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Category: Food

A bottle of red, a bottle of white: Wine in a changing climate

The Great Scramble

As the planet gets hotter, species need new habitats suited for them. Fish, birds, and mammals migrate, sometimes quite quickly, but for plants in the wild, they cannot spread their seeds and populate new distant terrain easily.

For cultivated crops like wine, growers are scrambling to respond to current changes that affect their crops today affecting the flavor of their wines. They also have to prepare for the future.

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Connecting people with the land, climate, and wine

Kimberly A. Nicholas writing for Weatherunder Ground considers the connections between the climate, the land, and the people with wine growing.

IMG_4029Winegrapes are especially sensitive to climate. The taste experience of wine reflects the environmental conditions of the place where it is grown, a feature valued by consumers and captured by the French notion of terroir. By noticing how climate affects the wine, we can learn more about how climate change is affecting agriculture worldwide and how people are responding to those changes.

How are growers responding?

When it comes to climate change, winegrowers and winemakers have many options to adapt. Growers are experimenting with new wine regions, cooler locations within existing regions (such as moving from warmer valleys to cooler hillsides), trying new varieties better suited to warmer conditions and farming methods that provide more shade to cool the fruit. Winemakers can also use approaches including alcohol removal and acid addition to improve wine balance.

Check out the article, How Wine Connects Climate, Land, and People

 

Eating my way through Peru

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Me and Adri at Machu Picchu

This is the fourth and last installment of my series, A Shameless Foodie on a Mission. I first talked about the shock I found in my encounter with fast food in Peru and the way globalization can actually limit some of our food choices. Then I introduced you to  a Walmart look a like–the Mega Store. From there I ran to find the closest Mercado, a wonderful world of local foods including over 1200 types of potatoes, and a recipe for the Super Potato!

Now I am thrilled to tantalize you with some of the amazing Peruvian dishes Adri and I have been enjoying.

Part Four: Peruvian Cuisine 


 

I write this from a farm in Chile, and even though it has only been 2 weeks since we left Peru, I can’t help feeling sentimental about the flavors, colors and textures found in Peruvian cuisine.

Peruvian ceviche

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Ceviche

This may be the best example of all these elements in one dish. Colors pop off the plate and all of your senses are left deeply satiated. Raw fish is marinated in lime juice only minutes before it is served, leaving the inside of each sashimi-like morsel uncooked by the acid of the lime.

The texture is buttery and the flavor of the fish paired with sweet potato and Choclo (Peruvian corn) is mouth-watering. The ceviche alone has made me consider taking the 35 hour bus ride back to Peru just to indulge in the food a few more weeks before our flight home from Santiago.

P1150220Aji de Gallina

My second favorite dish is an example of how looks aren’t everything. Aji de Gallina is a platter of shredded chicken and potatoes smothered in a bright yellow sauce over rice. It is visually monotonous except for the Kalamata olives and sliced boiled egg that decorate the top.

It does not look appetizing, but one whiff will have you reconsidering, and one bite will have you addicted. The yellow sauce is a puree of Peruvian chili and cream that carries a perfect balance of bite and decadence. You will surprise yourself by finishing the large portion of heavy ingredients and will likely be daydreaming about ordering another by the next morning.

The next big foodie trend

Peruvian food is the next big thing on the gourmet food scene. Peruvian restaurants are opening in food capitals around the world and getting 5 star reviews. One reason for its’ popularity is a recent trend in Peru to begin incorporating exotic Amazonian ingredients into contemporary and fusion cuisines. Lima, the capital of Peru, has been a pioneer when it comes to using flavors from the Amazon, a practice that is controversial when it comes to sustainability and ethics.

To be honest, I did not go to a lot of the restaurants that serve what is considered gourmet Peruvian cuisine because they were expensive and often had a 2 week long waiting lists.  However, I didn’t need to eat at the 5 star restaurants to get an appreciation for the exotic and innovative nature of Peruvian cuisine. We still managed to go to a lot of good restaurants that were highly recommended by the guide books and locals alike.

 

An Antidote to the Globalized Food Court

P1150551It took me until the last day of our two week stay in Lima to find my favorite meal. It was in one of many seafood restaurants within the Surquillo Mercado in Miraflores. A bustling Mercado, packed with all the many wonders I highlighted in my last post, but with an even more extensive fresh fish and seafood section. Of course, it had been right around the corner from our stomping grounds the whole time. Many of the vendors selling fresh seafood also sold seafood soup or ceviche as well. They all looked good but one had more locals crammed on tiny stools than the others, and that made our decision easy.

We ordered Parihuela, a rich seafood stew, arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) and of course ceviche. It was divine. The ceviche was standard, but with a little sprig of seaweed on top. The scallops in the Parihuela were perfect pillows that had clearly been harvested that morning. The calamari in the rice was tender and packed with flavor. The restaurant was more of a bar with stools in the center of the bustling seafood department. Clearly they had low overhead, and because of this Adri and I enjoyed this feast for the equivalent of $10 USD.

Cutting out the middle man for fresher, cheaper meals

Even the next day my mind and taste buds were still lingering on our meal at the Mercado. What a brilliant model! To have a set of restaurants literally inside a fresh food market eliminates so many middle-men and costly steps. Even the 5 star restaurants couldn’t have been getting ingredients as fresh as these. The fish was delivered every morning to the market and the restaurants would open at 10am to start cooking. It gets so overwhelming in the US to think about how healthy food could become affordable and accessible to the masses. And yet here was an example of how it could be simple.

By cutting a few steps out of the food production chain, everyday people were able to operate restaurants with good food that everyday people were able to afford. Food for the people by the people. So why don’t you see this model in the US? Well one reason is the lack of wholesale food markets open to the public. Another is all the costly and difficult to obtain licenses required to sell food in any format. Can you think of more? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Cusco’s one-person food stands

Fortunately, this was not the last meal we ate inside a mercado food court, if you will. In Cusco a large chunk of the Mercado was dedicated to one-person food stands. Often each of them would offer only one or two dishes. There was the chicken soup section where Adri and I found the lady with the Moraya dehydrated potato (see part 3). Then there was the fried fish and rice section, the breakfast section, the fresh smoothie section, and lastly a section of assorted home-cooked meals. This was definitely where the locals were eating! We only saw two other foreigners in the 4 hours we spent at the Mercado.

