Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lemongrass, Galangal, and Turmeric -- not so local flavors

My amazing mum sent me two galangal stems & tubers, a few stalks of lemongrass and a piece of turmeric from the fridge. I planted them all a few days ago and have been keeping the kitchen steamy and hot in the hopes that they're tricked into thinking it's tropical.

Unfortunately, the turmeric rhizome got moldy, so I think it's going to have to go in the garbage. Perhaps I'll be able to find a replacement in Bellingham or in Seattle if I ever make it out there.

That's one thing that gets me about this "eating local" business. In general, I love love what "local" stands for. Eating what's near you makes sense -- it can be fresher, it takes fewer resources to transport, it's technically easier to involve yourself with your food by actually talking with the farmer or (gasp!) going out to actually visit the farm where it's produced. Plus, I understand and support strengthening local economies -- I do believe when you buy food from your neighbor, you're ultimately doing yourself a favor.

But then how do I get things I love without guilt? I love cooking Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese foods. Let's say my little indoor pots of tropical tubers don't work out or they don't produce enough for all the lovely curries I want to make. Do I eschew curry or make adjustments that essentially change a dish? I'd say neither.

I've certainly been eating differently since I arrived, less meat, more gorgeous produce, and that adjustment has been wonderfully delicious. But I miss curry and spice and tropical fruits. So when do you draw the line between practical, ethical, joyous eating and overzealousness tied up with guilt? Especially when what's practical and "right" for me and practical and "right" for you is so different.

The NY Times columnist Mark Bittman says we should avoid labels and just strive to eat "wholesome," "good" food. I agree, but here you bump up against the problem of definition -- some folks have been brought up with very different standards for "good," and folks have different levels of access to "good."

I guess it really does come down to a question of ethics and making complex moral tradeoffs. I'm going to see what some of these books have to say on the subject and get back to you.


  1. i think you can probably make a strong case for spices and for infrequently-used ingredients. possibly a good commensurable metric for the environmental impact of a meal is the carbon/pesticide footprint of all ingredients, weighted by each ingredient's ratio of mass in transported form. to me, it makes almost no sense to ship prepared, undehydrated foods across continents and oceans, but dry or concentrated foods have a much stronger value proposition. the weighted footprint would take that kind of thing into account.

  2. Yes. I like this idea... it simplifies things by focusing on the measurable environmental impacts.

    I still wonder though -- this metric wouldn't account for other harder-to-measure, possibly valuable, things (social, emotional, maybe even spiritual?). For example, eating locally keeps more money local; farms who sell to people close by neighbors might treat workers better. Really, none of these are reasons to stop eating Galangal, but it still bugs me.

    And then there's some other ethical issue to pick at... that if we choose to measure a meal by its environmental impact, to what degree does an individual's responsibility extend? I guess it's a personal choice that has to be determined by belief + ability...


  3. (Random brain fart as I sit here not wanting to write my paper) Any suggestions for summer reading regarding the social justice take on "eating local," the "slow food movement," and the like? Some people say it all sounds great in theory but that poor people of color have more pressing things to worry about (the demographics of people who attend things like Slow Food Nation speak volumes). What's your take?

  4. That's a good question... I've seen this issue addressed on blogs, I've heard folks like Michael Pollan address it in their speeches, and I know a few organizations that work on this issue explicitly (e.g. People's Grocery in W. Oakland) but I haven't heard of any books specifically on this topic.

    I think there are two main parts of social justice and the food movement -- 1) the exclusion of many families from the trend towards "organic" or "local" because of the high price 2) ignoring social justice as an issue within the food system (people focus on nutrition, environment, but often forget labor)

    I'll keep my eye out and let you know if I see any books on this.

  5. This might be a good one:

  6. so i dont know if this is completely off the mark but there are a few different grocers in town that carry things like galangal, lemongrass and turmeric. The coop apparently carries at least whole turmeric, i know the asian grocer near the mall carries lemongrass and I am currently tracking down galangal.