Eat around the world: can you recognize your favourite foods in the wild?

Do you know what kind of plant vanilla comes from? How about pepper, or pineapple? And closer to home, do you know what spectacular foods you can grow in British Columbia? Travel the world via your kitchen (and wow your kids!) to find out more about some of the amazing places and plants your food comes from.

We use ingredients like vanilla, pepper and cocoa all the time, but have you ever seen where they actually come from? Seeing how your food grows can have a powerful impact on how much you (and your kids!) appreciate tasting it. Test yourself! For each of the following ingredients, see if you can identify where they are grown or what their plants look like. 

Our world tour starts with vanilla. Native to Mexico, vanilla is actually a rainforest orchid that grows in hot tropical conditions. Vanilla is expensive (it’s worth more by weight than silver is!) and that’s because it’s hard to grow: vanilla vines take two years to mature, and their flowers bloom for only one day a year. To get vanilla bean pods, the flower has to be pollinated that very same day; in most places where vanilla is grown it isn’t a native plant and so must be pollinated by hand. Worldwide, deforestation has raised the price of vanilla (along with other factors). This article explains how you can grow your own vanilla orchid at home if you have experience with orchids and an extremely green thumb—for the rest of us, it’s an excellent overview of the complicated process of growing, harvesting and curing this delicious ingredient. 

Cocoa also grows best near the equator in the rainforest. In fact, 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from just four countries in Africa: Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. Cocoa trees are evergreens that grow 4 to 6 metres tall. The reddish cocoa fruit is about the size and shape of a toy football. The seeds inside become dark brown cocoa beans when roasted, and those cocoa beans are ground into the powder that you use to make chocolate cake or hot cocoa. See what cocoa fruit looks like in these photos from the Rainforest Alliance.  

Pepper is grown in India, Indonesia and Brazil, but an adventurous home gardener can try their luck at growing it indoors - it’s certainly easier than vanilla! Pepper grows on a vine, and is usually interspersed among shade loving plants like coffee. If your child has only ever seen pepper in a pepper shaker, this photo of what peppercorns look like when they’re growing might surprise them!

Cashew trees are native to Brazil and in fact, the world’s largest cashew tree is located in the city of Pirangi. That tree covers almost 81,000 square feet and produces 60,000 fruits a year. Each fruit produces just one cashew. To see a picture of cashew fruit (hint, the cashew is on the bottom!) take a look at this photo. 

The next time you enjoy a pineapple, consider this - they’re so easy to propagate, you can grow your own from the tops if you’re willing to wait two years for the fruit! Just slice off the pineapple top, let it cure a day or two, and plant it. When you plant your pineapple top, you’ll grow a plant that looks a little like a cactus or aloe. If you treat it right, the pineapple fruit will grow from the centre of the plant (here are pictures of what that looks like). Pineapples originated in South America, though now they’re grown in the tropics around the world. 

It’s not just tropical food that might not look the way you expected - some of the food you can grow in your own backyard can look very different in your vegetable patch from the way it looks in the store! The next time you see Brussels sprouts in the produce aisle, ask your child to tell you what they think the plant looks like (here’s an impressive picture to wow them once they’ve guessed!) Beloved by ancient Romans, they’re actually native to the Mediterranean but they grow well in a BC climate. If this gets your child more interested in growing their own sprouts, here’s more information about what you’ll need to get Brussels sprouts started. 

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