I decided it was time to write about food. It is after all what fuels us, day after day as we spin our pedals across continents. Cycle travellers often obsess about food; mainly what is being missed (cheese and chocolate are common!), but also about what countries have the best food (Indonesia, Thailand and China for us so far), and exciting, unexpected finds (soya chunks and cheap avocados in southern Africa). As long distance cyclists, most of us travel on small budgets, and quite a few cyclists we have come across live off eggs and two minute noodles (plus cheap street food). Then there is Astrid and I (and a few others we’ve met and travelled with) who travel with a full assortment of spices, a frying pan, and think nothing of making flat bread, or spending a morning making pancakes, or an evening making curry. The way we ‘do’ food varies from country to country, according to what’s available, the season, the socio-economic situation and whether we are in the countryside or a city.
Food thoughts at home
Since our first spin across the globe, Astrid and I gave up dairy and eggs and became pretty much vegans while in London. Astrid and I aren’t vegan all of the time for various reasons explained below. Neither do I believe you have to be 100% plant based to make a difference. Absolutism makes me uncomfortable and doesn’t fit with the often nuanced and complex way that I see the world. We became vegan mainly for environmental reasons, animal cruelty and lastly (we love vegan junk food) health. From an environmental perspective, veganism is at least part of the solution, however replacing beef cattle pasture with mono cultures of soya, or almonds, isn’t the answer either. I think ultimately we as a society need to change how we grow food as much as what we consume. Veganism in itself doesn’t exonerate one from all environmental impacts. It is surely a good start, but it is unfortunately more complicated than that. I think we need to seriously look at viable solutions – like permaculture, which rather than fighting the land to grow monocultures, often utilizing more and more pesticides, uses concepts such as design, water harvesting and companion planting to grow an abundant variety of food. A system like this would allow for smaller scale organic locally grown food resulting in less food miles, not to mention the health and social benefits the simple act of growing food can have on a community. This kind of system is probably not compatible with capitalism, at least not the hyper capitalist societies we find ourselves in. Eating less animal products, along with deep rooted systemic change is the only way (I think) we can decrease our negative impact on the environment when it comes to what we consume. Can you tell I think about this a lot?! Both Astrid and I are very keen to practice permaculture when we get home and plan to study it early in 2020. I guess it’s because we are quite passionate about food and the impact it has, we talk about it a lot, especially because travelling has often led us to at least partially compromise on our values.
Supermarkets, dumpsters and wild food through Europe
During our summer cycle of 2018 Astrid and I began to change a little how we ate (from our last cycle) because it became harder and harder to ignore our moral compasses. One thing we learnt about food is that local knowledge really is a key to eating more in line with our principles. When we first got to London we shopped at the supermarket and our local off license. By the time we left we were mainly eating organic, locally grown veg (from a box scheme) and tried to shop at the affordable smaller shops and less evil supermarkets. Not to say I am a saint, I certainly succumbed to the odd Tesco sandwich and dirty vegan processed meal more than a few times.
It is local knowledge that you lack when cycling through places (unless you go very slowly, something which I am keen to try in Australia) and this, along with limited funds, saw us straight into the budget supermarket chains throughout Europe. Our bikes could often be seen parked outside Lidl, Aldi, Bonus (Iceland), Biedronka (Poland), Rema 1000, to name a few. We generally cooked all our own food in Europe sticking to the classics of pasta, curries, the odd bean dish and as much hummus as we could afford. Sure, we read labels and tried to be conscientious, but at the end of the day we were still supporting supermarket chains. I have always been uncomfortable with this somewhat ethical slide, born out of ease and budget. So, tentatively at first, we began dumpster diving.
Basically, supermarkets throw out ludicrous amounts of food that is still completely okay to eat. The richer the country, the more in the bin (from our experience at least.) This food would otherwise go to waste, so we aren’t vegan when we dumpster dive and at this point I am ethically okay with this. At first it was scary; dumpster diving is often not technically illegal, or legal. It fits in a grey area and depends on the country you are doing it in, sometimes even the city. The bins are usually around the back, and it’s often best to go when the supermarkets are still open, as they sometimes lock away the dumpsters. That makes for a lot of awkward standing around, pretending to be really interested in something on your bike, waiting for people to walk passed before peering into the bin. Sometimes we went at night, and one of us would do circles on the bike, while the other snuck into where the bins were. After the initial fear, it became a thrill. There is something incredibly satisfying about getting free food that would otherwise go to waste. Not to mention the glee of eating things we wouldn’t normally buy; smoked salmon, cheese, cakes and pastries. As well as bread, fruit and vegies. This alleviated at least some of my supermarket guilt. Dumpster diving isn’t exactly the perfect solution, at the end of the day the food we eat still comes to us because our society is so crazily wasteful. However, the way things currently stand it feels less bad to me than other options. Sometimes less bad is all you’ve got.