I found an abuela selling something I had never seen before that looked like a pumpkin stew in the assorted meals section. Sure enough it was made of the giant pumpkin variety I had seen being sold in sawed-off chunks throughout the market. I came to learn it is called Zapallo. I ordered a dish of the pumpkin stew over rice and was informed it came with a bowl of Quinoa soup that felt like it could have cured any ailment going down. All together it cost me 5 nuevo soles, or a little less than $2 USD. Now that is affordable! Just to offer a point of comparison, at an average restaurant in Cusco, lunch would cost closer to $7 USD, and $15 at a touristy restaurant, and the portions would be noticeably smaller. We returned almost every day to eat lunch at the Mercado.

Adventures in Eating–Quinoa

Speaking of Quinoa, I can’t write a blog about Peruvian cuisine without mentioning this pseudo-grain that has swept across the global market for health foods. It is all the rage, mainly because it is gluten free and high in protein, but it also rich in many vitamins and minerals. I should note that it is native to Peru, specifically the Andean region.

I heard some concerns before coming to Peru, that Quinoa is in such high demand globally, that it is becoming unaffordable and hard to find for local Peruvians. This is because exported Quinoa is gaining so much profit, that for more major cultivators it is not worth it to sell it locally. It was indeed hard to find in Lima; I only saw it at one artsy souvenir shop where it was sold for $8 USD for half a pound. That is even more expensive than what you might find at a Whole Foods.

Buying Quinoa in Peru

P1150850So then how was the abuela at the Mercado food court selling me a bowl of Quinoa soup for less than $2 as a side to an entrée? Well, I did notice that cheap, bulk Quinoa was being sold by women on the sidewalk. They had it wrapped in shawls and weren’t selling anything else. The amount they were selling was so small it was obvious it was from their own farm.

The Mercado in Lima on the other hand didn’t sell any Quinoa, which makes sense because it is not produced there, and mercados specialize in local foods. I believe the trend of local superfoods becoming unaffordable to locals in the country of production is a real concern. Fair Trade at least ensures the farmer is adequately compensated, but this does not ensure that the product will continue to be made available for purchase in local markets.

However, locals markets fueled by small scale farmers that don’t produce enough to supply export companies seem to offer some buffer to this trend. If it were not for the Mercado, it would have been well near impossible to find Quinoa in its’ birthplace. The supermarket certainly wasn’t selling it.

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Adri, selfie, and the Alpaca

Quinoa is not the only ingredient that was introduced to our palettes upon our arrival to Cusco. Alpaca and Guinea Pig are both popular meats here that we were told we must try. Cusco lies in a valley of the Andean mountains at an altitude of about 9,000 ft. Perfect conditions for llamas and alpacas.

We got to see some llamas first hand during our visit to Machu Picchu, and I am glad we only ate Alpaca because I don’t think I could bring myself to order llama after that. The locals also use Alpaca wool to make all kinds of clothing, and Adri and I invested in some Alpaca sweaters to keep us warm during the cool nights.

Guinea Pig on the Menu

P1150932It was almost our last night in Cusco and we realized we hadn’t yet tried Guinea Pig! We had seen it being sold from street stands a few times, but we didn’t think that was the best idea so we asked a local friend to recommend us a good restaurant. She told us she had tried them all and sent us to one across the street that she vowed was the best.

We walked into to a restaurant with classy ambiance and live musicians. After settling in and studying the menu we ordered grilled Guinea Pig, Alpaca carpaccio (yes we ate raw Alpaca), roasted duck in cilantro sauce, and grilled trout over pureed Oca root (the tuber that looks like a bright orange potato but is in a different family).

No it was not just the two of us eating! We split it between five people but it was still a lot of food! We polished off everything except for the Guinea Pig. Turns out it has a really strange flavor with subtleties of fish, and thick skin reminiscent of pig. I was the only one who didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t love it enough to eat the whole thing either. My favorite was by far the Alpaca Carpaccio. We came to discover that Guinea Pig is traditionally eaten only for special occasions, like weddings, or during seasonal festivals.

A new kind of “fast food” and a quest for vegetables

20160109_140238Overall I loved the food in Peru although it took me a while to find the diversity I kept hearing about. Until we got off the beaten tourist path, we were finding a lot of Sangucherias (or sandwich shops), Ceviche and Aji de Gallina. While all of these things were delicious, we began to feel like the only vegetables we were eating were onions and potatoes and that everything on our plates were either white or yellow. Once we started to branch out, however, we found that there was plenty of color. For example, they used Kalamata olives to make a puree with olive oil that added brilliant splashes of purple to many a dish. Two of our favorites were the poached octopus and the Causa, both drizzled with purple olive magic. The Causa is one example of how they get very, very creative with their potatoes. It is a stack of layered mashed yellow potato, sandwiching a middle of either meat or seafood that has been mixed with homemade mayonnaise and spices.

I didn’t find a lot of vegetables at restaurants unless we went to the pricier ones, but I did delight in the creative ways they used potatoes. Although there certainly weren’t any shortage of vegetables at the Mercado and I saw plenty of people buying them, so people must have been cooking different at home than what I was finding in restaurants. The most vegetables we found were in the Mercado restaurants, which had a very home-cooked feel.

SLOW DOWN! Taking time to enjoy a meal

P1150550One thing I came to like about the food culture in Peru was the way people really took their time to enjoy a meal. Servers in restaurants hesitated to clear plates and ask the table if they wanted the check. At first I thought maybe they were just being rude, but I asked some locals about it and they explained that they simply don’t want to rush you. It is not uncommon for people in Peru to eat out and then linger to socialize for a few hours. This reminded me of China where people would sit around for hours drinking tea after a meal.

Of course not all the meals in Peru are slowly savored. Convenience in the food industry is a real demand that exists wherever people are entering modern workforces. In urban centers it was easy to see how Peruvian food culture is adapting to meet this reality. On one side of the spectrum you have the appearance of global chains like McDonalds and Pinkberry popping up in city centers. However, these are relatively expensive and mostly regarded as a novelty where the locals might go for a special occasion.

