Fresh herbs and spices are crucial!
Cooking with fresh herbs and spices will always brighten up any meal and certainly are better than what you may pull out of your spice rack. We have a plethora of incredible spices and flavors and nearly every meal is like a global culinary experience. Lets go clockwise in the photo above beginning with the orange-brown roots in the center called turmeric. Turmeric is native to India where it is most commonly used as the main spice in curries. It is what gives it its bright yellow color and for this reason, it is often used as a natural dye for fabrics and baskets. Turmeric is also a very important Ayurvedic medicine and has been used for centuries and can be found in many vitamins including my favorite supplement company, New Chapter Organics. It is used topically for skin problems and on wounds and also as an anti-inflammatory and for digestive problems. To the left in the black and red bowl is chunky sea salt and it is often one of the few ingredients that does not come from the farm. We actually live right on the beach and have tried several times to make our own salt with very little success.
In the silver bowl to the left of the salt is coyote cilantro or in Costa Rica it is called culantro. It is the common type used in tropical gardens in Costa Rica because it thrives in the hot, humid climate and seeds itself, growing into controllable patches. It is not even related to the common cilantro, nor is the one in the bowl behind it which we call Vietnamese cilantro. This herb also is a cilantro-like in taste, although all three have very unique flavors. The Vietnamese cilantro is grown as a ground cover and is super easy to propagate. All three of these can be grown in temperate gardens as well.
We grow a wide range of hot peppers on the farm and our favorite and most commonly used we call Panama pepper and I am yet to find this one in hot pepper books. These are either yellow or red when ripe and are actually most commonly used green. I believe that they are a cousin of the common Jamaican pepper, scotch bonnet, and we often put whole peppers into coconut soups trying not to break them open which then becomes too hot. The more daring can always add them to their soup after. The larger root next to the peppers is called galangal, or Thai ginger. It has a unique spicy ginger flavor and is often used in Thai soups. You can often find it sold fresh at large Asian supermarkets or specialty stores.
The entire Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is lined with coconut trees and they are used for about everything from coconut oil to coconut milk and we also make delicious coconut desserts. On the plate all the way to the right of the photo is just fresh sliced coconut meat that we add to stir-frys. Yum! Last, but certainly not least, is Jamaican ginger. That is actually as large as it gets and it is much stronger than the common ginger found in local markets. We often grow this ginger in big patches in partial shade as it can handle the shade while lots of other plants need more direct sun. I have only seen this kind of ginger in the Afro-Caribbean area of the country while the rest of the country grows the larger common type, which is not quite as strong.
Tropical is local, if your in the tropics!!
I feel inclined to mention that I live in Costa Rica and these tropical foods are local for me. The reason I am saying this, is because nearly every time I write about tropical foods, several people make comments that I need to eat more local and that I should not be eating foods from the tropics at all. And the truth is they are right and I am always doing my best as I hope all of you will as well! Keep that in mind next time you gulp down your coffee or gobble down your favorite chocolate bar. All we can do is our best.
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.
More on Exotic Foods
Beyond the Supermarket: More Exotic Foods
The Diaspora of Food
Beyond the Supermarket: A Global Tour of Exotic Fruits and Vegetables