“When we eat certain foods, understand where they come from and all the nuances that make them what they are, we become active participants in their survival.” Food writer Nicholas Gill takes a look at legacy, rituals, respect and harmony as vital ingredients in the preservation of ecosystems as well as culture.
There’s a seventy-two-year-old Zapotec woman in the Teotitlán del Valle market outside of the centre of Oaxaca, Mexico, selling tamales de mole amarillo from a basket. She’s there five mornings a week, sometimes six. She isn’t there long. Just until she sells out, which is usually in no more than a few hours. She has been coming to this market to sell her tamales for four decades. It’s not just her livelihood, it’s her lifeblood.
Every afternoon she boils the kernels with calcium hydroxide (lime) and water, then lets the mixture soak for hours and hours to make nixtamal, which she grinds in a mill to make the masa for her tamales. It’s a sequence of techniques that have changed little among her people for thousands of years. Complementing this process is a batch of mole amarillo from a recipe she learned from her mother, who learned it from her grandmother, that she makes on the weekends. It takes her nearly a full day to toast and char the ingredients, grind them into a paste with her stone metate, and boil them together so no single flavour stands out above the others.
The mole will last her for the week, and early each morning before she goes to the market, she’ll combine it with the masa and steam the mixture inside of a corn husk. Each ingredient she uses, from the guajillo chiles to the hoja santa leaves, connects her to the unique microclimates that surround her and to the human hands that have ushered them to their current state. Especially the corn. She and her family and neighbours grow the dark yellow maize she uses on small plots scattered across the mountainsides and valleys throughout Teotitlán, using seeds that have been safeguarded through generations, not because of the quantity of yield they will have, but because of the flavours they contain and the intangible cultural heritage they represent.
There is a forty-two-year-old man in Kengtung, Myanmar, making laphet thoke, a salad of fresh tea leaves that have been fermenting underground for several months. He adds fried garlic, dried shrimp, toasted sesame seeds, and split peas, creating a sour, bitter, sweet, and spicy dish with an array of textures; a dance with the senses. Its history can be traced to indigenous groups fermenting tea leaves in bamboo for use as peace offerings between warring tribes and to the inclusion of fermented tea in a ritual for Buddhist novitiation ceremonies. By serving the salad to visitors in his home, alongside a pot of green tea, the man becomes another part of the dish’s centuries-old legacy, preserving it for its next iteration.
Outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an eighty-four-year-old woman is making niter kibbeh, a clarified butter infused with fragrant herbs like kosseret and besobela, as well as astringent korerima seeds. It’s a recipe she has made over and over again since she was a teenager, and she knows the exact moment to add each herb and spice, building on the knowledge of those before her in a way that only time could reveal. She uses it to permeate its aromas in stews and rice dishes or to brown meats. It gives all of her food an essence that her children and grandchildren have embedded into their hearts and memories. It’s a flavour that could only happen in this place, by her hands, but the spirit of it will continue on long after she passes.
All of these recipes tell the stories of landscapes and the people who have lived within them. They describe the life of a town or region in a way that a history book never could. They were shaped by farmers and kings. By invasions and migrations. By institutions and revolutions. They reveal the innermost truths of a culture: how it survives during hard times and how it celebrates the good. These foods are something rare that cannot be easily replicated somewhere else in the world, and that’s why we go to them.
Seeking out culinary experiences is one of the most important aspects of why we travel. Sometimes it is a restaurant or a particular chef that might catch our attention. We might even plan our entire trip around a hard-to-get reservation, an iconic dish, or a particular ingredient when its season is at its peak, be it a white truffle from the hills of Piedmont in Italy or baby eels from Spain’s Atlantic coast.
Sometimes these experiences are unplanned, involving something that we weren’t expecting. Something different. You are just as likely to be surprised by an unfamiliar ingredient you saw in a market as by what appears on your plate at a Michelin-starred restaurant. It may be something unfamiliar, like the bright-pink Arctic thyme used to season lamb in Iceland. Or even something so seemingly ordinary as a potato, which, when grown by a farmer from Chinchero in the Peruvian Andes who pollinated its flowers with his own hands, and when revealed to have a brilliant purple colour, changes your understanding of tubers forever.
Food, when it reaches these heights, this apex of rightness, is a meditation on the natural world. These foods have survived for so long because of the respect for the environments they come from. Whether farmed, fished, or foraged, great care has been taken to ensure these ingredients continue on their journeys for the next person or group of people. Regional foods are often defined by limitations, and yet they have found a way to survive despite the constant unpredictability and inconsistency surrounding them.
Ecosystems are not just examples of biodiversity, but support systems for all of the organisms that live within them. They require not just sun and rain, but each other. Without one, the other cannot thrive. The harmonious balance of the flora and fauna and how they change and evolve through the seasons requires tremendous reverence for the soil and seas, a veneration for the completeness of the system for it to be sustained. The pursuit of food, the selection of certain ingredients over others, can very easily throw the entire network out of whack—something that has become far too commonplace.
The world, especially when it comes to what we eat, is becoming more globalised and convoluted. A growing global population continues to mount pressure on our food systems, demanding increases in food production that damage our landscapes while nutrients within the ingredients decrease. You can have salmon from Norway that’s grown on farms in Chile and sold in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Or a bowl of açaí that came from the Amazon at a café in Sydney. Ingredients and recipes, the collective masterwork of generations, are threatened by this globalized marketplace.
There are farmers in the Bolivian altiplano who planted dozens of varieties of quinoa so that they would have food regardless of how the weather turned out, who are now only growing one because of consumer demands. The number of Xiaohuo pigs, a heritage breed from Xi’an, China, has dwindled to only a few hundred because of faster-growing foreign breeds that have displaced them.
Like the natural ecosystems where these ingredients come from, preserving them requires a network of approaches that is equally as comprehensive. It requires movements, from chisan-chisho in Japan to Slow Food in Italy, to fortify our support. Chains of human hands that extend beyond just our friends and neighbours and reach out across time and space. Something so broad and encompassing that no individual lifetime can grasp the extent of its depth. It requires a greater understanding of all parts of our food system; the connections between what is on the plate to the planet and its people. Travel is one of the best ways to gain some of that insight. If we could see Chinook salmon being sustainably caught and smoked by a Salish community or açaí being loaded off riverboats at the Ver-o-Peso market in Belém do Pará where much of the world’s supply passes through, would we stop demanding to eat them in our homes on the other side of the earth?
Foods can leave such a lasting impression on us that they become imprinted in our very being in a way that can be far more profound than a visit to a world wonder or a famous piece of artwork. These flavours aren’t found in museums or behind a velvet rope. They are living, breathing records of a time and place. Each taste is felt. We ingest their history. They quite literally become a part of us. When we eat certain foods, when we understand where they come from and all the nuances that make them what they are, we become active participants in their survival.
Nicholas Gill is an award-winning writer and photographer who lives in Pound Ridge, New York, and Lima, Peru. He co-wrote the book Central with Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez and is the author of Slippurinn: Recipes and Stories from Iceland and The Latin American Cookbook. He also hosts a podcast series called New Worlder dedicated to the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond.
This essay was first published in 2022 in the book Taste and Place, conceived and edited by The Common Table founders studio_lovell for Design Hotels. A food book with a difference, it looks at ecosystems of hospitality through the lens of food to better understand the bigger system changes possible and necessary in order to transition to a low-carbon future. Text and images reproduced by kind permission.