“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”

It is a universal standard that no matter where you travel to, for whatever reason, the first thing people will ask you about is the food. It goes without saying that most places have a lot more distinctive food than the US, because we have a wide variety of everything. If someone asked me what the food was like in America, I wouldn’t really know what to say. But it’s pretty easy to talk about food in other countries because its more of a specialty there – Italian pasta is unbeatable, I’ve only ever ordered fish & chips in England, Guinness is best drank in Ireland, and the presence and quality of guinea pig kabobs is far higher in Ecuador than the US.

Yes, I said guinea pigs, I couldn’t help it, I love telling people I ate one of those evil furry little creatures that bit me every time I ever tried to pet one as a child. But, seriously, Ecuadorean food is great, so much focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, and the traditional cuisine is rich, filling, and yet still healthy. There were fruits and vegetables that I never even knew existed in the world, and something that I found incredibly thrilling as a traveler was simply wandering fruit markets looking for foods I hadn’t tried yet. My favorites were guanabana (soursop), mora berries, and a ridiculously fun-to-eat fruit called granadilla.

The first time I got one of these, I had no idea how to eat it – you crack it open and eat the fruit-seed pods (that look disturbingly like fish eggs) without eating the white inner part of the shell. They are absolutely delicious and are equally fun and time-consuming to eat!

And the best part about food in Ecuador is this: hunger didn’t seem as big an issue as it might have in similar countries, because the government places a high priority on the availability of food for everyone, and healthy food is cheaper than unhealthy or “fast” food.

More widely available that anything else in a local market, is fresh fruit of all shapes and colors

More widely available that anything else in a local market is fresh fruit of all shapes and colors

For comparison:

  • A full meal at basic restaurant (soup, avocado slices, potatoes, corn, steak, sometimes juice): $2.00 – 3.00
  • A combo meal at McDonalds in Quito: $5.00+
  • Bottle of Coke: $1.50
  • Bottle of Water: $.50

And these healthy differences in Ecuadorean food are a concrete part of governmental policy that have been in the country’s Constitution since 2008. Food Sovereignty, as it is called by the members of the Via Campesina (Peasant’s Way), is the people’s right to define their own food system and have access to healthy, local foods.  This social justice group also focuses on environmental policy and indigenous and women’s rights.

The Food Sovereignty policy

  • supports small farmers and encourages local production and sales
  • works to prevent runaway prices of food products
  • ensures that animals intended for human consumption are raised in a healthy and humane way
  • promises that in case of anthropogenic (human-caused) or natural disasters, the government will step in to ensure that people in need still have access to food
  • and it deals with many other issues as well, ranging from sustainable growing practices to standards set on international foods that are imported

So basically, the government works to ensure that all people have access to healthy and fresh food, and also that food is grown as environmentally-friendly as possible. And this always makes me wonder, why can’t the American government get their act together and have policies like this? Give subsidies to healthy food and tax unhealthy fast food, instead of vice-versa?

As a poor college student – about to get poorer as graduation time approaches – I know all too well that an entire meal at Wendy’s can cost as little as $3.00, but a salad at Wendy’s is double that? A bag of chips costs ~$2 but a bag of apples costs $5? It’s not fair that Americans of lower socio-economic status are forced to buy unhealthy food because they can’t afford anything else, putting them at risk of health complications that arise solely out of their economic standing. The reason our economy is this way in regards to food is probably a complicated mess of politics, economics, and a deep-rooted tradition of what Americans view as a typical diet or their right to consume whatever they want (and undoubtedly a little bit of corruption in the policy-making sectors). There is no quick fix to a problem such as this one, but an increased focus on sustainable food production and a commitment to ensure healthy food for all seems like a good start?

DE VIENTO EMPANADAS

Now, I know I just talked a lot about healthy food and healthy food is great! But, I leave you now with a recipe for deep fried de viento empanadas, a specialty of Ecuador that I was luckily enough to try at an indigenous music festival.  Here’s the recipe, a little rough as it is translated into imperial measuring units from my memory of an old Ecuadorean lady yelling it at me because she thought that would make me understand her better:

  • ~2 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 oz butter
  • 1/3 cup water

You also need:

  • Cheese for inside the empanadas – there is really only one kind of cheese in Ecuador, a fresh, moist, white cheese that has no other name than simply queso, so I would suggest any white, weak cheese – I used mozzerella.
  • Oil to fry them in – vegetable, sunflower, or canola oil probably work the best
  • Sugar to sprinkle over tops

When I made this recipe, I altered the flour and water a little bit to get the right consistency – this recipe is traditionally used in a high altitude, so that might make a difference or I didn’t get the measurements just right.

  1. Mix flour, salt, baking powder, butter, and water until a soft dough forms.
  2. Take a small ball of dough, depending on how big you want your empanadas to be, and flatten into a circle.
  3. Fill half the circle with cheese and press together, ensuring they are sealed tightly.
  4. Fry in oil until golden brown, flipping halfway through (about a minute per side).
  5. Remove from oil and sprinkle with sugar, allow to cool, and enjoy!
I watched these cook before my very eyes.  De viento empanadas - cheese filled, sprinkled with sugar.

