…and then on to Mauritius

After my stay in Madagascar, I moved on to its neighboring island of Mauritius. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit a grocery store. It’s really interesting to see what is locally-stocked, whether it’s a different region in the US or a foreign country. I always try the local cuisine, but I also like to shop and cook a meal or two. Last year in Bali, I bought a variety of fresh produce, spices, and freshly-made tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) at a local market in Ubud and took it with me to the coast where I cooked up a typical Balinese meal. It worked out well because the beach areas are much more resorty-type areas, so the restaurant options were limited and pricey.

In addition to trying out new foods, shopping and cooking is a nice break from eating out. I tend to travel for extended periods of time and get a bit tired of eating in restaurants and whatever portable food I have stashed in my backpack. Another plus is that it’s easier to satisfy my food preferences. I love to cook, so I get to try things that might not be on a menu (especially in countries catering specifically to Western tourists). Even when Michael and I travel in the US, we often stay at places with at least partial kitchens where we can eat at a meal or two after stopping at the local markets. For some, cooking during a vacation might not seem like a vacation, but in my opinion it’s worth the trade-off.

A unique fruit (or vegetable?) that’s a cross between a pepper and an apple

On my recent trip to Mauritius, the two places I stayed both had fully-stocked kitchens. It was a nice option after eating out for 2 1/2 weeks in Madagascar. I got to try two different varieties of vegan faux-meats (Schnitzel patties and sausages). Since fish is so important to island countries, I also found a wide variety of analog seafood and tried the vegan lobster. I chose this because I noticed from the first to the second time I was in the supermarket that the stock had reasonably dwindled, which I took to mean it tasted pretty good, and it actually did.

It’s been ages since I’ve eaten lobster, so I can’t guarantee it’s a good imitation, but it was certainly an enjoyable vegan substitute.

I was wishing I had some vegan mayo to make a lobster salad, but alas, that was not something I found. I tried girumon squash that I’d never had before, which was much creamier than firm after baking. I also got to try some veggie dumplings that were quite tasty (and which were a carbohydrate indulgence, but I realized I’d gone two days without a real meal).

My dumpling indulgence

Something I’ve found to be both interesting and consistent when shopping for produce in developing countries is the size of the vegetables and particularly the fruit. Much of the produce marketed in the US and Western Europe comes from larger, agribusiness production that has worked to maximize the yield per acre. Developing countries don’t have the same level of access to technology and inputs, so that produce tends to look closer to something that comes out of a garden. I’m always taken aback when I walk into not just a local weekly produce market, but even a supermarket in a place like Madagascar or Mauritius and see shelves and displays of what I’d consider single-serving size fruit like apples and oranges versus what seem to be verging-on-softball size equivalents at home.

Weekly market with ‘normal’ produce

Of course one of the best parts of traveling to tropical areas is the fresh fruit. Rather than being picked green to ship, await quarantine clearance, then be transported and stocked in the grocery store, eating tree-ripened papaya, guava, or passion fruit is a very different experience in the tropics .

Passion fruit

And I’ve had the opportunity every time I’ve traveled to Africa or Asia to try something unique to these places that, due to lack of international demand/recognition and/or is highly perishable, I wouldn’t have the chance to try otherwise. Most recently, I got to try sweet apple (it’s nothing like an apple, actually), fresh Mauritian olives, and something I didn’t even get an English or French name for, since my hosts only knew the Creole name. It was a cross between a sweet pepper and a tart apple.

Sweet apple

I also got to have a typical lunch. After a trip to the local weekly market for produce with a former student, I was kindly received into his home for lunch with his family.

My gracious host and me enjoying fresh coconut milk

Dhal puri is a yellow-lentil pancake filled with a variety of beans, sauces, chilis, and pickles, and folded sort of like a burrito. Even though each filling has a fairly intense flavor, they come together into a very satisfying combination.