Local restaurants have also adapted to meet the need for speed. The Sangucherias offer an array of sandwiches to go with traditional ingredients like Peruvian style roasted pork. We found a few diners that served up all the basics like Aji de Gallina at a pace people could fit in on their lunch break.

Pros and Cons of Food Convenience

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Causa

Convenience in it of itself is not a bad thing. Like any aspect of modernity it comes with pros and cons. People are freed up to do other things when food and shelter don’t take up the majority of how people spend their time. Women have more opportunities to enter the workforce when the food industry develops so that people can buy food at markets instead of grow everything they need for sustenance. Women don’t need to spend all of their time growing, harvesting and cooking anymore and this is progress. But it is always interesting to see how far people go in their quest for convenience. Do we really have so little time that we have to pay extra for pre-chopped onions, or only have time on our lunch breaks to microwave a TV dinner?

Sometimes things seem to be perceived as faster than they actually are. Is going to the supermarket really all that more convenient than going to a Mercado? In both Peru and China it seemed the supermarkets were more spread out across the city. Shopping in supermarkets usually goes hand in hand with a culture of driving personal vehicles, because they are far away and you buy so much at a time you wouldn’t want to carry it home while walking or taking public transport. The time spent on filling up your gas tank or waiting in traffic is not something people generally calculate into their time spent on obtaining food.

The mercados on the other hand are generally more numerous and easy to come by. People might go to mercados 2-4 times a week instead of doing one big shop at a supermarket, but if you really wanted to you could easily to one big shop at a Mercado as well, it’s not like there isn’t enough. Sure you can’t buy packaged ‘modern’ foods like cereal at mercados but do we really not have time to fry eggs or eat bananas in the morning anymore?

I think convenience and modernity often become interchangeable in people’s minds even though they are not the same thing. Just because something is “modern” doesn’t automatically make it convenient. Modern is such an elusive concept it is hard to define anyway, but in the minds of many people it can be mistakenly equated with Western or American, because this is the message that is globally propogated. This is unfortunate because so much about traditional food culture is convenient too.

Making Ceviche–Easy and Convenient

What could be more convenient than making ceviche? All you need is some fresh fish, lime juice, and some pre-boiled corn and sweet potato. It only takes a few minutes for the lime juice to kill the germs on the fresh fish and then it is ready to be eaten. Many of the diners we went to in Lima served up traditional Peruvian dishes within minutes, and we waited no longer than we would if we had went to Mc Donalds. We didn’t have to wait at when we ordered food from the Mercado food courts.

Unlike a normal restaurant, they had a menu del dia of two or three dishes they had cooked up that day. Everything was already prepared so they just had to put it on your plate. Now that is convenience!

Every changing, evolving food culture

Sushi--Peruvian Style

Alpaca carpaccio 

Food culture is not a constant. It is always adapting. Exact traditions do not need to be strictly preserved to be authentic. Local food cultures can adapt to meet changing demands for convenience or modernity and still remain unique. The important thing is that locals have pride for their food, and this was undeniable in Peru.

People are passionate when they recommend you the local specialties, the vendors at mercados are proud to offer fresh produce, and chefs are constantly innovating new ways to use local ingredients. One example of this was a sushi roll we ordered that had toasted quinoa on the outside. Japanese food has influenced Peruvian cuisine for some time now, because a large wave of Japanese immigrants came to Peru in the late 1800s. Fusion food is often looked down upon as a form of inauthentic cuisine, but I see it as an expression of the increasing diversity that is part of a global, modern reality.


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Thank you for joining Adri and me on this food journey of Peru. If you want to hear some about Adri’s experiences and see more of her art and photos, start here: What I Need in Life. She is an amazing artist and has been doing watercolors as we travel. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave your comments and let’s carry on the conversation about our favorite foods, culinary adventures on the road, and where you like to get you food.

As our climate changes, so will our foods and our access to them. Humans are highly adaptable as we most dramatically see in the many ways we can adapt our foods adding and replacing ingredients as the world changes around us. Let’s keep talking about food, justice, and our adventures in eating.


 

Featured art by Adri Norris

The Mercado, A Divine Market with over 2,500 types of Potatoes!

World travelers, Marin and Adri in Peru

World travelers, Adri and Marin in Peru

Back in Part Two of my Shameless Foodie on A Mission, Adri and I  stumbled into a Walmart-style Peruvian mega store, which was actually called Mega.

In Part Three we venture into a Peruvian market. Ah, El Mercado!


 

Here in Peru, Mercados are vastly different from the Super Mercados. This was something I also saw when I lived in China. Size has nothing to do with it; mercados can take up an entire street block or a building the size of a 7-11, but they are generally laid out much more like a farmers market than a Walmart.

Individual vendors fill small units of space and usually specialize in selling one thing. One person will sell fruits, another vegetables, another fresh fish, another chickens and ducks, and yet another spices and herbal teas.

3 Things that Distinguish Mercados from Supermercados

#1 Freshness I found that both in China and in Peru, freshness is prized.

12695397_10208807030320150_260812151_oFreshness is a term I never really used much when describing food until I went to China. In the US we generally talk about food quality in terms of factors that are determined by labeling, like organic, natural, gluten-free and so on. However, in China all I heard was people chattering about how fresh this or that was. Butchers would offer discounts on their meat by 2pm because people wouldn’t pay full price for meat after noon. Customers would scrutinize vegetables, not for blemishes or insect bites like we do in the US, but for signs that the produce was not fresh, like shriveled skin or thirsty looking greens. Fish for dinner? Get ready to pick one right out of the tank (or the little kid blow up pool) and have your purchase be its death sentence.

The Chinese word for freshness, xin xian, was flung around everywhere I went, in restaurants, mercados, even Walmarts (although here people were often complaining how not fresh something was). People would chat with the vendors, basing their recipes for that nights dinner on whatever the vendor claimed was freshest.

The customers in China demand freshness and their main complaint about Supermarkets is indeed the undeniable lack of freshness. You can tell by the color, the appearance, even the sound (a fresh zucchini should have a slightly hollow pop when you tap it, like that of a watermelon). Get intimate with your food before you buy it, and pay no attention to the weird looks people might give you. In most other countries this is the status quo so you can tell onlookers you are simply cosmopolitan.

