April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What and how do we cook?

Food....an all important subject. Many of you that I have talked to on the phone in the last month have asked food related questions, so this blog is dedicated to all of you who think with your tummies (like me!).

Me with a veggie omlet and hash browns on Christmas morning.

The photo below is my kitchen in our house. Actually the photo is a bit old and we have since put in shelves below the counter and a spice shelf up above the counter on the left side....but you can get the idea. The cement to my left in our sink...a sink of all purposes - cooking and laundry.

You can also see our stove for cooking. It is a three burner stove that runs on a 25 lb. tank of propane. Our first tank lasted us 7+ weeks which quite impressed some of the neighbors. Also impressive is the ingenuity that we used in constructing the cement counter - we included PVC piping through the counter and uprights to allow us to pass the stove tubing through the counter and have the tank safely out of the way and still be able to put our stove anywhere on the counter that we would like. That was a new innovation for the island.

A full stove...usually we use two burners for food and one for hot water for tea.

So what about refrigeration? Well, we don´t have any. This makes life simple and yet complicated. As a result we have developed the following stratagies:

1. Focus on buying those foods that will last without a refrigerator. (this includes some surprises like ketchup, bbq sauce, and mustard which all last long enough after opening to be worth stocking)

2. We also rank foods by how fast they will go bad and eat them in that order - rationing to make veggies last. (for example we buy brocolli and cauliflower and eat them in the first 2 days home, but tomatoes and carrots last longer, we also can get a squash called zapallo that lasts like a pumpkin and can be eaten when all else is gone).

3. Cook only as much as we can eat in a day or two.

4. We reheat foods thoroughly before eating them and try not to eat leftovers if more than a day or so old.

Achiote - a local spice growing on a tree right outside our house. Used to color and flavor rice; note the color on my fingers.

We use both locally purchased foods (rice, oil, sugar, onions, flour, raspadura-cane sugar, eggs, some fruits and veggies) and food hauled in from off island. People are also very generous with food...if they have plantains that they don´t need they will give you some when you stop by to say hi. From the supermarkets in Santiago, we typically haul in:

parmesan cheese, brocolli, cauliflower, onions, peppers, potatoes, carrots, peanut butter, sauces, pasta, tea, seasonings, nutella, apples (lots of apples), dried fruit, oatmeal, chocolate, cookies, bread (nor more than a loaf), popcorn to pop, bbq sauce, soya texturized vegetable protien, soup mixes, and tang mix. (Notice...no dairy in that list.)

We also supplement our diet with vitamins and calcium suppliments provided by Peace Corps.

We, like everyone on the island, eat a lot of rice, lentils, beans, and fish. Unlike everyone else, our beans and lentils tend to be liberally mixed with garlic, onions and other veggies as available. We also eat a lot of soya aka "fake meat" which is good if you don´t try to compare it to real meat. Usually our soya is served with....yup you guessed it: rice!

Lobsters given to us by a local fisherman. These are on the small side...they can get to be so big that their main body alone is about as big as my hand.

Our two closest nighbors are fishermen and they regularly share their catch with us and so we eat fish 1-2 times a week...as fresh as can be! We have had what the local fishermen call Pargo (red snapper), Congo, Corvina, Baracuda, Hammerhead shark, bull shark, shrimp, crabs, and several different types of mollusks. The lobsters above were given to us by another fisherman. They were wonderful. Lobsters here do not have claws like those near Maine. Lobsters, and all types of seafood, are now found in less abundance than they were in years past. There are discussions on going at both the national and local levels on how to protect the future of these resources.

A typical "visitor" meal. Note the size of the localy caught shrimp. It is a visitor meal because it has rice with lentils and two types of seafood. Usually only the rice and lentils are served...or rice and fish...not always the three together in a normal meal.

We are trying to walk a line between cooking like the locals and making ourselves happy. We want to both blend into their way of life and yet offer them new options. So far in our time here we have introduced families to popcorn and brocolli (although popcorn recieved a much warmer reception of the two ;)

I am experimenting with making bread with some success and have had many women tell me that they want to learn how when I get it figured out. I think that if I teach them I will use it as a chance to teach them about the food groups and starches. Here rice is such a big part of the diet that a meal without rice is not considered a meal....so if they eat pasta, it is served with rice. Needless to say, weight gain and diabetes are growing issues in Panama.

Local little clams we collected with visitors for a dinner. Note the tablespoon for size reference. Yummy.

We are looking forward to starting a vegetable garden when we get home. We are hoping to have enough veggies to return some of the generous sharing that we have recieved while living on the island. We hope to grow tomatoes, cucumber, beans, zapallo, zuccini, carrots, and some other more typical local foods like yucca and guandu.

Food remains an interesting part of our life, but every week we feel a little more at home and comfortable with what we have. As we prepared to leave the island for the travel that we are on right this moment, I noticed that for the first time I was not looking forward with gusto to going out to eat in the city...I take that for a good sign that I finally feel in control and comfortable with my food options.

Hope we have whetted your appetite to come and visit us! Buen provecha! (literally translated means "Good Belch")


dcropper said...

Another wonderful posting! I think we are all learning from the two of you. What a wonderful opportunity for you and for us -- and for your hosts!
Love, Mom C.

sdierks said...

Thanks for the very interesting post and pictures. I am so glad you have been able to develop a healthy diet that is comfortable for you and Kevin. It is great that you are able to augment the general diet with fruits and vegetables from the mainland. You are such a good cook, you will have the islanders eating all kinds of things that are new to them before you leave. Good luck with the garden. April you look wonderful!
Love you, Mom