How does climate change affect the way the world cooks?
Cambodia, Cape Verde, Haiti, Mali, Niger, and Sudan may not seem to have much in common. But these six countries occupy the spotlight of a new cookbook, “Adaptive Farms, Resilient Tables,” featuring recipes gathered during a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) climate change adaption project in a diverse set of communities across the Equator. Though the communities are, geographically speaking, far from our own, the book has a strong local link, not to mention a socially minded message that transcends borders.
Andrea Egan, who is based in Somerville, and Jennifer Baumwoll, who is from Newton, have each spent eight years with UNDP. After years of working on projects that culminated in lengthy research papers and presentations, the two were ready to try something new. Though UN projects are not often presented as cookbooks, Egan and Baumwoll saw a clear link between climate change adaption and cooking — the ways in which climate change affects traditional diets, and how UNDP’s initiatives are helping communities cope with those changes. “The UN can be full of lots of jargon, abstract concepts, and faraway places,” says Baumwoll. “I feel like with climate, you need to make it visceral,” adds Egan. “A cookbook lets you understand that . . . what people are eating is changing,” she says.
Three of the countries represented in the book — Cambodia, Cape Verde, and Haiti — have significant diaspora populations in the Boston area. For help with the book’s Cambodian recipes, Egan turned to Longteine “Nyep” de Monteiro of long-running local institution the Elephant Walk, where she worked years ago when Egan was an undergraduate at UMass Boston. In Cambodia, a changing climate is leading to inconsistency with the harvest of rice, traditionally both a staple food and commodity crop. The UNDP project, focused on communities in the country’s north and east, helped to diversify crops through home gardening, lessening the reliance on rice. In the book, this effort manifests itself as kako soup, which includes an array of fruits and vegetables including eggplant, pumpkin, long beans, green banana, and jackfruit, seasoned with an aromatic herb paste known as kroeung. Without small-scale gardening projects close to the home, Baumwoll explains, dishes such as this wouldn’t be easy to make. For the book, de Monteiro helped refine the recipes that Egan and Baumwoll received from their team in Cambodia, and prepared the ingredients necessary for Egan to test the recipes at home.
For Cape Verdean recipes, Egan sought the help of Tony Barros, owner of Restaurante Cesaria in Dorchester. Among the recipes included in the book are a traditional fish soup, caldo de peixe, that includes a variety of local yam eaten as a staple carbohydrate. The local UNDP team worked with farmers to better protect yam cultivation against the threat of new pests brought on by climate change. The yam also shows up in a recipe for katxupa, a type of corn and bean-based stew. Highland Creole Kitchen in Somerville helped consult on Haitian recipes such as sos pwa wou (red pea soup) and kabrit kreyol (meat stew).
Though both have an interest in food, Egan and Baumwoll had never tested recipes before. They are also situated at various points along the dietary requirement spectrum: Egan is pescatarian and Baumwoll is vegetarian. “We were actually fighting one day,” jokes Egan, “like, ‘You cut the meat, I don’t know how to cut it!’ ” For dishes containing meat, they enlisted friends and family to taste. There was also the question of sourcing difficult-to-find ingredients, for which they turned to North Cambridge’s Pemberton Farms; specialty food buyer Gwen Robbins proved to be an invaluable resource for rounding up things like sorrel, millet, sorghum, and cowpeas. And some of the most uncommon ingredients called for in the book can be easily substituted, such as the noni leaves in a Cambodian curry, for which it’s no problem to use spinach.
With “Adaptive Farms, Resilient Tables,” released this month, Egan and Baumwoll are hoping that UNDP’s research will reach beyond what Baumwoll calls “the UN bubble.” They are also hopeful that readers can find resonance in the book’s stories, and find ways to apply UNDP’s climate adaptation projects to their own communities. In New England, for example, rising sea temperatures are leading to new fishing seasons, shifting fish populations, and greater unpredictability. Local crops such as apples might be affected by longer summers and shorter, warmer winters. “We have so much to learn from how poorer countries manage their farming and their resources and their consumption,” says Egan. “It’s so interesting when economic imperatives align with environmental imperatives.”
Baumwoll sums up the book’s mission succinctly: “We talk about climate change and it’s like . . . what does 2 degrees Celsius really mean? But if we look at it concretely, like how is it affecting this person or this community, it resonates much better.” Perhaps better still if we can taste it.