Similar to the Chinese I know, for Peruvians freshness matters!

12695196_10208770260400925_1405403906_oHere in Peru, its not much different, ok minus the live fish, oh and you hear the word fresca instead of xinxian. The mercados are colorful and crowded, filled with fruits and vegetables that look like they were picked close to that morning, and meat that looks like…well you know… lets just say there was no time wasted with packaging. And nothing wasted at all for that matter. Pigs feet, entire limbs, ribs, reproductive organs, intestines, you name it, they have it. Sorry for the pictures vegetarians, but I just think the carnivores need a visual reminder where their neatly packaged and pruned meat products come from.

The supermarkets stock their food all at once and the turn over is not as high, so the produce is often lacking in freshness. Sure the supermarkets apply certain methods to try and preserve that fresh allure, like plastic wrap, wax on apples, and chemical sprays that preserve freshness (superficially). Not everyone is fooled so easily. My friend Alfonso told me that he goes to the Supermarket for things like toilet paper and cereal, but when it comes to fruits and veggies mercados are far superior.

#2 Diversity: Diversity is the next major thing between the mercado and the super mercado.

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Ceviche! Fish marinated in citrus.

At the Mercado in Lima I found fruits I had never seen before, whole flounder fish fresh off the boat next to entire octopi, and so many vivacious vegetables and flamboyant fruits of every size, shape and color you could easily mistake yourself for being in a gay pride parade. I found things I had never seen before like dried fish eggs (caviar but still connected by the sac membrane), fresh aguaymanto (a fruit often sold dried in the US as a super food called goldenberry), and oca (a uber-nutritious tuber that looks like a bright orange fingerling potato but tastes both sweet, nutty and a bit tangy).

In addition to the potato look-alikes, there were dozens of varieties of potatoes in the markets as well.

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Literally: The Potato Park.

One kind of potato was particularly mysterious, and thanks to my wife striking up a conversation with a lady selling them, I now have a vague idea of how these ghostly looking potatoes, called Moraya, are produced. Our Spanish is not great, and we must have looked bewildered as our minds tried to make sense of the bits and pieces we comprehended, like “we stomp on them until the peels come off, they can be stored for over 15 years, and you have to put them in the river to freeze them.”

After some further research, I have found out that yes all of that is true, but the chronological process is more or less as follows: put the potatoes in a cold river for about a month until they are completely saturated with water, then they are taken out and stomped upon until the skins come off and all the water is expelled, and finally they are left outside for an additional 2 weeks where the hot days and cold nights finish the dehydration process.

Moraya can be kept for years without going bad or losing any nutritional value. So what do they taste like? We were lucky enough to find out when our vendor friend directed us to the only lady in the whole prepared foods area that sold a chicken soup containing it. Turns out Moraya is like a super potato, I don’t know how to describe it except that it is more “potatoey” than any potato I have ever had. It tasted so good and I felt so nourished!

Peru–the birthplace of the potato. Over 2,800 varieties!

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Behold just a few of the MANY different types of potatoes in Peru.

Diversity in supermarkets doesn’t even measure up. I mean, how do you feel when you walk into an average supermarket? Like you have neat, organized and manageable choices? Well thats nice I guess, unless you’re like me and you like to be overwhelmed by abundance and compare one vendors strawberries to another to ensure you get the very best. With supermarketization comes a loss in variety, and unless the customer demands diversity our food will become increasingly homogenized from seed to table.

In Peru, the birthplace of potatoes, there is said to have been 2,800 varieties cultivated, with at least 1,500 varieties being preserved today. The potato plays an integral role in Peruvian culture, there are ceremonies around the various growing seasons, many species are used as medicine, and some communities living in high altitude mountains trade them for other crops like corn with their lower-living neighbors.

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Fish sold here in this supermarket is still pretty spectacular but not nearly as much as an adventure as getting it at the mercado.

A diverse diet is not just important for our health, it is also the fabric of any intact food culture, and if you ask me food culture is the backbone of culture, period. I mean, what would Spain be without its tapas, what would Italy be without its eccentric grandmas cooking canoli all day?

What happens when commercialized agriculture fails to see the value in all this diversity? Supermarkets are concerned mainly with consistency and presentation. It is not in their interest to sell 30 different kinds of potatoes, some of which can only be harvested a few months out of the year, and are only grown by indigenous groups living way up in the mountains.

The question is, will the full rainbow of food varieties continue to be grown if there is no mercado? Mercados are often fairly accessible to vendors, requiring limited overhead and licensing. All the red tape that goes into food sales at supermarkets in the name of food safety, ends up limiting who can sell what, and as a result favors large-scale farms and big-ag businesses. This trend isn’t good for diversity, so keep that in mind next time you decide to buy Idaho potatoes at your “local” supermarket.

#3 Packaging: A lot versus little to none

Supermarket style packing

Supermarket style packing

Nothing at the mercados are packaged (ok except for the Maca powder with a picture of a vivacious man on the package); fruits and vegetables are stacked atop one another and hunks of meat wait to be cut upon the request of the customer. If anything there will be a bunch of strawberries in a wooden palette. None of the fruits have labels on them (this means no sticky residue from when you peel off the sticker!) but you could just strike up a conversation with the vendor if you want to know where its from.

The vendors make full use of their space with creative hooks and sidewalls so that every inch is covered. Don’t like the first mangoes you see? Just go over to one of the other 20 vendors selling mangoes and you are bound to find one that fits your fancy. You pick out your fruit or vegetable, the vendor weighs it, puts it in a plastic bag (but you can bring your own!) and then you pay. It’s that simple.

Ardri inspired by the produce

Adri inspired by the produce

In contrast, supermarkets package, or at least label, almost everything. How often do you get to just pick your strawberries from a palette at a supermarket? Instead they are neatly pre-packed into plastic containers. In Peru it’s no different. The supermarkets followed a global standard, packaging anything at risk of being bruised. But bananas? Do they really need to be saran wrapped around styrofoam cartons when they already come with their own natural wrappers?