I watched these cook before my very eyes. De viento empanadas – cheese filled, sprinkled with sugar.

Advertisements

“Without ice cream there would be darkness and chaos”

Even though its turning winter time in Michigan right now and I definitely saw snowflakes yesterday, I am still currently craving gelato – the extremely tasty Italian version of ice cream.

I used to work at a gelateria – a shop that sells gelato – and I got accustomed to constant access to free gelato.  It was the coolest job, at first: I worked with my three best friends serving (and sampling) gelato, espresso, and other delightful Italian baked goods.  Then we realized the bosses were greedy and stupid, I devolved into hiding sprinkles in inaccessible places throughout the shop, and we all quit at the beginning of the summer.  We’ve never looked back, except when we go back on someone’s birthday when there is free gelato to be acquired, and then we always end up missing the stupid place.  Lots of funny stories and awesome desserts were had.  But damnit, most of all, I miss eating gelato everyday.

Of course this American made gelato, though good, was no match for the real deal I had in Italy.  Authentic Italian gelato is unbeatable, I believe partly because the dessert is all Italian – gelato comes from the Latin word gelatus, meaning frozen, and some of the earliest frozen desserts were served in in the Roman empire.  Romans, and Egyptians, would often bring back ice and snow from mountains to make frozen treats for the wealthier citizens.  But the first official batch of “ice cream” isn’t thought to have originated until much later, in the 16th century.   Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with first making ice cream for the Medici Family in Florence, and obviously it has been a popular treat ever since.

A combination of Cocoa and Mint Chocolate Chip gelati, from the town of San Gemini, Italy.

When I worked at the gelateria, a lot of people – a lot – would always ask what made gelato different than regular, American ice cream.  So I consider myself to be a bit of a pro at the following explanation:

  1. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream: Ice cream is served cold enough to give one a severe case of “brain freeze”, something that gelato doesn’t do because it is warmer – this also means that gelato doesn’t freeze your taste buds like ice cream can do, meaning you actually get to taste more of the gelato flavor.
  2. Gelato is more dense than ice cream: Ice cream tends to be about 25-35% air as a result of the churning process, whereas gelato is only about 10%.  This is not necessarily a bad thing because I love fluffy ice cream, however more air does mean less flavor.
  3. Compared to ice cream, gelato is made with more sugar and less fat: This is great because not only is it a proven fact that sugar makes everything taste better, but fat actually makes you taste less of it.  Fat molecules can coat your taste-buds and dilute the gelato flavor, so less of it means you taste more of the gelato.  Plus, gelato being lower fat also means you don’t feel as bad about eating way more of it.

So, conclusion: gelato is a tasty tasty frozen treat that everyone should try, no matter the time of year.  My recommendation is nocciola or hazelnut, a classic Italian flavor that shouldn’t be missed!

What’s Coming Soon:

Just another typical archeology post … or is it?

“It’s Pimm’s O’Clock!”

In order to carry on with the British theme, along with the fact that I will be 21 in 10 days, Pimm’s No. 1 Cup seemed like a good next topic.

Besides Guinness, it was my beverage of choice throughout my whole English study-abroad experience.  Probably because it’s just so. damn. classy.  It is a “fruit cup” liquor drink because it is meant to be mixed with fruit into a number of different cocktails.

  • The standard, English-style, is mixed with lemonade
  • You can bulk up the alcohol content by mixing it with champagne
  • You then add strawberries, oranges, lemons, mint leaves, and cucumber pieces.

It is the favorite drink of University receptions, summer parties, and quintessentially-British sporting events such as Wimbledon. My first drink of Pimm’s was indeed on the cloister lawn of Magdalen College during our welcome reception, promptly followed by 4-5ish more of said drinks at dinner.

James Pimm first made this now-famous drink in 1823.  It is based on gin, and can I just say, that whoever decided that they should make a liqueur from the juniper plant must have already been drunk.  I accidentally ordered Pimm’s on ice once (minus the lemonade and fruit), and it was not the tasty beverage I was anticipating but instead just plain, slightly gross gin with a unique flavor as a result of extra liquors and herbs added to enhance flavor and “digestion”.

The gin-based Pimm’s is Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, and in the past there has also been a No. 2 Cup, No. 3 Cup, and so on until No. 6 Cup, with varying liquor bases.  Currently only No. 1 Cup (gin), No. 3 Cup (now called Pimm’s Winter, brandy-based), and No. 6 Cup (vodka-based) are sold, but No. 1 is by far the most common and the only one I have ever actually seen.