Dhal puri

My favorite thing I tried was achard fruit de cythère pickle. It’s not of the fermented sort like sauerkraut or, well, what we call pickles, but rather Indian-style with fruit and/or vegetables mixed in a ground spice paste. I saw it in the produce section of the store and it resembled tapenade. I thought I’d like it, but I wanted to know what it was, so I asked a fellow local shopper who explained it was ‘little mangos’ in a spicy mix that would be used as a condiment, but not mixed into a dish. At my last grocery stop, I found it jarred and bought some to bring home, but I was sadly (but not too surprisingly) disappointed that it didn’t taste as good. Since I’ve never seen fruit de cythere in any store (even the amazing international food emporium of Jungle Jim’s), I’ll have to settle for the jarred variety since I can’t make it myself.

My very satisfying meal, including the amazing achard on the tiny plate

Even though I generally stick to my usual dietary choices when I travel, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to try something new, even if it means more calories or carbohydrates than usual, though there are two compromises I don’t make. I only eat vegan food and I only buy ethically-sourced chocolate (or else I suffer and go without it if I exhausted my emergency travel supply. After one time where I experienced a stretch without it, I got much better on subsequent trips of learning to ration). Even with these self-imposed restrictions, I don’t feel like I’ve missed the opportunity to experience local cuisines and a variety of unique food products.


Chocolate & Vanilla

Madagascar is best known for three things: Lemurs, chocolate, and vanilla

Madagascar is know for its chocolate, with bars often produced as single-sourced beans because the cacao is of high quality and uniquely flavored. I was very excited when I finally came across ethically sourced Malagasy chocolate, and 72% dark, at that. As a rule, despite how desperate I might be to satisfy my chocolate cravings, I will not buy it unless it is fair trade or ethically sourced. I was delighted to finally find a company, Tsara, producing bean to bar chocolate, “bringing far more income directly to the Madagascan people”, according to their package.

While 72% is less dark than my usual 88% favorite, I was running low on my traveling stash, so I was very happy to find it. It’s very smooth with notes of..just kidding. My chocolate palate is not that discerning, but I do know good chocolate when I taste it. And, of course, the bit of added sugar comes from the cane produced on the coasts.

While Roberts chocolate was in most shops that stocked chocolate, it wasn’t until I got to the airport at their premier chocolate shop that I found their fair trade bars. These made the same bean to bar claims as the Tsara. They also promote ‘raise trade’, for a sustainable Madagascar, which is something I haven’t come across before finding this chocolate. As I was on my way to visit a friend and his family in Mauritius, and didn’t want to arrive empty handed, I was happy I’d found some nice chocolate to give them. One bar, I would love to have tried if it wasn’t only 65% cocoa content, was the Malagasy lime with sea salt bar. I did, however, strike what I hope will prove to be gold with a 100% single-source bar (which I’ll save to share with Michael).

Though my bar didn’t contain vanilla, if it had, it, too, would have come from Madagascar, as it is world-renowned for its vanilla beans. Vanilla beans actually come from orchids, endemic to the tropics. They are pods that are produced by the plant, harvested and dried, and most often simmered to derive vanilla extract.

Lots of orchids grown in the Ranomafana rainforest (though I always seem to miss the flowering seasons when I travel…)

While traveling in the rainforest areas, it was common for spice sellers to approach us, selling a variety of spices ranging from peppercorns to coriander pods. But their big ticket item was vanilla beans. Even at that, I bought a bag with six pods, with the vanilla scent strong even through the sealed-plastic wrapping, for 15,000 ariary, which is U.S. $1.50. Because of the demand for Malagasy vanilla, the government has set a maximum limit of 100 kg (about 3 1/2 ounces) that is allowed through customs.

So if you love chocolate and vanilla (and lemurs), Madagascar should be on list of destinations. But you’ll have to brave the summer season of rainy, hot, and humid weather if you want to see the orchids in bloom.

A Vegan Travels to Madagascar

The scenery in Madagascar was one of the key reasons I chose this destination.

One question I am regularly asked when traveling abroad is ‘How do you manage to maintain a vegan diet?’ In some countries, like Ghana, I ate well every day. In some regions of the world, like SE Asia, or Latin America, it’s been very easy. In other places,, like East Asia, it’s a bit harder because I don’t care for seaweed and so many dishes seem to include fish or fish-based sauces. Madagascar has turned out to be one of the more challenging places to eat, especially since I also opt for a low-carbohydrate vegan regimen.