So why do supermarkets add all these extra materials? Well one reason is that unlike in the mercados, the “fresh” produce in supermarkets often has to survive traveling enough miles to earn some serious frequent flyer points. You too would need to be protected by a hard plastic case if you were a strawberry traveling from Chile to some suburban supermarket in middle America. I am not saying all the food in mercados comes from the farm right outside the city, but there is certainly no imported goods, and a lot of the produce gets transported on one truck, or sometimes just a wheelbarrow. The amount of fuel used to transport foods to major supermarkets is grandiose compared to that used to bring food from neighboring farms to mercados.

Supermarket Meat

Supermarket Meat

Supermarkets also create greater food waste because they select only the “prettiest” foods. I noticed that there were no bruised fruits in the Supermarket, but the Mercado in Lima had plenty, and they still tasted great. Supermarkets throw away more spoiled food because they overstock to keep their shelves looking full.

I witnessed this first hand when I volunteered with a food bank in Denver, where we received slightly expired food by the ton. When greens start to wilt or carrots start to lose their luster, vendors at mercados shout out discounts and the aging veggies get swept up just in time! In mercados there is such high turn around, and each vendor is only bringing a small amount each day, that significantly less food waste is created.

12642560_10208770756973339_5700117043106340627_nI know! It makes you think twice about going to your local supermarket (an oxymoron by the way). And I have only been comparing apples to apples; fresh produce to fresh produce. Think about all the material inputs and energy costs that goes into processed meats like hot dogs, TV dinners, sugar-laced cereal, or any other processed goodies that line the shelves of any supermarket. These “foodish” foods rely on preservatives, stabilizers and excessive packaging to maintain a shelf life. The preservation of food is not new; just look at all the canning and pickling methods, or the dehydrated Moraya potatoes in Peru. What is new is the methods. I would need to write a whole other post to talk about the impact of processed foods on the environment. I don’t go in dept here because there is no comparison to make; mercados don’t carry processed foods. Yet another good reason to shop at your local farmers market.

So whats so great about Supermarkets anyway? 

One of the many feral cats we met on our trip so far.

One of the many feral cats we met on our trip so far.

Supermarkets are an iconic symbol of modernization and industrialized food systems. One advantage of supermarkets that repeatedly came up during my interviews with customers in China, is that they are a one stop shop; you can get your food, your electronics, your toiletries and often even your clothes in the same place. While this is nice, it comes at a price: supermarkets have encouraged the production and consumption of processed and de-localized foods. Frozen TV dinners, imported cheeses, and aisles and aisles of sugar-laced cereals, cookies and candy all have a co-dependent relationship with supermarkets.

I have to ask though, are they really more convenient? Or do they just seem more convenient amid our crazy modern lives where we have become accustomed to driving everywhere and only have time to shop once a week? Here in Peru, the locals seem to be going shopping almost daily.

IMG_3618They walk about 5 blocks to go to a small mercado, one about the size of 7/11, and then twice a week they take a 10 min bus to the mercado central where they can get staples like flour, cheese and eggs. Here in Cusco, there is the lady with a wheelbarrow full of apples, the man selling 10 kinds of veggies plus a supple selection of fruits from his mobile cart, and woman with a cooler full of empanandas on the sidewalk, all just a 10 minute walk from my hostal. To me, that is convenience.

Shopping at mercados instead of Supermarkets encourages us to buy and cook real foods. Going to the supermarket makes us think that buying a shopping carts worth of boxed and packaged goods is normal. Or worse, that buying a weeks worth of fresh foods and then letting them spoil by Wednesday is acceptable.

We need to start looking at the mercado model as the new status quo in the US, not just a trendy fad that only happens on one street on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Farmers markets don’t need to just be supplemental to our diets, they can be the standard. Local, fresh food should and can be accessible and affordable for everyday people. Peru has definitely shown me that.


 

Stay tune for the final part of my series reflecting on food from Peru. And please leave comments and share your own travel experiences and thoughts about food. And check out Adri’s website with updates from our trip including sketches and lots more photos.

Adri and Marin in Peru

Adri and Marin in Peru

A Peruvian Doppelgänger: The Walmart Look Alike

This is Part two of my four part series: A Shameless Foodie On A Mission

A Recap of Part One It’s a Small Globalized World After All

My wife and I end up in the Plaza Real (Don’t be fooled! It’s a mall; the antagonist to Realness!), because apparently it is the only thing open on Sundays. We find our only real choices for dinner (the driving force that brought us here in the first place) are in a food court that is disturbingly similar to any food court you would find in any mall in the US. We end up eating Peruvian style rotisserie chicken that is not exactly ‘authentic’ and then we decide to stroll around the mall, to try and walk it off.

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Climate Stew roving reporter, Marin Toscano, with her wife, Adri Norris in Peru


Supermarkets in Malls

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Mega

Supermarkets inside malls is a phenomenon I came across a lot in China. Apparently the trend has made it to Peru. If spending hours at a mall trying on shoes, discerning which jeans are right for your figure, or I don’t know whatever it is people do at malls isn’t tiring enough already, you can top it off with a convenient visit to a Supermarket, well more like SUPER Market.

You don’t even have to exit the mall and walk (or drive) across the parking lot, like is usually the case in the US. Nope. All you have to do is go to the first floor of the mall and at either end you are bound to find a Super Walmart look-alike.

In this case it was a Peruvian superstore chain called Mega (as in extremely large) You will see very quickly that I am NOT a fan.

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Supermercado Mega has it all.

Mega sells everything from electronics to toys to clothing. They even have an entire aisle of mattresses (pretty sure they one-uped Walmart on that one).

We finally find our way to the food section and take pictures of the numerous candies, cookies and crackers. They offer both familiar brands like Chips Ahoy and Oreos as well as local brands of similar products. They have not copied Walmart half-heartedly. There is a whole aisle dedicated to cereal, an entire aisle dedicated to candy, and at least one for sodas and other sugary drinks. Other than the signs in Spanish and some of the local products, it feels identical to a Walmart back home.

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Fully secured, no one will steal this chocolate flavored powder.

Milo, a sugary malt-flavored powder that you mix with hot or cold water or milk, stands out as one we don’t see a lot of it in the US. It must be a hot item here, though, because there are security locks wrapped around them. Upon closer inspection, I find Milo is a Nestle corporation product.

