Beyond the Supermarket: A Global Food Exploration

Have you ever wondered why the foods that you find in your grocery store have become so popular? Like, why are those foods, of all the tens of thousands of edible plants, so massed produced that they can now be found in supermarkets throughout the world? Sometimes they are fresh, sometimes in cans, sometimes frozen but what they all have in common is that they have been made popular enough and produced enough to grace market shelves everywhere. Lets go on a global journey and learn about some of those foods that are just waiting for their chance to shine.We can begin our trip in the Bicol region of the Philippines where we find wild strands of the Pili Nut tree (Canarium ovatum). Pili nuts are mild with a sweet nutty flavor and a tender-crispy texture that many claim is superior to that of an almond.

Pili nuts also possess the highest fat content of all nuts in the world (even more fat than the macadamia). Boiled pili pulp is blackish-greenish in color and the flavor is incredible somewhat like a cross between an avocado and an olive! I have been told that before planting the thousands of acres that Mauna Loa planted in Hawaii with macadamia, that they were seriously considering the pili nut instead. Its oblong shape and difficulty to crack and keep in one piece led to the macadamia take over of nearly 10,000 acres planted on the Big Island of Hawaii today.

Now we will continue our journey to right in my backyard in Costa Rica where there is a most incredible tree called the Peach Palm. Now this is a beyond useful gem that is probably one of those trees that I would probably bring with me to a deserted island if I was only allowed 5 seeds. The fruits of the peach palm are boiled in salty water and taste like an incredible mix of avocado and potato.

The comparison of the avocado in both the case of the pili nut and the peach palm is due to its high oil content. This makes eating them extremely filling and just a few is like a whole meal. My closest friend in Costa Rica, Cristian Carranza, often has stashed in his backpack just a few pejibayes (the Costa Rican name for the boiled fruit), which he will nibble on throughout the day. This same peach palm is also responsible for one of world’s finest delicacies, heart of palm. The heart of many palms is edible but it is the peach palm that many of the canned heart of palm which we buy here in the US is made from. The hearts of coconut and acai palms are also delicious and are commonly eaten in certain parts of the world. I live on the coconut clad coast in Costa Rica where the ocean is rising rapidly causing many of the beachfront coconuts to fall into the sea. We are always there with chainsaw in hand to harvest the fallen coconuts hearts. The wood from the peach palm also has great strength and elasticity which enable it to be used to make weapons - bows, arrows and spears - as well as in construction. The palm leaves can be used to make thatch roofs. When designing what plants to plant around where you live it’s important to find ones with many uses and the peach palm really is one of the best.

Our last stop this week is to the island of Borneo where we find one of my very favorites, katuk (Sauropus androgynus). One small stick of this lovely plant completely changed my life and I am confident it has improved millions of other people’s lives around the world as well.

It is planted by a small cutting of the stem and quickly produces unlimited green, leafy, ultra nutritious salad that tastes like a cross between fresh peas and peanuts.
Because of this abundant treasure on our farm in Costa Rica, we can easily feed 50-60 people per day a giant salad mixed with the many, many other odd edible leaves we grow. It is super high in protein and vitamin A and just couldn’t be easier to grow in the lowland wet tropics where malnutrition is rampant. I watched in Malaysian Borneo the finer restaurants prepare the very young tips of the katuk in stirfrys where they were selling it as false asparagus. I hope everyone reading this has the opportunity to try these three foods. We are now returning you to the safety of your office. And don’t forget to bring your passport same time next week as we travel to far corners of the globe to discover three more foods that you just won’t find in the supermarket.

Stephen Brooks is a jungle tropical fruit farmer in Costa Rica, the co-founder of Kopali Organics, and is the Food Field Reporter on Planet Green's G Word.

Tags: Agriculture | Costa Rica | Farming | Permaculture

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