Written by Chris
Johannesburg, South Africa – Mindy and I have spent a lot of time on farms in the past few months, and I got to thinking about how little most of us know about where the food we eat comes from. There are a lot of things that we consume in great quantities that grow only down here in the tropics and we never get the chance to see first hand. I know that nature can do a lot of really weird things (especially after our visit to the Amazon) but I guess I just thought that most things we eat just grew on plants. In a garden. I was kinda wrong. So here are several common foods that I found to grow in a surprising way.
The US imports bananas from equatorial parts of the world (especially Ecuador) by the cargo plane load. I had a vague idea that bananas grew on trees in bunches and that the trees had big leaves, but the reality of a banana tree I found to be very strange. First, the banana “tree” is actually more like a disposable cardboard pole. They grow incredibly rapidly up to about 15 feet high. They start growing bananas near the top in clusters the way you would expect, but at the very top sits a giant purple flower that is the size and shape of a football. Once the bananas start to get ripe, the “tree” starts to die and the whole thing sags over until the bunch of bananas hangs down to a reachable height, nicely on display. I thought this was an incredibly nice thing to do for us hungry primates down here. After a little while longer, the whole disposable tree thingy just falls down and is done. If you want, you can hack off the stem with your machete and a new shoot will come up in a little while.
If you are like me, you just thought that all coffee was brought to the US by Juan Valdez who threw a few sacks of the black beans onto his donkey and led him up through Central America from places unknown. (Also, if you are like me, you try to stay away from the smell and culture and especially the taste of coffee as much as possible, ewww). Now imagine my surprise when I get to Ecuador and am asked to go pick coffee and directed to a plant that looks like this.
Perhaps it is my willful ignorance of the coffee culture, but it was very surprised to find that it actually grows as a red ‘berry’ on a bush. We got to see the process of making coffee from plant to cup and it was quite interesting.
- Pick the beans when they turn that nice red color
- Put them through this hand-cranked machine to remove the husks, 2 flesh-colored beans inside
- Wash what comes out many, many times over to remove the remaining pieces of husk
- Leave the beans out in the sun to dry. This takes several days
- Roast the beans. We did this in a metal pan over a wood fire. This turns them the nice dark brown color we’re used to.
- Grind, hot water, strain, drink: the usual (+ foam, milk, sugar, carmel, half-caff, splenda, vanilla syrup, cinnamon, whipped cream, pixie dust, …)
The local kids liked to pick the berries and then suck on the beans raw. I didn’t find much taste in this and I didn’t really see the appeal. It was almost as if they had become addicted to some chemical in it…
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree, and that thing is one finicky plant. It only grows near the equator, requires special insects to pollinate it, and cannot reproduce without the help of animals to pick the seeds off of it. Despite this, it tends to thrive in the proper regions (or perhaps it is just heavily cultivated by man). Either way, this relatively small part of the world makes plenty to go around. The seeds grow in a pod that looks like this.
These pods come in many colors; red, orange, yellow, green, purple, and they function thusly. The bright colors attract some hungry animal. We dig in and find a bunch of soft, sweet, white pulp to slurp up. While doing this, we occasionally run into some gross, bitter, black seeds in there that we spit out on the ground. We get a treat and the plant gets its genetic material spread around the countryside. Evolution at its best. However, somewhere along the line, we figured out that we could turn those bitter black seeds into chocolate.
Turns out, it is mostly the hard shell of the seeds that is bitter and, once removed, can be made into something delicious (though the shells can be seeped in some hot water to make a delicious chocolate-flavored tea, without the chocolate calories!). I picked up most of the information I’m relating to you from the Chocolate Museum in Cusco, Peru. They also have a class where you can make some of your own chocolate from start to finish which I (regrettably!) did not take. So that part will remain a bit of a mystery to us both for now. Final fun chocolate fact: chocolate does not contain caffeine, but another similar compound called theobromine. Nature!
Bonus: other weird plants you’re probably not familiar with
Tree Tomato – It’s not actually a tomato, but it has an odd resemblance to one in both appearance and flavor. They are usually orange, but also come in red. The taste is a strange combination of tomato and strong citrus. The locals love it as juice and it is a pretty big cash crop for the farmers in Ecuador.
Garandillo – The flower at the beginning of this post is a garandillo blossom. We talked about them before but they warrant another mention. It is a hard, orange fruit that grows on a vine. Once you crack the hard shell open, you find it to be full of little fruit pearls that look like fish eggs. It is amazingly sweet and tastes like candy. It’s a bit similar to a pomegranate but without all the hard work. Definitely one of my favorite new encounters so far.