What to Eat when the Stores are Empty
Simple, Localized Approaches to Food Systems Resilience and Food Security in Southeast Asia
Please note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which we explore possible solutions to our current predicament. Click here to read the previous chapter Part One: Creating a Food Jungle – What Nature can teach us To read the abstract on the index page, click here.
Part Two: Staple food diversification – Jackfruit and Artocarpus spp.
After taking a look at how to plant crops so that they create a symbiotic ecosystem in the last Part, we will now go into more detail about what to plant.
Securing a steady supply of staple foods will be of crucial importance in terms of nutrition, since we need a basis of calorie-dense carbohydrate-based foods to keep our bellies filled. Right now, the main staple (by a wide margin) in Southeast Asia is, as we’ve explored in the last Part, rice. Since grain harvests are expected to decline, regional crop failures become more common, and hence rice prices are set to increase, diversification is (again) the key here – it is always better to have a few crops to build the fundament of your nutritional pyramid than one. If you plant only rice, and the rice harvest fails, you have nothing to fall back upon. If you plant an assemblage of, say, five different nutrient-dense staple foods, and one or two fail, you still have other options to fall back on and thus avoid hunger and starvation. There is no shortage of tropical plants that can be utilized this way. In the current subsection, Staple food diversification, we will compare several different starchy crops, all of them forest crops, mostly perennials and some annuals. This table provides an overview of some of the species we will talk about, based on plain yield as a measure.
|Latin Name||Name||Avg. Gl. Yield||Yield t/ha||Part|
|Dioscorea alata*||White yam||3.2||2.2-8.1||Three|
|Dioscorea bulbifera*||Air potato||—||0.3-5.1||Three|
|Ipomoea batatas*||Sweet potato||3.8||0.6-6.4||Three|
** harvest of ripe fruit (only a small percentage of which is seed/nut), yield of the unripe fruit used as starchy vegetable will be considerably lower
Part Two of this series is about a genus of plants that holds special importance for us: Artocarpus. It includes a variety of trees, some of which are drought-tolerant, others flood-resistant, and some of which will produce fruit almost year-round, while others have a pronounced season. Artocarpus is a genus in the Mulberry family (Moraceae) with the ability to supply regular harvests of high caloric value and thus a high potential to increase food systems resilience.
In our garden, we have at least six kinds of Jackfruit (A. heterophyllus), at least five kinds of Cempedak (A. integer), Breadfruit (A. altilis), Breadnut (A. camansi), Marang (A. odoratissimus), Lakoocha (A. lacucha), and Monkey Jackfruit (A. rigidus).
Our main focus here will be on Jackfruit and Cempedak, since they are well-known, start bearing fruit fast (they can start fruiting in as little as four to five years), and we have several fruiting trees already, use them frequently, and know them the best. Having just a few jackfruit trees in the vicinity of a family home will ensure a much-needed diversification of stable foods and regular harvests of multiple versatile ingredients. A single Jackfruit tree can produce hundreds of fruits per year, and most varieties can fruit almost year-round, and especially if you have several trees in different locations (with slightly different soil and sunlight conditions, and water availability) you will be able to harvest Jackfruit basically throughout the year.
An even safer method for ensuring a year-round supply is an arrangement based on the principles of the gift economy with a few neighbors – Jackfruit trees often produce more than a single family can eat, so if you share it, everyone benefits. Like the African proverb goes: “The best place to store food is in my friend’s belly!”
If possible, plant at least one tree near the kitchen, a greywater outlet, bathroom, or a pond. They are quite drought-resistant and strong, but produce more fruit regularly if they have year-round access to water. Large trees have a “T”, “0”, “V” or “Y” shape, and can therefore be planted together with “I”-, “A”-, “n”-, “i”-, or “o”-shaped trees. They grow fairly fast and tall, and can be the first species to form the canopy of the emerging Food Jungle.
Cempedak likes wetter climate and has one pronounced season, but the trees fruit prolifically once mature and can be used just like Jackfruit. A single mature tree next to our house yielded 50 fruits (over a period of maybe three months) this year – more than enough to eat for just us two, we had plenty to “store in our friends’ bellies” and to feed the chickens.
Trees grown from seeds are much stronger than grafted varieties (we even successfully propagate them by just throwing seeds around the garden and keeping the strongest seedlings), but with trees grown from seed you will occasionally get individuals whose fruit is not very delicious when ripe – yet this is a good thing, because you can use all the unripe fruits for cooking without having to feel bad because you don’t get to eat the ripe fruit. And this is the first way to eat Jackfruit (or Cempedak) as a staple: peel and boil the unripe fruit! While this may come to no surprise to many Northeastern Thais (Mashed Jackfruit Soup!), boiled young Jackfruit/Cempedak are absolutely delicious! They can be chopped and used as an ingredient in almost all Thai dishes: soups, curries, stews, stir-fries, and salads (Tom Yum, Tom Saep, Tom Som, Gaeng Som, Gaeng Ga-ti, Phat Phak, Massaman, etc.). If added to food in large enough quantity, you will not need much carbohydrates besides this dish, so it is a great way to reduce rice consumption with any meal.
