helping of Yves St Laurent biopics out this year (the photo above is of the Majorelle Garden, which St Laurent and Pierre Bergé purchased in 1980) – has reanimated my fantasies of tented banquets in desert oases.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I say, “Those who can’t go, cook.” So sometimes I find myself taking a basic idea – like a standard soup – and flavoring it with daydreams. As the weather turned from summer to fall, and the semester hit me like … a desert sandstorm?

Taliouine Saffron

I had holiday plans … plans to study machete fencing in Haiti, aspirations of returning to Thailand – this time to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park … and the old dream, Christmas in Morocco. There is a lovely spot in Philadelphia called Down Dog Cafe. They serve an elixir, although they do not call it that. It’s a kind of smoothie: almonds, dates, saffron, almond milk, a touch of spice. It’s both cool and frothy, light yet nourishing.

The idea: Morocco, Down Dog’s almond date smoothie, breakfast …

Chia Paradise Pudding

  1. Take 2 tbsp of chia seeds and soak them in a cup of coconut milk (almond, cashew, they all work and impart their own subtle flavors)
  2. Throw in a pinch or two of saffron (saffron needs to be stewed or soaked), a dash of cinnamon, maybe 1/4 tsp of vanilla, something sweet like date sugar or jaggery if you wish
  3. After 15 or so minutes, add a few drops of orange flower or rose water (be sparing, 1/8 tsp could overwhelm it)
  4. Shake and refrigerate overnight
  5. In the morning serve over fruit – I used raspberries, but consider dates and sliced oranges for the full effect

chia pudding

More soon …

Related Links

Recipe Backlog Part 2 – Veggies Galore

photo of cooked vegetables
An Explosion of Freshness

This is a simple plate of vegetables – most from our farm share: spring onions, steamed potatoes, steamed collards, and roasted kabocha squash (the squash is from a local Asian grocery). When vegetables are fresh, they need little to no embellishment. All that you see here was prepared simply and barely seasoned (the lighting is also poor – in “real life” the vegetables are brighter).

photo of collards on the stove
Collards

Clean the collards in several rinses of water. Chop and steam lightly (they should retain their bright green color). Finish by “stir-frying” with olive oil and sea salt.

photo stream of kabocha squash
Kabocha

Kabocha is an Asian squash whose creamy texture and rich flavor is often compared to chestnuts. The skin is edible, although I like to peel it randomly to create pretty patterns (the skin can get a little hard during roasting; it softens if you steam it). Simply roast kabocha as you would butternut squash.

photo of spring onions
Spring Onions

These look like big scallions! Simply wash and remove any wilting or brown outer layers. I roasted these with the squash, but they are equally or perhaps more delicious when grilled.

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