Madagascar was colonized by the French, who left an indelible mark on country. The European cultural influence is apparent beyond French as the official language, vehicles with the steering wheel on the left (i.e., proper) side, and the colonial infrastructure, which is in disrepair.

A scenic array of mountains, rice paddies, and vineyards in central Madagascar.

The French-style baguette bread is served at every meal. Capers are commonly served with fish. Wine is a readily available beverage, imported from the more developed economies of South Africa and Chile. The French attempted to establish vineyards in a central provincial area in Madagascar where the climate resembles that of the French wine-making country. We saw the vineyards, but the last winery recently burnt down, so we weren’t able to visit and sample it (though our guide said Westerners often grimaced in response to the very vinegary taste). The French Iove of miel- honey- is also apparent in the rural areas that harvest the honey from the bees that eat the nectar of the Australian-imported eucalyptus trees. People also make a variety of jams from local fruits.

As a vegan traveling in Madagascar, I have opted out of the traditional boiled chicken served with white rice and a broth of rice water, a variety of zebu (tropical bovine) dishes, and duck, which is abundant. In rice paddies, ducks are used to keep insects from eating the rice seeds. Due to the increase in flow of tourists to Madagascar, restaurants consistently offer at least one vegetarian option on the menu, if not more.

Hiking in the canyon of Isalo National Park

As a vegan, it’s more limiting, as many of these dishes include cheese. As a low-carbohydrate vegan, I’m even more limited. For meals, I stick with vegetables, all of which are locally grown, out of necessity as opposed to some local farm support movement. Much of the population is reliant on agriculture, so produce is readily available. Neither the transportation system nor the economy is well-developed, so the farther the producer is from one of the few cities, highly perishable produce will not make it from the rural areas. Plus, very little processing happens in the country, with most canned and packaged goods imported, so produce isn’t grown for large-scale production. Instead, people from the villages sell their produce from roadside stands and take their produce to the weekly market in the nearest trading town to earn money to buy the stuff they don’t grow or make.

The usual vegetable combination I received, though this one was in a Malagasy curry sauce.

The vegetables on my plate were consistently green beans, zucchini, and carrots. On one occasion, I also got broccoli, while on another, I got some cauliflower. One place served most excellent eggplant served with herbs they grew in the kitchen garden. Most often, the vegetables were sautéed in oil with garlic, and a few times with ginger. In one place I got vegetables in a Madagascar curry spice blend, which were quite good. Though beans are commonly eaten by the local population, they are less commonly available at restaurants, which seems odd to me (and our guide, as well). They always prepare them from the dried beans, so at one place I was able to get them the second night of our stay (we almost exclusively ate at restaurants attached to the hotels or camps) after asking for them on the first night.

Out of necessity I ate more grains (most often in the form of white bread) and potatoes than I would at home; otherwise I wouldn’t have been eating a whole lot. It was strange to eat bread at least once or twice a day, whereas at home, if I eat bread, it’s the high-protein bread that I make. I definitely noticed that going back to a more carbohydrate-centric regimen that I was hungrier sooner.

An ex-pat owns the hotel where we stayed in the capital city, which has an amazing Italian restaurant, serving up this bread basket.

I do, however, tend to eat less when I travel. I don’t think it’s because I have fewer grazing options, especially on this trip because we spent so many hours riding in a vehicle. While the scenery is quite captivating, many hours of riding in the vehicle can get a bit monotonous, which could have led to munching, but didn’t (maybe this is progress for me?). I took this time (while we were covering more than 1300 miles) to write my posts when the roads were ‘soft’ (as our guide referred to the paved, less windy and potholed roads).

I first found these Mrs. H.S. Ball’s Chutney potato chips a few years ago when I visited South Africa. I was happy to find them again because of their unique sort of barbecue-Worcestershire sauce flavor.

My main source of calories was from peanut butter and peanuts. At some meals I’d have peanut butter (which I bought at a supermarket and is imported from South Africa) on bread to supplement the plate of vegetables I’d get.

A peanut butter sandwich lunch break during one of our ‘picnic’ lunch stops.

Other times, I’d just have peanuts, which are widely grown throughout the country, to round out the vegetable plate. As a special treat, in the capital, I was able to get some locally-produced cashews, which were quite a nice change.