Boiled Jackfruit and Cempedak seeds are one of the most common replacements for rice here on our farm, and there are several ways to prepare them or incorporate them into food.
One large Jackfruit can contain over 100 seeds, and they are highly nutritious: they contain mostly carbohydrates, just like rice, but the carbs are much more densely packed. Rice contains about 70% water when cooked, while Jackfruit seeds contain only 50% water (actually, cooked white rice contains very little nutrition besides water and carbohydrates). Jackfruit seeds also contain protein, about three times more than white rice (per unit of weight), they have more vitamins and minerals, and they offer plenty of fiber and resistant starch, both of which pass through your body undigested and act as food for beneficial gut bacteria (and a healthy gut microbiome means a healthy human!).
Cempedak seeds are actually more delicious than Jackfruit seeds, the former have a hint of chestnut in their flavor, while the latter taste pretty much like potatoes (but are still delicious!).
You can eat both of them whole or mashed into smaller pieces together with other dishes (as rice replacement), or with your fingers (like with Papaya salad). They can furthermore be incorporated in any meal you want, such as Phat Grapao or Phat Priow Waan. We often mash them into a fine past in a mortar, mix them with chopped garlic, red onions, a few herbs, and a bit of soy sauce and eat the resulting highly nutritious paste with fresh vegetables and leafy greens.
Mashed Jackfruit/Cempedak seeds can also be boiled to make a delicious soup similar to German Kartoffelsuppe (potato soup) – we use fresh turmeric for the characteristic golden color.
What’s even more amazing, you can eat the boiled seeds of all Artocarpus varieties!
The flesh of the ripe Jackfruit (called the arils) can be eaten either raw as a snack (which also easily fills your stomach), or incorporated into soups, stews, and stir-fries – they add a fruity, sweet taste to any meal! And even the tough white fibers of the Jackfruit (called the tendrils, surrounding the flesh) can be stir-fried and are actually quite delicious!
When harvested while still unripe (but almost ripe), all parts of the jackfruit (except the skin) can be lacto-fermented in salty brine for later usage. This method is an easy way to deal with surplus and stretches the availability of Jackfruit as a kitchen ingredient over a longer period. Any leftovers from boiled unripe fruit, ripe fruit and boiled seeds can be used as fodder (we give it to the chickens), or simply composted and used as fertilizer for the Food Jungle. There is no waste in Nature!
We have two Breadfruit and one Breadnut trees, all of which are still rather small and will need a few more years to produce. But a friend has a Breadfruit tree (fruiting throughout the year, with one high season), so we tried them already.
They are processed pretty much like young Jackfruits/Cempedaks, but our favorite way to prepare them is like the Pacific Islanders do: we throw them straight into the fire of our wood stove when we start cooking, turn them around as we prepare the food, and take them out once the food is finished. They should be thoroughly burned black on the outside – you prepare them by simply peeling off the burned skin and eating the inside. (You can also use very young Jackfruit/Cempedak in this fashion!)
Breadnut, is similar to Breadfruit (and can be prepared in the same way), and is basically a hardy ancestor of the latter (with seeds – most Breadfruit varieties are seedless). Breadnut trees are large, strong, and very tolerant of occasional flooding. The seeds can be utilized in the same fashion as Jackfruit/Cempedak, and can also be used as fodder. The downside of Breadnut is that it can take up to 10 years until the trees start fruiting – it’s best to start planting now!
There are a few other tree species that we will use to diversify our diet in the future, namely nut crops such as Wild Almond (กะบก, Irvingia malayana), Perah Nut (ลูกประ, Elateriospermum tapos), Safou (Dacryodes edulis) from Africa, and Maya Breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum) from South America – they are still too small to give fruit yet. All of them will grow up to be large, towering giants of the emergent layer, and seasonally provide an alternative staple crop. Minor ancillary tree crops we grow as seasonal staples are Avocado (Persea americana), Macadamia nut (Macadamia tetraphylla), Coconut (Cocos nucifera), Durian (Durio zibethinus) and Inca Inchi nuts (Plukenetia volubilis, a perennial vine, whose seeds contain considerable quantities of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids).
While Avocado and Durian might seem like strange choices for a staple food at first sight, everyone who has ever harvested sizeable quantities of either can attest to their capability of easily replacing an entire meal (and they are pretty nutritious!).
It is of utmost importance to experiment with new promising forest crops; the more diverse the sources of our staple foods, the better for the resilience of the food system and for the health of both the human and the ecosystem we inhabit. Which crops are suitable for any given region differs starkly, and the assembly of species listed above is merely a suggestion. It’s ultimately up to you to experiment with what works best in the ecosystem you inhabit!