I was told by an Oxford professor that nowadays only 6 people ever know the full recipe of the various liquors and herbs at once – however, he had this slightly annoying habit of making up interesting facts to see if anyone was actually smart enough to call out his bullshit.  And he was so damn knowledgeable about EVERYTHING that we usually believed him.  I searched around on the Internets for an answer to the validity of his claim and couldn’t find any evidence of such secrecy within the Pimm’s Company, so I do suspect that this was just another of Dr. A’s “I’m-just-testing-your-critical-thinking-skills” games.  But, if anyone knows more, I would love a comment about it!

I leave you now with a recipe for PIMM’S NO. 1 CUP, my personal favorite. (Straight from the Pimm’s website!)

1 part Pimm’s No. 1
3 parts chilled lemonade
Mint leaves, cucumber, strawberries, and orange pieces

What’s Coming Soon:

The tastiest addition yet!

“Anything is good if its made of chocolate”

Do you ever have the sense that chocolate just tastes better in the wintertime? It might be due to all the awesome holiday packaging and special varieties (red and green mint m&ms ftw). Or maybe it is because we associate it with things such as holiday parties and peppermint mochas. Well here’s another, perhaps more scientific reason: the recipe is actually different for many candies in the winter, and thus they are purer chocolate.

In America, the differences are subtle – Hershey’s adds a minute percentage of baker’s wax to their summer candy bars and other chocolates to prevent them from melting as much and keep them all looking good. Because let’s face it, no one wants some melted, deformed Hershey bar right? Unfortunately, though in such small amounts its hardly noticeable, the added wax isnt exactly a flavor booster. However, colder weather in the winter negates the need for this additional ingredient. Thus, the wax can be omitted from “winter varieties” of Hershey’s, Nestle’s, etc. and they are smoother, creamier, and in general, more chocolaty.

What I find most interesting about this process is that barely anyone knows about this in the United States – companies usually don’t advertise “summer” or “winter” varieties of chocolate. Packaging and marketing remains the same throughout the year, and it generally goes unnoticed that anything changes. But take a country that really takes it chocolate seriously, like Italy, and it is a whole different story.

I remember one of our advisors in my Italy group remarking that he was sad the winter chocolates were not available while we were there. I had no idea what this meant, but never really got around to asking about it until the day we toured the chocolate factory in Perugia – the tour was awesome (read about it here!) but unfortunately the factory was non-operational. As it turns out, the factory shuts down in the summer because it is too hot to run the machinery. The only way to produce a Bacio candy that isn’t a melted glob of chocolate and hazelnut therefore would be drastically altering the recipe – and anyone who has ever tasted a freshly made Bacio understands that would be borderline sinful. So the factory is shut down during the hottest months of the summer until the weather becomes cool enough to properly produce Bacio once more. I am pretty sure an American company would/could never do this, so they change the recipes to accommodate year-round production and consumption. But I think some of our companies should get a little bit more creative with the way that they package and sell their products, so taste doesn’t have to be sacrificed for functionality of the product.

Take, for example, the Ferrero Pocket Coffee & Ferrero Pocket Espresso To-Go:

Ferrero Pocket Coffee is a dark chocolate candy, with real espresso inside. It is apparently glorious. And I can see why. What’s not to love about an edible container of coffee, especially when said container is made of dark chocolate? But I actually never got to try one because they are pulled from stores around the first of May and aren’t returned until around the first of October – omitting its sale in the hottest part of the year, when most people don’t really want a chocolate candy that is going to melt and ooze liquid espresso all over everything they own.

So, during the summer months, Ferrero has introduced an alternative to the Pocket Coffee – behold, the Pocket Espresso To-Go and all it’s glory. The idea is basically the same: it is a super convienant and tasty chocolate espresso shot. But this time the chocolate is melted into the espresso and the whole thing is in a mini plastic container that comes complete with a mini straw. It is honestly one of the coolest hidden treasures of Italy, and partially saved my life when we were all working in the fields on the farm.

Another interesting difference is that not only does the packaging and the product change, but it is kind of a big deal when the chocolates change out – there are sales and introductions of new varieties that occur, and acquiring the last of the smoother winter candy at the start of summer is something of a quest. We arrived in Rome just in time to see the last of the winter Kinder Sorpresa Eggs being sold in the grocery store down the street. These were soft chocolate and wrapped in foil and they were being replaced by harder chocolate in a plastic egg, which once again, better accommodates hot weather. Also, inside the sorpresa eggs are mini toys (very simple but also very amusing to a bunch of American college kids). It became kind of a fun game, like a treasure hunt, for us to search everywhere after that and see what candies were different and why. And you would be surprised what sorts of fun things you find on quirky quests for the perfect chocolate candy.

I guess I’m not really sure where I was going with this blog, because there isn’t really a point, argument, or purpose to this other than I think its really interesting. And I miss Italian chocolate. Also, you will soon learn, I love learning about little cultural facts and differences. I hope you do too.

*Fun Fact: I think it is interesting to note that while Kinder Chocolate is sold in America, Kinder Sorpresas are banned in stores because the US FDA bans the sale of any food that contains a non-edible substance, such as a toy, inside of it.