 

 

Sub-Par ‘Super-Mega Walmart Wanabee’ Vegetables

12637407_10208750067216108_1039514524_oI finally make it past the overwhelming number of aisles filled with packaged, processed foods and find that the vegetable section is well organized: bananas are neatly enveloped in plastic bags, various fruits sit in styro-foam shells and are saran-wrapped like Christmas presents. There are the pre-cut and packaged peeled onions and carrots, as well as diced fruit. Convenience is a commodity everywhere.

The meat is meticulously packaged. Still somehow it doesn’t look as fresh as the entire carcasses of lamb, chicken, and pig I saw being hacked on the spot at the Mercado in Lima yesterday.

I have been informed that there is huge public mercado in Cusco too, and I fully intend to go tomorrow, but for now I can only 12637104_10208750065056054_2065582010_owander, slightly saddened, and take pictures of the plastic-wrapped and limited produce at the Supermercado inside the mall.

So many vegetables and fruits seem to be missing; the varieties carried are disturbingly consistent to those you would find in the U.S. There are a few exceptions: six varieties of potatoes (much more than we get in the USA, but appalling considering the potato is native to Peru and they have 1500 species!) They have on offer at least four different kinds of bananas and some spicy peppers most gringos wouldn’t dare touch.

We don’t buy anything. I almost buy a piece of fruit, but it all looks too pristine.

All the Aisles of Not-So-Real Food

12669368_10208750069736171_1169896845_oWe meander our way back towards the one and only exit, past all the aisles we saw before. I realize that the amount of fresh produce and meats being sold seems disproportionate to the amount of space dedicated to food items in total. It can’t be more than 30%. I understood this to be a Supermarket, but really it is a very large Department Store with a food section–A Mega Walmart.

Upon investigation, I find all the yogurt has white sugar added and some have rainbow colored sprinkles you can toss in to sweeten it some more. Unlike in the USA where we market healthy-seeming yoghurts boasting evaporated cane sugar and all natural ingredients, they are not even trying to make it look heathy; yoghurt here as displayed in Mega is packaged as a sweet treat for kids.

Just like many stores in the USA, Mega has plenty of sweet but nutritionally empty options. I see little kids jumping up and down when the reach the candy aisle amidst all the brightly colored packages with cartoon characters on them, just like in the USA. Inca Kola, the highlighter-yellow colored Peruvian soda is prominently displayed in at least six different parts of the store.

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When did all of this get here? And how, and why? And most importantly why does anyone come to the Super-Mega-Mercado when they could go to the Mercado and get fresher, realer, and tastier food?

What do they sell? Convenience and Modernity

I fully intend to investigate during the rest of my time here in Peru, although I fear it is a familiar version of the same story I heard when I was in China, and the same narrative that is quickly becoming global. Many people I interviewed in China feel that supermarkets offer convenience, and a taste of modernity.

12656152_10208750061415963_366275254_oParents, especially, let their children indulge in Western-style sweets and fast-food chains like McDonalds, because it is viewed as a privilege that they themselves never had, a rite of passage so to speak for growing up in the 21st century. The industrial food system and all the junk that comes with it is being rapidly exported as requisite of a modern identity, and unfortunately people are gobbling it up.

So before you get too glum, let me assure you that there is hope. Not everyone is gobbling it up, and not all local food economies are getting gobbled up by the ‘Abominable Industrial Food Monster,’ without a fight, or at least without persistence in doing what their ancestors have been doing for generations.

Mercados, and all the unofficial street vendors that make getting some fresh fruit and veg just about anywhere easy and affordable, are all key players.


 

Stay tuned for Part three of this series: The tale of the glorious Mercado in Cusco, a beacon of hope for our food future.

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It’s a Small Globalized Food Market After All

What could be better than traveling around Peru sampling amazing food? The first installment of our special series

A Shameless Foodie On A Mission: A Special 4 Part Series from Peru

Part one: Marin encounters Fresh Food & Fast Food


 

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My wife Adri about to pounce on some fruit

When I get off the beaten path, out of metropolitan centers or on the edge of rural landscapes, suddenly all the food becomes sublime. (Unlike back home in the USA where fancy overpriced farmers market pop up on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and only in the “progressive” part of town)

In Peru nearly at every turn, I encounter fresh produce.

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Those mangoes!

These largely unregulated markets come in every shape and size. Wandering around Cusco, Peru, I saw a lady selling strawberries from a wheel barrow, another woman selling a variety of fruits from a cart on wheels across the street from my hostel, and little old lady selling quinoa atop a cloth on the sidewalk. The alleyway around the corner from the city square consistently has vendors selling every vegetable and fruit your stomach could possibly desire.

The quality of the food is precious. This morning when I bought a mango from the lady selling fruit off a mobile cart. I felt like I struck gold (and it only cost 25 cents!). Indeed, it was the juiciest and least fibrous mango I had ever tasted, with the perfect balance between sweet and sour.

I ask myself, have I gone back in time to some utopian era where food is both cheap and delectable? A time I have only heard tales of from my elders?

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One of many vegetable stands

I am jolted from my wishful thinking when I walk five blocks back into the city square and my senses are suddenly inundated by the smell of fried chicken and the squeals of children as they delight in their catch of the day: cotton candy. My stomach lurches, and I wish it were all a bad dream. Reality hits hard as I turn around to see a KFC and a Starbucks behind me.

I realize that all the divine flavors I was lucky enough to find earlier in the day are nothing more than endangered species, a relic that is biding its time against the food forecast of industrialization and monotonization. The same storm that has already devastated food landscapes in the US and other developed countries is not stopping there, its next victims are places like Peru, China, and India.

I like to refer to it as:

The Abominable Industrial Food Monster

I remind myself that while it is scary, it can still be overcome.

The Globalized Food Court

Today I arrived in Cusco, the town everyone comes through on their way to Machu Picchu. The airport is quaint, many of the women still wear traditional indigenous dress, and some of the architecture is reminiscent of a picturesque pueblo.

We ask the friendly family accommodating us at their Airbnb where we can find something for dinner and they tell us that because it’s Sunday most things are closed. Fortunately, there is one place that is always open, The Plaza Real, and we should have plenty of options for food there.

