“I eat local!”
“I don’t eat GMOs.”
“I only buy USDA organic!”
“I eat exclusively certified humane, grass fed, free range, no-spray, fresh and seasonal.”
I hear this stuff a lot. It’s great that people are thinking about their food, it’s just that all these labels can be misleading at best, and plain old criminal at worst. For example, did you know that meat from factory confinement farms (yes, the ones with the horrible conditions for animals) can be labeled USDA Organic? (Source: §205.239(b) and (c))
As we plan our farm venture we’re going to have to pick a path to follow regarding organic certification, and of course, it’s a tangled web of bureaucracy and paperwork. But the research has taught me a lot about the food that I buy and how easy it is for producers to misrepresent their food with labels. On the flip side, if you’re dogmatic about labels you’re going to miss out on a lot of great food because small farmers can’t or won’t jump through the hoops of the food police. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
USDA Organic: The big one, you probably recognize it. Has a lot of good intentions, but a lot of loopholes. Given the choice of two products equal in every way but one labeled USDA Organic I’d buy it the organic one every time, but I don’t treat this designation as gospel because it’s difficult and expensive for small farmers to be USDA certified. I’d rather buy from a local producer that doesn’t abide by the letter of the organic law than a big monoculture farm that’s figured out how to evade the regulations.
Certified Naturally Grown: This is from a third-party, non-government organization, and the onus of policing is on the customer and other farmers. Its’ code is based on the USDA Organic regulations, but calls for a specific minimum number of days on pasture, while the USDA’s is full of loopholes. CNG certification is tailored for the small farmer that can’t afford USDA certification but still raises plants and animals responsibly: “To be granted the CNG certification, farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”
I treat CNG products as equal or better to USDA Organic products, simply because I’d rather buy from the little guys and take them at their word.
Animal Welfare Approved: The “gold standard” for meat and animal products according to their website, AWA is a great option if you can find their food at a reasonable price. Their slaughter standard is particularly stringent, as well as their free range requirement, but the big difference here is enforcement. While CNG is community-policed, AWA conducts regular audits.
Non-GMO Project Verified: This is a somewhat creative workaround to the “Label GMOs!” campaigns that have failed in the past few years, but again it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just because something doesn’t contain GMOs it doesn’t mean that the product is healthy or good. In fact, I just ate far too many GMO-free potato chips and now I’m feeling a little nauseous.
A somewhat obvious question is: why should the responsibility of labeling be on the producers that don’t include GMOs, rather than those that do? Should we accept food with GMOs as the norm? In this case, telling me what isn’t in a product is counter-productive.
I could go on all day, but you get the point. There are a lot of labels being thrown around in this arena and its tough to know who to trust. But! (There’s always a “but”) The answer is simple and easy: see for yourself. Buy directly from the farm or go to a market and talk to your farmer. Look her in the eye and ask the questions that matter to you. I think you’ll learn a lot, and find some really tasty, nutritious food.
Last week we had a few days off from our job at the diary farm in Spain, and instead of hanging around talking to cows we decided to hop on a bus down to Porto, Portugal for a brief visit. It was pretty much two days of travel for one day in the city, but it was worth it because Porto is beautiful (art nouveau and classical architecture with a rough edge), unique (dozens of port cellars and signature sandwiches? yes please), and cheap (killer wines for 2.60 euro per bottle).
If you have the chance, visit Porto! And send me an email if you do, I’m happy to give you a few more detailed tips.
I can’t believe we’ve been in Spain for a month already! With the help of very patient locals and the iPhone app, Duolingo, I’ve gone from being able to ask for a glass of wine to being able to talk about the pros and cons of NYC public schools, GMOs, and how to make cookies entirely in Spanish. Granted, I can only speak in the present tense and say things like “I much like it very.”