In Europe at the end of summer and into autumn, there is quite a lot of food to be foraged as well. We found many trees heavy with fruit (in public places) as well as mussels in the sea and mushrooms. Eating mussels was another ethical dilemma we had talked about for a while. Mussels and oysters are relatively low impact environmentally (from what I’ve read) and lack a central nervous system, so some class them as more plants than animals. It’s certainly a grey area and one I’m still figuring out, but literally finding hundreds of mussels on the sea bed was too great a temptation. We took what we could eat and left the rest for others. It really was a joy to be able to forage some our food. Mussels cooked in white wine wasn’t exactly the menu I had envisioned when I thought about cycle touring!
We cook what we can find.
Once out of Europe, our eating habits changed. There are much fewer supermarkets (outside of capitals) and very little waste. We choose street food, local restaurants and cook our own food. When we buy food to cook, it’s still all vegan (god I am so sick of studying the packs of biscuits!). There is usually an okay selection of vegetables available and rice. We have a load of spices and tend to cook up vegetable curries as a staple. This is sometimes supplemented with pasta with a red sauce. Most nights, unless staying in accommodation (and often even then – in the bathroom) we cook our own food. In northern Africa we could get loads of flat bread and often ate that for lunch with tomatoes and cucumber, or peanut butter. For breakfast we favour oats, although between Ethiopia and Zambia we had to ditch them as they were too expensive. We normally shop in the local market, or tiny stalls on the side of the road. Sometimes we have to search for the market, they are often in the back streets of small African villages. I feel we get a glimpse of life that we otherwise would not, and it adds depth and connection to the places we pass through. I especially like the humorous interactions with sellers when trying to convince them I want 5 sweet potatoes, not 5kg. Sometimes, in the more remote parts of southern Africa all we will find are some tomatoes, red onion and soya chunks. We’ve come up with a variety of dishes using these – from salads to sauces and everything in between. I enjoy the challenge and simplicity.
In Kenya and Tanzania we lived off chapatti, avocado and tomato. Bloody luxury if you ask me. Then chapati disappeared, so we bought flour and made our own flat bread. Sure, it’s time consuming, but also very delicious. For a while, when avocados were everywhere and about 15p each, we gorged ourselves, and even began to make avocado chocolate mousse (just add cocoa and sugar to a mashed avocado and let it sit, seriously it’s amazing). We tend to buy less processed food than we did last time round as being mainly vegan cuts out a lot. No powdered milk, or many sweet biscuits (except the cheap accidentally vegan ones!) and we’ve even stopped buying peanut butter most of the time as it’s simply too sugary. Our last shop consisted of 1kg of flour, eight eggs (we started eating eggs again out of a kind of necessity), 2kg of tomato, some kind of leafy veg, soya chunks (very processed but delicious) and beer.
Eating local and the path of least resistance
We tend to eat what the locals do, at least once a day; fuul in Egypt and Sudan as well as falafel sandwich or oily and delicious aubergine. Injera in Ethiopia, Ugali with beans in southern Africa, often washed down with tea. Also samosas, deep fried donuts, deep fried cassava, deep fried potato. There is certainly too much oil in our diet, but this isn’t forever, I’ll be eating smashed avocado in a hipster café soon enough. Eating locally not only keeps costs down, it really adds a dimension to understanding a country and culture. This is why, despite our aversion to dairy and meat, there have been times when we’ve eaten it. Often it’s accidental; a dish in Ethiopia that comes with delicious fresh yogurt, or that age old thing where chicken isn’t actually meat (insert eye roll). Other times, it’s because we are curious, and just once would like to taste the thing the locals really love (meat always seems to be a favourite). We don’t do this as often as we used to (I did go on a massive meat binge in central asia) but do still occasionally try something if we fancy. Then there is being invited in for dinner. The concept of vegetarianism, let alone veganism is not understood in most of the places we have travelled (bar the big cities). When someone invites us in to eat, Astrid and I choose the path of least resistance. We gratefully accept and eat whatever we are given. I don’t know if this is right, but for now I am not hardcore enough to explain myself every single time. It’s such a foreign concept, and especially if language is a barrier, and people have kindly invited you in to eat, I just feel rude refusing.