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The Plaza Real–doesn’t feel very royal to me.

Unfortunately the Plaza Real does not quite live up to its’ name. I have a vision of an outdoor market where locales are selling fresh produce and homemade tamales, a notion that keeps me hopeful and hungry even during the cab ride that would make most people lose their appetite. Instead, the cab pulls into a giant shopping center. My stomach, which for me is an equally important organ as the heart when it comes to love, sinks.

We stumble into the main entrance of the Plaza Real mall and are horrified to see that the most readily displayed food options are Dunkin Dohnuts, Chili’s, and Pinkberry. We make it to the food court and find a Burger King, a Peruvian chain that is quite like Burger King, a KFC, a Peruvian chain eerily similar to a KFC, and a Chinese fast food place that is set up almost identically to Panda Express, but called Chifa (China in Peruvian) Wok.

I think to myself, this can’t be happening, but there is no denying that it is real, at least in terms of physical matter. As far as the food being real, I may beg to differ.

Nothing Like Homecookin’

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One of my wife, Adri’s watercolors. She is documenting our trip through her art.

Finally, after some searching, we find a Peruvian chain that serves Peruvian style rotisserie chicken and some side dishes with actual vegetables in them. It is not bad, but it can’t hold a candle to the fare I have been finding in the markets, on the streets and at family-owned restaurants up until now.

My wife and I eat our chicken while American Top-40 hits play in the background. My stomach is getting full, but not in the same way that it has been. I feel more filled than satisfied. There is something in the flavor. As if often the case with chain restaurants, I feel a distinct lack of that home-cooked, personal touch that goes into food from family-run restaurants.

After dinner, we venture out into the rest of the mall, trying to walk off the over-salted chicken in our stomachs. We don’t bother going into any of the familiar stores like North Face or Journey’s because we frankly didn’t come to Peru to do that. Before we know it, we have strolled to the other end of the mall. But it is not a dead end. Instead, it is a huge vortex into yet another manifestation of the Abominable Industrial Food Monster, who has clearly taken a few business trips to Peru. The Supermarket!

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Next: Serving Up Part 2: A Peruvian Doppelgänger: The Walmart Look Alike


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Marin Toscano and a little friend

Climate Stew Crew member, Marin Toscano is a food culture ambassador seeking to bridge people from around the world through the joy of eating good food. She identifies as “a shameless foodie on a mission” and believes EVERYONE deserves access to real, healthy food. Marin teaches nutrition classes to youth and marginalized communities about Fooition (Food Intuition) that aim to demystify eating healthy and elevate consciousness about how food affects our mind, body and spirit. Her main focus is on international food culture and cuisine and the knowledge each holds about what to eat, how to eat, and how to use food for healing.

Normally she lives in Denver with her wife, Adrienne who is an amazing artist, but right now they are travelling through South America for 3 months on a belated honeymoon. Along the way Marin is blogging about food culture and Fooition anecdotes she encounters in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Marin works as a Mandarin interpreter to pay the bills, and in her free time likes to practice yoga, garden, cook, write and enjoy the great outdoors.

 

Photo Credits: Marin Toscan and Adri Norris

A Shameless Foodie On A Mission: A Special 4 Part Series from Peru

I’m too young to remember when all the tomatoes tasted like the heirloom ones that nowadays you can only find in farmers markets. Too young to remember the eggs that had ruby orange yolks but were free of free-range labels. I have heard people reminiscing over flavor profiles of the past, and my taste buds lament not having been alive to taste that time period.

Experiencing China through Food

12695200_10208750018494890_1844812783_oIn China I bought eggs with ruby-orange yolks from one of the many grandmas that had come down from the village to sell her farm-fresh products in a city street market. In Chinese, these eggs are called Tu Jidan, or Earth Chicken eggs, and after visiting some of the villages they came from I can attest that they indeed live off the Earth. They forage for insects, wild herbs, and only return to their man-made shelters to sleep and lay eggs.

Journey to South America in search of food and adventure

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Marin and her wife, Adri, on their Peruvian adventure

Upon my return to the US, I worried that these glimpses of truly local, affordable food were only in China and Southeast Asia. Now, as I have embarked on my journey through South America, I realize that there are strongholds of local economies that sell real food ‘by the people for the people’ all over the world. Of course, no place is immune to the challenges that a globalized food system is bringing, and my travels have shown me this as well.

This is good news, because real food seems to be a pretty key player in supporting sustainable livelihoods. Local food systems generally work with Nature, rather than against Her. Industrial agriculture and globalized food markets, on the other hand, have not been so friendly to the environment.

As a Shameless Foodie on A Mission it is my goal to track down food that is still fresh, local, and most importantly, delicious.

12636959_10208750070576192_1177755316_oThis 4-part series will be a tale of my food forays in Peru; join me for the good, the strange, and the strangely familiar.

Serving up next: Part 1: It’s a Small Globalized Food Market After All

photo credits: Marin Toscano and Afrotangle Design

Passion for Food in a Changing World — Newest Climate Stew Crew Member, Marin Toscano

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I may look cute, but I am actually getting ready to chomp this flower! I would always try to eat flowers as a kid to the horror of my mother!

I have always loved food. And according to my parents I have always had good taste too. When I was 8 months old, still without baby teeth, I snatched a pork spare rib from an Asian buffet and concealed it under my shirt, managing to sneak it all the way into my crib where my parents found me gnawing on it the next morning. They joked then that I would never be a vegetarian… and they were right. When I was 7 and all my friends were mesmerized by McDonalds Happy Meals, my mom took me there for the first time and was relieved when I gave the McNuggets one sniff and said, ‘this isn’t real food.’ and was content to just play with the toys. To this day I haven’t eaten at McDonalds or Burger King once, and it is not just out of principle; I find the smell nauseating.

I am not trying to be a food snob here, I know eating healthy is a privilege, but my passionate relationship with food can not be entirely attributed to economic status. Indeed plenty of kids growing up in middle-class families are raised on TV dinners and potato chips. However, I was blessed by the rare opportunity to grow up in America within a family that valued food quality and culture. My father is third generation Italian and my mother has Syrian and Polish heritage. I grew up helping my mom grow herbs in the garden and assisting my father to make the best eggplant parmesan in Colorado! Most importantly we always ate dinner together over good conversation and there was no TV in the kitchen. I was home schooled and grew up in the mountains, so I didn’t realize any of this was out of the ordinary until I started going to school when I was 12.