Our time in Spain has been split between cities that make my heart sing and rural towns where we have been climbing or working. We spent a long weekend in Barcelona, a few weeks climbing in central Spain, then up to San Sebastian in the Basque country where we ate everything in sight, and have spent the past two weeks on a farm outside of Segovia. Work, play, eat. Work, play, eat. In our opinion, that is the most satisfying way to travel.
We didn’t know any Hindi when we got to India. We were helpless when ordering food in a restaurant and often just pointed to something. On our first few days, dinner was usually a complete surprise. “Oh! Okra! Did you know they eat okra here?” Didn’t see that one coming. There were times when we wound up with rice, naan, and potatoes. But others when a beautiful, mystery dish showed up. For me, that was Sahi Paneer, a rich, creamy, ever so slightly spicy tomato curry style dish with chunks of cheese (paneer). It was delicious and I knew my dad would love it.
The thing is though, I don’t usually cook Indian food. I don’t really know how the spices work together, but know that one dish often has tons of different spices. And what makes it so saucy? How’d you get so tasty? I silently ask the plate in front of me. I wanted to be able to come home and make Sahi Paneer for my family, but didn’t really know where to start.
There are signs for Indian cooking classes all over Rishikesh. We went to a few restaurants that were advertising cooking classes to test out the kind of food we’d be learning to make, but were disappointed by the results: too rich, too salty, or just plain nasty. But we all know that the best kind of cooking is home cooking. So that is where we took our class, in a home.
Our class was about an hour and a half and ended with a delicious lunch of Sahi Paneer, Aloo Palak (potato in spinach sauce), Aloo Parantha (potato filled flatbread) and Vegetable Biryani (spiced rice with vegetables). All of the chopping was done ahead of time and the measuring done with a single spoon. Our job was to take pictures and write down how many teaspoons of turmeric goes into each dish. Our teacher claimed that his English was “not so good,” yet he knew all of the English words for spices, vegetables, and tools. Maybe it was thanks to the English- Hindi picture charts hanging around the room, or thanks to his daughters who speak English very well and were assisting with explanations.
Our teacher’s cooking style was “a bit of this and a bit of that,” “a big spoonful of salt, a half spoonful of garam masala,” though he did give measurements for our sake. Every dish started by heating oil and cumin seeds and at some point, a bit of chili and garam masala were added. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the very rich Sahi Paneer wasn’t made with cream, but with cashew nut milk. Who knew?
I enjoyed watching someone cook easily and comfortably with flavors and spices that are foreign to me. The benefit of the cooking class, versus trying out a recipe from the internet, is that we had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in someone’s home, cooking with their dad who is a good cook. Subol was laid back, friendly, and an informative teacher, which is exactly how my dad taught me how to cook. Except I had to chop more in those lessons.
Trekking to a guest house is such a treat! In New Zealand, we were carrying our food and stove and sleeping in huts. In the US, we would carry our food, stove, tent, and end the day by eating noodles on a log before retiring to our tent. In the Nepal though, we show up empty handed to a guest house and order a plate of fries. Some trekkers complain that guest houses crowd the trail and detract from the whole get into the middle of nowhere aspect of trekking. But we love them. We love them for the hot food and warm beds and conversation with local people.
“When did you kill this chicken?” I asked the cook at the guest house in Chiule, along the ABC trek. I was sitting in the kitchen, watching them cook dinner.
“Today,” he tossed the chicken into a massive wok and glanced out into the yard at the remaining chickens, pecking in the grass.
“How did you kill it? Cut the head off?” I was half making conversation and half curious as I didn’t see any sort of dangle the chicken upside down set up.
“No knife, too dangerous. Throw a rock at his head.” The cook answered while shoving the chicken bits around with a spatula.
I gasped and laughed almost choked on my tea. You see, without the guest house, you’d never know that another culture kills their chickens with a rock to the head.