The best of the chili pastes: Green chili with ginger

My favorite culinary experience was trying the chili sauces that differed from place to place. While they were not always available, they were a really nice flavor addition. The first sauce I had was a basic chopped fresh chili relish. Another time it was a mortar and pestle-ground red chili paste that I was able to stir into my couscous with black beans and vegetables. The most interesting flavor composition was a much lighter colored, thinner paste that was green chili ground with ginger. The one thing they did have in common, though, was the heat. Just a tiny spoonful packed a lot of chili power, which for me, was delightful.

A tiny chili paste pot and spoon

As a poorer country, Madagascar manufactures very few processed foods. As with the peanut butter, many packaged goods, like the Simba potato chips I found, are imported from neighboring, relatively wealthier South Africa. Similarly, the Nice coconut cookies I bought to satisfy my occasional desire for a bit of vegan dessert are imported from India. While there are still many people living in poverty in India, its economy is much more diversified, with a much better distribution of wealth that supports a growing middle class. Most Madagascans, on the other hand, remain subsistence farmers, growing rice in very scenic rice paddies, sugar cane, corn, legumes, and fresh produce. One region also produced cotton, introduced by French colonists.

While the French did influence Madagascan culture, they didn’t manage to export their gourmet dishes that drive foodies to France. Even though Madagascar is not a place to go for a culinary experience, it is an excellent destination for its unique, scenic, and diverse topography, flora, and fauna, and its very friendly people. So if someone who opts for a low-carbohydrate vegan regimen has no problem getting daily nourishment, most people who don’t visit with any grand foodie expectations should have a most rewarding experience.

One of more than a dozen different varieties of lemurs I saw in Madagascar.

To Eat or Not to Eat Breakfast

When and how often people eat meals is actually influenced by their culture. In Mediterranean countries are known for long, leisurely, filling lunches followed by some down time. This approach is very different from that in the U.S. and U.K. where dinner is typically the largest, most involved meal of the day, while lunch may be eaten at a desk. In Indonesia, it’s common for the main meal to be breakfast, with subsequent left-overs consumed throughout the day. In a variety of countries around the world, people eat just two meals–some due to lack of food, but more often just out of custom.

A very typical Malaysia breakfast of noodles and vegetables

So is breakfast worth all the hype or not? It seems like very few things in the world are definitive: Is (fill in the blank) good or bad for us? Breakfast is no exception. The adage that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ is ingrained in most Americans. It kick-starts the body’s metabolism and offers fuel for the brain. A study by the American Heart Association on the impact of when and how often we eat cited numerous studies that link obesity and/or higher body fat mass to skipping breakfast. Other research, like one out of Canada and another out of the U.K., found that skipping breakfast did not have much of an overall impact on determining health. Some go so far as to argue that not only breakfast, but the whole three square meals a day regimen is not only unnecessary, but undermines our health (see Fasting is Great, Unless You have Food Issues http://cantquitfood.com/2016/08/30/fasting). As with most research on health, so many variables come into play that it is difficult to offer blanket recommendations.

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It’s Valentine’s Day, so Eat Chocolate!

Much to my delight, I unexpectedly discovered a chocolate cooking course when I was in Peru. We made chocolate from scratch, as the ancient Incans would have done.
First step: Roast the cocoa beans.

If you really love your Valentine, you’ll skip the candy hearts and go straight for the chocolate: Dark chocolate, that is. I’m not sure why scientists decided to research potential health benefits of chocolate, but I’m sure glad they did! Lots of studies have found that the flavonoids in cocoa beans do all sorts of amazing things.

Step 2: Shell the outer layer from the cocoa nib.

Dark chocolate’s properties promote heart health by increasing oxidation to stop plaque from lining artery walls and also lower blood pressure. They help to repair damaged cell membranes and aid in fighting off free radicals that damage cell tissue. And if you’re worried about the fat in cocoa butter, it’s been found to have a neutral effect on bad v. good cholesterol levels.

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So Many Diets Out There!

With so many diets out there, how do you know what to choose to get started? Actually, it’s imperative to avoid choosing a diet, but rather, adopt a regimen that offers a template to get started. Since the key to success is a lifestyle change, instead of starting a (or another?) diet, it’s much more useful to find a plan that offers some useful tools. Well-known diet plans are set up to keep customers dependent on them rather than show them how to live in the real world.

