Last August, while sitting on a small wooden stool in a local restaurant in Shenzhen, China, I learned that you actually have sweat glands just beneath your eyes. I knew this not because of the humid 90-degree air pressing down on me, but because that is how I reacted to Szechuan spice. With a numb tongue, I picked my chopsticks back up, this time ready to plunge them into a bowl of chicken feet. As I bit into one of the long toes, I noted that around the crunchy bone was a layer of cartilage. After I bravely finished that first foot, I decided that this probably would not be my new favorite food, though you do get a healthy dose of protein, calcium and collagen from snacking on them from time to time.
Last year I did take some chances as a good Italian eater who had landed herself in Asia, but when it came to my own kitchen, I played it safe. I continued to roast up heads of broccoli and cauliflower even though I had fallen in love with lotus root. I strayed away from the local market and continued to hit up the international stores to purchase familiar foods.
It wasn’t until a few friends visited me and helped me out of my comfort zone (or, rather grocery store aisle), that I became energized by finding adventure inside my own kitchen here in China. Here is why you might want to do the same.
The opportunity to buy local foods
This is healthy for you, your community and the world. You might not love everything you try, but it’s still a triple win. I ventured out to the market recently and bought a bitter melon – a choice that, by any other name, would have been just as … bitter. But I ended up with other local veggies that I loved.
A similar resource you can look to for fresh, seasonal and homegrown foods is opting for a community supported agriculture (CSA) box, a seasonal membership to farmer’s weekly produce “kits” that come from farms close to you.
This may be just the time to take on the challenge of figuring out how to cast kohlrabi and garlic scapes as supporting actors in your dinnertime show. When you keep it local, buying from the fall farmers markets or picking up your CSA box, you are often getting foods grown organically or with few pesticides and chemicals, you cut down on packaging used for transportation and you help reduce the use of fossil fuels as that food did not have to travel far to your dinner plate.
Local veggies pack a nutritional punch
The rainbow chard that you may find at your local market is not just another pretty face. The colors in rainbow chard represent nutrients like iron and vitamins A and K. The soon-to-be-in-season turnip packs minerals, antioxidants and dietary fiber.
One of my local vegetables – bamboo – is not only rich in amino acids and minerals, it is also quite tasty. Last year I opted for traditional broccoli rather than Chinese broccoli. It turns out that my host country’s version of this green veggie is packed with dietary fiber, Vitamins A, C and K, as well as folic acid. While it has a slight bitterness reminiscent of collard greens, it is delicious when sauteed with garlic, ginger and oyster sauce.
This all provides space for great bonding
My friends Alli and Charles joined me in China this year. Alli is indeed one of the reasons I felt energized to get back to taking chances in my own kitchen. She is a kitchen ninja, constantly finding new recipes and revising them with special touches here and there. Her husband Charles is our enthusiastic taste-tester (except maybe less so after the bitter melon dish).
Whipping up recipes with these local vegetables had us working as a team as we Googled things like “Asian vegetable that looks like a cucumber textured for your tongue’s pleasure” to figure out what we bought, and then move on to find a recipe to match it. Our kitchen wins had us toasting to new recipes, while the losses had us laughing. Enough, even, to be our ab workout for the day and relieve the stress from the week – both very healthy parts of our kitchen adventure.
Last year I relied on others’ kitchens for my adventures. This year, I’ve discovered there’s adventure and reward in exploring my own kitchen, the local foods in my neighborhood market and sharing those experiences with friends.
Do you have any kitchen adventures of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!