The folks on the mountains eat and serve what they grow (with the exception of Snickers, noodles and canned tuna). People grow rice, millet, potatoes, cabbages, and carrots above 3,000 m. They make Yak cheese and simple stovetop breads like chapati and fried Tibetan bread. Since both the Langtang trek and the Annapurna Base Camp Trek are in similar climates, the menus at the guest houses serve similar dishes, with the exception of meat. The Langtang region is Buddhist and doesn’t eat or serve meat. The menus feature fried noodles, veg fried noodles, egg veg fried noodles, potatoes, veg potatoes, egg veg fried potatoes, rice, veg fried rice, egg veg fried rice. You get the point.
“Dal Baht Power, 24 Hour” is what the locals claim. Dal Baht is a Nepali set meal of dal (lentil) soup, white rice, curry vegetables, and pickle that varies slightly from place to place. On the ABC trek the dal was a thin yellow soup and in the Langtang region it was brown and thick. The pickle isn’t a pickled cucumber, but any kind of vegetable, usually a tomato in a spicy vinegary sauce. The dal delivers your protien, rice fills you up, curry gives you nutrients and spicy pickle keeps the whole thing from getting boring. It’s no wonder the porters eat it for every meal. We ate from the same menu for 18 of our 30 days in Nepal and often stuck with Dal Baht. After awhile, we did get tired of the same options. Do I want potatoes again? Not really. But that’s not the point. The food is trekkers food. It’s hot, nutritious and filling. And just when you start to get tired of the menu, someone whispers rumors of chocolate cake in Kyanjin Gompa or real pizza in Chhomrong and you pick up the pace.
We’ve gotten pretty used to people trying to sell us things, so I was ready to say, “No, thank you” when the barefoot owner of Beten Waru pulled up a chair next to us and asked, “You like a very special dinner, special just for you? Six hundred people have my special chicken and not one say any bad thing. A spicy chicken, vegey-tables, rice. And then after, fruits. All different fruits. You must tell me one day ahead so my staff can prepare.” At $25 USD, it wasn’t keeping within our $20/day food budget, but I wanted special chicken. We could skimp on some lunches to even it out for special chicken. “Could I watch you cook?” I asked, as if I made it a learning experience it would make me feel better about blowing the budget. “No problem,” he smiled.
Iluh (pronounced ee-loo) and Ari were making dinner that night. They do just about everything from keeping the rooms to grounds maintenance to making the Chicken Tutu, our special chicken. They kindly let me take pictures while they worked and told stories in impressive English while they prepared dinner.
Chicken Tutu is a whole chicken, steamed first in water and then in a chili and garlic sauce, served with stir-fried veggies and rice. It might not sound like much, but it is. It is indeed a special chicken.
Note: There are several ingredients that you might not have at home. Lord knows I don’t usually have shrimp paste on hand. So either get a new ingredient and have a go at something totally foreign, or leave it out. I’m pretty sure it is going to be good regardless.
Chicken Tutu: a Laid Back Recipe as observed at Beten Waru in Amed, Bali
Get the rice cooking, then the chicken, then work on the veggies.
- A whole chicken (get a good one, don’t mess around with any old bull shit Perdue bird)
- A handful of whole, peeled garlic cloves (actually a handful, maybe 10 or more cloves?)
- 3 or 4 medium-spicy chilis, seeded
- a knob (2″) of fresh ginger, sliced
- Small knob (1″) of fresh turmeric, or 1tsp dried turmeric
- Pinch of brown sugar
- Enough oil to make everything into a sauce
- 1-2 stalks of Lemongrass
Blitz the garlic, chilis, ginger, and turmeric into a loose puree. Simmer gently to cook the garlic. Add a pinch of brown sugar and salt to taste. Steam the chicken until cooked, about 30-45 minutes. Drain most of the water. Pour the delicious puree over the chicken and rub some on the inside as well. Add a little water to the pot and submerge the two lengths of lemongrass in water. Continue to simmer until you finish the veggies.