By my first year in college I realized that healthy food was not affordable or accessible for most people, now including myself, and that the food system is not really designed to make eating healthy easy! In the dorms I barely had any choice over what to eat, and I ate avocado on toast almost every day because I couldn’t stand the dorm food. I actually did become a vegetarian for a few months by default because I couldn’t stand the rubbery texture of the chicken they served and the beef that you had to chew for two minutes before it became swallowable. For the first time in my life I started to eat to live, and not for the joy I felt when eating good food surrounded by good company.

The ‘work hard, party harder’ mentality finally grabbed a hold of me and I became very unhealthy, both physically and emotionally. I did what most freshmen do and lost myself in the pursuit of finding myself. I did make one good decision during this time and that was to start studying Mandarin. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Shanghai my sophomore year and I decided to go for it, even though I had never lived outside of my hometown of Boulder, never mind another country!

I fell in love with China immediately; I liked the people, I liked the buzz of development and fresh ideas, but most of all I LOVED the food. I ate every single meal out, and tried everything my Chinese friends recommended. They were impressed when I ate spicy dishes and things like chicken feet and beef lung that study abroad students generally feared as much as communism. Breakfast cost me a dollar, lunch two and dinner three. I ate to my hearts content loving all the exotic flavors and feeling like I had found my soul city, where everyone else was as passionate about food as I was!

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Even climbing the Great Wall of China I was still focused on food!

At the time I had been struggling with really bad acne for years and had tried all the topical medications doctors prescribed. At first I was worried it would get worse because of all the oil in the street food and the pollution in the air, but somehow it all but cleared up even though I was eating anything I pleased! I attributed this to diverse vegetables and rice instead of bread. Now I realize food culture had a lot to do with it too. Sometimes it’s not just what we’re eating, but how we’re eating it that influences our health. I’ll talk more about this in future blogs.

I admit, during my first trip to China I was like an inexperienced lover in the honeymoon period, completely infatuated and seeing only the good. I thought China was better than America in every way; the people seemed more open-minded, the government seemed more environmentally conscience and the food system seemed like an oasis of diversity and fresh flavors. Since then I returned to China twice spending the summer of my junior year in Chengdu for an internship with an environmental NGO, and the last year and a half in Beijing and Kunming to conduct independent research through the Fulbright program. There was some truth in my initial observations, but now I understand that it is not so simple and that every country seems to have its’ pros and cons in different arenas, especially in this day and age when governments must walk the tightrope of environmental concerns and economic development.

I received the Fulbright scholarship to research something I am truly passionate about: food culture! I designed my own project and methods to research beliefs about eating healthy among everyday people. I interviewed everyone from moms to taxi drivers to farmers to understand their perspectives on food safety, changing dietary trends, and agricultural policy. I became particularly fascinated by the range of views towards farmers markets in comparison to supermarkets like Wal-Mart and Carrefoure that are quickly maturing from luxury to mainstream. I found it somewhat ironic that many consumers found fresh markets to be ‘backwards,’ while supermarkets were viewed as ‘modern’ and ‘western,’ meanwhile in the US farmers markets are the spearhead of ‘progressive’ food trends.

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About to take a spoonful of sauteed grubs in Vietnam.and made the local street vendor take a picture so I could prove it!

After living in China for two years and observing how local food culture is influenced by perceived Western and Modern ideals, I became passionate about encouraging Chinese citizens to re-evaluate indigenous food customs and thousands of years of food wisdom. Instead of berating the Global South with fear-based messages like needing to adopt GMOs and mono-cropping to feed their growing populations, I stand to share a more honest and constructive perspective that admits the shortcomings of the industrial food model.

For example, many Chinese people were surprised when I told them that most obese Americans are in lower income brackets, and that 15% of Americans still struggle with putting food on the table. Chinese people (and much of the world) tend to have a Utopian view of America, believing that everything about our food system must be great because we have the FDA and because Monsanto is making sure we are food secure. But they don’t hear the other side of the story; the concept of food deserts in urban areas if foreign to them, and the idea that meat could be cheaper than vegetables is still inconceivable. Unfortunately other practices like battery chicken farms, copious usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and mono-cropped farms are becoming the norm, when they were unheard of in China just 3 decades ago.

This is a regional specialty of wild, edible fern that is considered very nutritious and can only be found in high altitude mountains.

This is a regional specialty of wild, edible fern that is considered very nutritious and can only be found in high altitude mountains.

If we can’t provide enough food, never mind healthy food, for our own population with the current food model we employ, do we really want to export these agricultural practices and food system to the rest of the world?  Instead, I believe China needs a message that encourages everyday people to thoughtfully evaluate what new methods they want to put into practice, what traditions they want to preserve, and what customs they see fit to adapt. The US on the other hand needs to stop thinking of itself as the role model and start looking at other countries, and immigrant groups within its’ borders as a resource of knowledge and experience that can help to rebuild a very broken food system and turn it into one that is for people, not profit.

I care about climate change for many reasons, but my foodie status trumps any environmentalist fibers in my being. There is no denying that climate change will alter every link of the food chain from the seed that is grown to the flavor that meets my tongue! Food production, distribution and consumption are key players in climate change. I am especially interested to see how responses to environmental challenges will affect food systems, dietary trends and food culture. Hopefully the obvious fact that we all need to eat, and we can’t produce enough healthy food if we keep making the Earth sick, will continue to inspire progress.

Food is a topic that everyone can relate to in some way or another. Eating is perhaps the most simple yet profound activity that links all human beings. Food can bridge the gap that is assumed between two people who grew up in countries thousands of miles apart. I have found in my travels that friendships can quickly be conjured just by sharing a meal with the locals, no matter how disparate our backgrounds may be. I look forward to sharing more tasty morsels of food-related climate change news, observations, and experiences with you here at Climate Stew! Mmmm stew, I think that’s what I’ll have for lunch!