Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Receta del Dia (kind of)

If I were in the States and I had a small, unique (quaint perhaps) eatery, today's special might be...

Fried Green Corn (Maiz verde o dulce) Tamal served with fresh Avocado guac and some fresh cheese.

Nica inspired food for the friends and family reading the blog.  I obviously miss my foodie life style in the States.
But, I will have so many new tastes to share when I return to the U.S. in a couple of years.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Nica Nutrition

My nutrition education goals in brief.
Living in Nicaragua presents an extra challenge to someone who studied nutrition and food science.  Nutrition education, just like in countries all over the world, is needed here to help public health...especially with increasing access to highly processed, less traditional foods.  It seems that the often poor dietary habits are deeply rooted in the socioeconomic situation (as we certainly also observe in the United States).  UNICEF reports that "one of every three children has some degree of chronic malnutrition and nine percent suffer from severe malnutrition."  In addition, daily rural life includes very few precautions taken with regards to food and water safety.  Food access / food security appear far more of a concern than sanitation and variety.  On the bright side, unlike the U.S., in rural Nicaragua there is an abundance of tropical fruits and a high tendency to cook at home; two strong dietary advantages in my opinion.

As I begin my service here I have set a goal to encourage some simple adjustments to the diet.  I´m optimistic!  In the first two weeks I have had positive feedback from some soy meat I have prepared.  My host family has also observed how I cook my dinner with much less oil (for frying an egg for example).  And just last night two young girls were excited to learn a quick salsa recipe--tomato, onion, green mango, chicoria/cilantro, salt--a healthful addition to their diet with ingredients that are often available in the area (chicoria typically grows right around the house).  I try to pass the message that fruits and veggies have vitamins!  It is more economical to buy fruits and veggies from the family than to buy some questionable vitamin tablet.  And frying with less oil also saves a bit of dinero.

I have observed that a lack of health and nutrition education allows food superstitions to continue, hindering the ability of families to make healthy dietary choices.  I respect the traditions here and the beliefs that often seem strange to me, but opening up to some new health beliefs may be a positive change for some individuals.  I have observed (and tried to gently dissuade) sippy cup feeding of cola followed by a bon-bon lollipop given to a child not yet old enough to walk OR ask for said lollypop (seemingly used as a pacifier...).  Not only do such empty calories not provide recommended nutrition, such practices may prime the child´s preference for abundant processed sweets.  More processed food, less traditional products, and inevitably more dental problems often result.

After four months observing and eating in Nicaragua, I have decided to encourage four changes in the kitchen.  I would argue that these goals are simple and also relevant for healthy eating in any culture.

1. Diversify by adding fresh (not always over cooked) color to the plate (this means fruits and vegetables)
2. Reduce sugar intake, especially in liquid Calories.  Perhaps replace the cola with H2O; make a fruit juice fresco with out--or with less--added sugar!  (Another quick anecdote:  there is a popular cola here named Kola Shaler, which some people believe to be different from soda (gaseosa).  It is believed to be somewhat medicinal and a source of vitamins; however, reality and ingredient label tell me it is a cola with a slightly different flavoring recipe.)
3. Reduce consumption of fried foods and fry in less fat.  Not only would this save money (aceite, oil, is expensive), it may add color to the golden brown plate.  *The same child who loves cola and lollipops is typically fed mostly fried solid foods.  One day at the table, as I ate a healthy avocado, I suggested trying to feed a bit to the child.  The response was bewilderment--apparently the belief is that the avocado does a young person harm (at least in this family).  To them, fried rice and fried cheese are easier to digest than a bit of avocado.*
4. Lastly, a reduction in cross contamination during food prep and water collection could benefit everyone! 

I am just getting started encouraging these four ideas and I am planning some cooking demonstrations in my community.  The community and I are also beginning some small scale patio garden plots that may increase food security and diversify diets (Peace Corps objectives!), even if only by a small amount.

Opportunities in Jigüina are abundant!