- Sliced shallots, maybe 5 of them
- 3-4 sliced spicy chilis
- Diced garlic
- Prawn paste
- Sliced green beans
- Sliced carrots
- Roughly chopped cabbage
- Freshly grated coconut (When in the states, I’ll use unsweetened, dried coconut)
Sautee the first three ingredients in a little oil. Add a small amount of prawn paste. Iluh crumbled what looked like 1/8-1/4 tsp into the pan from a larger block. In a separate pan, steam the beans, carrots and cabbage. Drain the steamed veg and add to the shallot mixture. Add the grated coconut and a pinch of salt and continue to sauté for until the coconut is heated through and nicely combined.
Plate the rice and the veggies and serve the chicken whole, in the center to be shared. Serve with a Bintang or other tasty pilsner. Enjoy!
**Big thanks to Iluh and Ari for my cooking class!
“Sorry, no tonight. Maybe you come tomorrow?”
“Sorry, no lunch today. No shopping yet. My son has motorbike, we only have one.”
“Sorry, no tofu, only tempeh. No pork. You like chicken? You have chicken.”
“Sorry, no more Bintang.”
Maria’s operates by Maria’s rules. It is, after all, her house and her Warung, or shop, here at the end of the main road on Lembongan. As you walk along the one lane, shoddily paved strip that is used as a two way road for motorbikes, pedestrians, chickens and dogs alike, you’ll pass twenty or so Warungs serving a similar menu to that at Maria’s. But none will be as good or as inexpensive and the diners won’t have that giddy smile that you get when you know you’re about to chow down on some delicious food.
We didn’t get served the first time we went. The bar was full, the power was out on the whole island and they weren’t taking any more customers. So, just as they suggested, we came back the next day. Again, the bar was full, but we ate inside. When I say inside, I mean inside the house, which also doubles as the dining room. We met up with a friend who had just ordered. “Hope you’re not hungry, because it’s going to be awhile,” she told us. We had a laugh and ordered a round of Bintangs, which a nine year old looking girl brought to us from the household refrigerator in the corner of the room. I laugh a little to myself every time a kid brings me a beer and it happens every other day.
We waited two hours for our food that night. Not an onion was chopped beforehand; everything was cooked to order. One appetizer came before our food, one came with a main course, and all of the main courses came at different times. Our friend who was there before us got her food last, but none of that mattered. You eat when your food is hot, offer bites to those still waiting and suffering from food envy and just hope you’re not the last one to get your plate.
I expected the mie goreng (friend noodles with veggies and egg) to be greasy and the sweet and sour sauce to be sticky and kind of gross, but nothing here is anything except exactly how it should be. It is no problem that there’s no tofu or no pork because everything is good. You eat whatever they suggest and when there is no Bintang, you just run across the street to the mini market, buy a round there, and bring it back. No problem.
Dinner for two (appetizers, mains and two beers each) was $12 USD. Unbeatable.
We arrived in Melbourne at 7:30 on a Friday night, people staggering in high heels down cobblestone streets and smoking cigarettes in grafittied alleys. With our backpacks still on, Zach and I made a beeline down Little Bourke Street to Chinatown for dumplings. I’d never been in this city before, yet it felt so much like home. We asked a dude eating out of a takeaway box where he got his dumplings, followed his directions, and proceeded to order a tableful of garlic drenched Chinese broccoli, sesame pancakes and dumplings. We didn’t have much to say at dinner, mostly because chowing down was a much better use of one’s mouth.
We didn’t really have a plan for Melbourne. “I just want to go and sit in a coffee shop and spend the day writing,” Zach had said of our four days in the city. So instead of planning, we went armed with a list of cafes and bars, an appointment at Alchemy Tattoo, and no real agenda for much else. We didn’t do any museums or see kangaroos. We went to eat and write, drink coffee and feel the vibe of the city.
Birdman Eating, Fitzroy
Robyn and Stephen, our beloved roomies from Wanaka, recommended this brunch spot in Fitzroy. A minimal space with excellent espresso and tasty, interesting food combos. The highlight of the meal was lunch dessert of homemade blueberry, rosemary and pistachio nougat and a glass of rose.