That I love vegetables definitely gives me an advantage to maintain a healthy body. I learned to make all of these veggie dishes at a cooking class in Morocco.

As I mentioned in Start NOW!, it’s best to choose a regimen largely based on the foods you regularly eat (unless it’s all junk food, though I’m sure someone has proposed a junk food diet. Even then, I’m just not sure how successful it could be for long term health…). Along with laying out the science behind nutrition, I discussed the reasons for my regimen choices over the last 15 years in My Food Education, which might offer a useful starting point.

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A Visit to Ghana for a Hot Chocolate Recipe

If you’re a regular reader, you know by now that we are a chocolate-loving household. So naturally, we also love hot chocolate. But it’s a rare treat for us because commercial hot chocolate mixes are too sweet. When I do make it, the good stuff requires melting chocolate. I don’t drink much besides water and some decaf iced tea that I make, but I appreciate the occasional hot chocolate. Michael, on the other hand, loves it and would drink it every winter day, given the opportunity. Unfortunately, he isn’t too adept in the kitchen and hates to bother me to make this for him.

The best hot chocolate you’ll ever have

A few months ago, I came across a recipe for hot cocoa powder, but dismissed it at the time since it called for loads of sugar and looked like a bit of work. When Michael suggested we exchange Christmas gifts this year, I thought about this recipe. I’d already given away the magazine (and VegNews doesn’t put their recipes online), so after some searching, I pieced together what has proven to be a most enjoyable hot chocolate powder mix so that Michael can easily make it anytime he’d like.

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Being Mindful While Being Sociable

I enjoy getting together with friends for a meal or dining with new people when I travel, but not surprisingly, I often find I’ve eaten without paying much attention to my food. And it’s usually at a restaurant where it’s nice to have something different for a change or a holiday gathering, when I’ve spent a good amount of time (usually two days) preparing a special meal. For me, in particular, these are special occasions because let’s face it, as a low-carbohydrate vegan, my restaurant choices are limited, and the number of friends willing to embrace my regimen as a challenge rather than a trial is, well, even more limited. So during these times, I especially want to pay attention to and savor what I’m eating, but I also want to enjoy the company. Finding a balance is the key.

Too many times I’ve left a meal feeling like I haven’t tasted anything I’ve eaten, and sometimes even end up feeling full without realizing how much I ate, though I barely remember putting food in my mouth. Since I want to relish every meal experience, over the last few years I’ve starting making a special effort to mindfully eat while being good company. It’s a lot easier with a group of people, rather than with just one person, but even that is possible.

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Waste Not, Want Not

I"m always looking for an excuse to include trip photos!

I”m always looking for an excuse to include trip photos!

It’s cliché, but it’s true. It’s a rare occasion when I find veggies or fruit rotting in the depths of the produce drawer. But when I do…the forgotten zucchini, the lonely lemon, the too bitter to salvage kale, the ravaged romaine…I feel like I’ve failed: the sad veggies, the planet, my pocketbook. My only redemption is that we compost, so the animals that graze in the heap get lucky(ish).

There are a few reasons why I’m good about using what I buy before it goes off. I hate grocery shopping, but I feel like I’ve entered the Garden of Eden when I walk into the produce section. Have I mentioned how much I love, love, love veggies?!?

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The Traveling Food Addict Goes to Italy: Lemon Eggplant Recipe

The Lemon Farm

The Lemon Farm

I think it’s my grandparents who infected me with the travel bug. They loved to take Sunday afternoon drives and go on day trips. I first left the country with them on a trip to Canada when I was five. Other than driving north across the border from Pennsylvania, they never made it out of the country. But they instilled in me a sense of adventure that some, like my spouse, would say is less of a love and more of an obsession.

For the last several years, after Michael sent me packing the first summer on my own to Morocco, Spain, and France, I’ve taken a big trip (or two…) every year. I look forward to these trips, love planning every last detail, and thoroughly embrace the challenges of traveling on my own. I’ve barely been back more than a month from my last trip, and yet I’m already making plans about next July. (Any suggestions?)

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