I would like to note that I do not intend to be judgmental about the diet here.  I indulge in sweets and fried foods as well.  But, I like to think I do so in moderation and I live a somewhat active lifestyle.  With out some critical observation, it is hard to accomplish dietary improvement.  I respect the hard working people here that often struggle to put food on the table and I also respect the continued use of traditional recipes (with maíz for example).

Peace and Progress

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A relaxing morning

Peace Corps Volunteers know how to have fun...and enjoy all the LITTLE things. It is a benefit of the job; something mundane in my old lifestyle now brings unusual joy to my day.

This morning I enjoyed English conversation about projects, life, and pastries in a small bakery cafe shop in Jinotega City. This was after a night of some junk food, board games, and a silly attempt at karaoke. All agreed that the night felt a bit too much like freshman year of college...oddly nostalgic. Now I am thrilled that I have found a very high speed and fachenta ( a pseudo snobby way) cyber spot. And they have free cafe.

It is a small world and an even smaller country. I just ran into a woman from my community, dressed in Saturday best for some city shopping. She of course invited me for chilote around lunch time (baby corn...I´m a bit too into the chilote at the moment as it is very good). It is the first corn cob to grow on the stalk, then, perhaps seeking more sun (reaching for the Nica sky), the corn stalk continues on and produces a larger corn cob, la madre. The plant hormones seem to head on up to the madre and the chilote stays tender and underdeveloped.


As my projects move forth, this month will also involve settling into my new home. I will be renting a room in an unoccupied farm cottage in my village with unusually nice conditions. I am spoiled. I look forward to having my own little lab again, kitchen I mean. I hope to cook a lot since my community seems very open to learning new recipes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

un día típico

some have been curious about what my typical day looks like. this is not an easy thing to describe, as Peace Corps Nicaragua often does not include typical days...

i shall brief.

Around 4 AM I wake up with the roosters, which often sleep on the other side of the wood plank wall of my bedroom (quite close to my head). I sleep again.

Around 6:30 AM I wake up to the sound of Doña Leonarda patting out the day´s corn tortillas by hand...into perfect circles. Pah, pah, pah. PAUSE. -she shuffles over to the wood burning stove to flip one tortilla, put another on the metal disc/skillet, and then she returns to the counter to pat out some more masa (corn dough).

After Leonarda realizes I am awake (you can hear EVERYTHING through the wood walls), she screams, ¨Miguel! ¿Ya va a comer?,¨calling me to breakfast.

I ask how the family slept and they typically reply, ¨Thank God, pretty well.¨ These conversations do actually happen almost every day.

Typically I will eat. Rice, beans, tortilla, or I will make oatmeal. Then I will do some project planning in my room and decide whether or not to bathe before the day´s agenda.

Currently I am meeting with lots of community members and discussing possible projects, challenges they face, etc. We have two community banks with meetings twice a month. We are preparing to start a third community bank! I am beginning to do some nutritious food demonstrations (this week, three Salsa Mexicana recipes using local ingredients...mas or menos). I have started a Marango tree nursery to assist with a youth chicken feed business plan and I have worked with three local youths to start family veggie gardens!

Future projects (in discussion) include a community mill (molino) and a community/church garden (beautification!!). Also, some larger scale farming ideas like organic lettuce, an onion patch, soil conservation barriers for hill side farming, and new product ideas. I love new food products (my ideas include tomato jam and pickled baby corn...already made the pickles, and they tasted GREAT).

After treking around town talking with everyone and hearing my name, ¨Miguelito!!¨yelled from all sides, I return home often to wash up before dinner (despite Nica habit of only bathing in the morning).

Some days I practice milking cows, some days I feed my worm compost with some fresh cow pooh, and some days I take a tour of someone´s patio, in which I will usually find some neat plants such as wild orchids.

At night, I eat a hearty dinner...often some rice, beans, tortilla, cabbage or fried eggs. Sometimes I will prepare some soy protein or we will have some corn on the cob. Sometimes squash (chaya) soup.

I typically end the night reading and writing about the day in my room, listening to 80s music, sipping on warm pinolillo, and trying to ignore the itching from my flea bites.

I use my head lamp to get around at night, brushing my teeth and such. Around 9 I get in bed and read by head lamp until I decide to fall asleep...