The Carlton Club, CBD
Annita, the tattoo artist that did my tattoo, sent us bar hopping in the CBD as a rainy afternoon activity. Did I mention that I like her style? We started at this swanky bar with massive taxidermied animals and a covered outdoor space that felt like a rainforest in the mid afternoon downpour.
Penny Blue, CBD
At the end of an alley off of Little Bourke, we found this craft beer bar with Gatsby inspired vibe and comfy, vintage couches. They let us in even though they weren’t quite opened yet and being only 5:00, we were the only people there. We popped out the computer and worked on some wedding plans while sampling local beers from Little Creatures and Bridge Road Brewers.
Trippy Taco, Fitzroy
Nothing fancy. Just really good tacos. Chewey corn tortillas, black beans, smoky hot sauce, fresh lime. You don’t need much else. It had been awhile since we’d had good, cheap tacos and Trippy Taco delivered.
A few months ago, one of our friends confided that he felt “lost in travel”. He said, “don’t forget why you travel, don’t just do it for a stamp in the passport.” Why you travel can be a very personal thing, something that can’t be dictated by a guidebook of sights that you just have to see. For us, Melbourne was a familiar, comfortable place to stop and think after a life changing year in New Zealand and before diving into Asia.
Even though we’re traveling on a tight budget, it’s still important to splash out once in a while on something we love to do. For some people maybe that’s a new outfit, a night out dancing, or a tattoo. For us, its eating. On our recent detour to Melbourne that meant eating at MoVida.
A few friends in New Zealand praised Frank Camorra’s restaurant up and down for inventive, delicious food. The days preceding our reservation were filled with building anticipation, like the days approaching Christmas or a birthday when we were kids. These are the moments that make breaking the budget worthwhile.
The food is served tapas style, so we knew we’d have a chance to try a lot of new and interesting dishes. The problem, sometimes, with tapas restaurants, is that the multitude of choices and flavors produce a disconnected and ugly contrast. To avoid this, we left ourselves in the hands of our waiter, with whom we immediately connected.
“What are your favorites?” Christina asked.
“Oh, I love that question. Awesome.” And he ran us through five or six options.
“Great, those sound good.”
“Cool, but…you’ve got three really rich dishes in a row here. I’d maybe swap out one of these for something lighter to break things up a bit. Maybe seafood?”
“Sounds good.” And later on, “can you help us with wine to match our courses?” Christina asked.
And I said something I never thought I’d say: “I’m kind of curious about sherry.”
“Oh, awesome. I was hoping you’d say that,” our server said.
At a friend’s house the week before, we mentioned we’d be going to a well-regarded Spanish tapas restaurant.
“Do they have sherry?” Our friend Steve said. He’s worked in the beverage industry, so he knows his booze.
“I don’t know, and I’m not sure if I care,” I said. Sherry was for old people and came in jugs, or so I thought.
“You should.” Steve fished out a bottle of Manzanilla from his liquor cabinet. “Here, try this.” I tried it and was impressed, but not blown away. The flavor was intense and unusual. The biting tang and sharp acidity were so different from other beverages in the class I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it wasn’t for me…yet.
Last night, everything changed. First, our server recommended the anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet to for our first course, and with it, a sherry (of course). Our trust in Steve and our trust in the server, and maybe a bit of curiosity won out.
It was perfect. The sharp tang of the dry sherry cut through the savory anchovy, while extremely salty fish was tempered by the strong flavor of the liquid. It was as if a key were fitting into a lock on both sets of flavors, opening each other to a new world of tastes. I’ll never look back. I’m a sherry convert.
It’s not often that a beverage and a food jive so well that they transform each other. It’s even rarer that a food and beverage pairing opens your eyes to ingredients you hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Our first course at MoVida in Melbourne on Sunday did both, partly because we left ourselves open to trying new things and our server led us down the right path. Good servers can immediately read customers for certain preferences. And good customers communicate their preferences clearly.
I’ll never look at sherry (or anchovies!) the same way again.