Variety is the spice of life, but only for some of us
In the west we live in some kind of food variety bubble. We are spoiled for choice and honestly I deeply appreciate it. I love being able to eat Vietnamese, or Chinese dumplings, go for a curry, or munch on some tasty middle eastern snack. I am used to variety in my diet, even if it’s just swapping curry for pasta when on the road. A lot of the world in my experience is not like this. We asked an Ethiopian friend what his favourite food was (this guy lived in a town where he had access to more variety of food due to tourism) and he replied injera (the Ethiopian fermented bread). I’ve since heard about a Malawian who had been working in London and was disappointed with the place because he couldn’t find Nashima (the maize or cassava based staple in southern Africa). We are able to avoid this lack of variety to some extent because we use our own spices and unlike the mostly subsistence farming population, we can afford to buy what little there is available.
In southern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia) there especially seems to be a real lack of variety in the diet. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to real scarcity, or weather some of it is cultural. Most rural Africans own some kind of land, and given the climate, can at least in theory grow a variety of crops. Everyone however appears to grow the staple of maize or cassava, which is then turned into a kind of filling paste (Nashima, Ugali, pap, depending on where you are) with the nutritional value of a shoe. Add to this some overcooked beans or meat and you have a filling but essentially nutrition devoid meal. We met some NHS doctors working in Malawi who told us that there are real problems with malnutrition in the child and adult population in much of Malawi and other parts of southern Africa.
When in cities..
Reaching a city in Africa has always felt like we are achieving milestones. The distances are big and it’s often weeks, even a couple of months between capitals (also because we don’t visit all of them). Between say Nairobi and Lusaka we didn’t really visit a supermarket. In many ways this great; I feel better buying locally off the many small businesses we encounter, weather market stalls, or small shops. However, I am still a product of my culture; I like variety. And I like food. A lot. So when we do make it to ‘western’ supermarkets I have been known to spend an hour looking around in reverse culture shock. So Astrid and I will usually go to one of these large supermarkets and buy some of the things we can’t usually get; good coffee, vegan sausages, baked beans, and chilli sauce, to name a few. Sadly hummus still eludes us. We’ll also treat ourselves to a meal somewhere. In Europe we would look up the vegan cafes and restaurants in the cities we visited and far out, we found amazing vegan food, especially in Eastern Europe, which was unexpected. In Africa the concept of ‘vegan restaurant’ doesn’t generally exist. However, capitals all over the world attract people from many different cultures and we can often find an Indian restaurant, or some other kind of cuisine we’ve been missing. These trips are a highlight to any stay in a capital and often discussed at lengths in the days leading up to our arrival.
So I guess we are two mildly food obsessed travellers who try and apply our ethics as best we can on the road. We’re still trying to figure out exactly how that looks. Ultimately, I suspect the slower you go and the more you seek community connections, the less impact you have on this earth. This stands in stark contrast to our fast paced culture and it’s a little sobering to realise that even as low carbon bike travellers, we don’t move completely without negative impact. Everytime I put a bag of plastic waste in a bin in Africa, knowing it will be burnt, or buried in landfill, I cringe. I feel personally happiest when we buy our food at markets, forage, or dumpster dive. Our stove is something I am also starting to reconsider; we currently use a multi fuel stove (fires when we can) to cook, and for months, (although I love the practicality of the stove) it has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Using a stove that utilizes petrol just doesn’t sit right anymore. I suspect in time our style of travel will change again. We’ve both been searching for something more, and it’s interesting that by unpacking how we eat, we actually unpack so much more. It’s testament to how fundamental food is to everything we do and how we when we examine how we eat, we examine how we live. And taking these ethics and this kind of low impact life (really, the ethics of permaculture) out into travel, is something that both Astrid and I feel inspired to continue to build on both of at the tail end of this trip and on future journeys by bicycle.