As someone who is staunchly anti-diet and who wants to put the fun back in food, I prefer to show rather than tell. But there’s always a big but and large parts of the planet have already become uninhabitable at least in part because of the way we are consuming the planet… So here we are. A few words on how I try to cook and share recipes sustainably.
What even are sustainable ingredients?
There’s a lot of shit going on with the planet and everyone’s ability to keep living on it, so please do what you can to keep the world liveable(ish) as we have passed breaking point. A good definition of what ‘sustainable’ means could be:
- Everything living on this planet can keep living there comfortably, that includes plants, animals and people
I.e. no underpaid and abused workers, no horrifying living conditions for animals, no pollution (and no fake solutions like offsetting).
What even are accessible ingredients?
While I mostly try to focus on ‘accessible’ ingredients I am also half-Indonesian and I now live in France. Growing up with mostly Indonesian food this means I’ve been going toko’s (Dutch-Indonesian and now pan-Asian supermarkets in the Netherlands) since before I was born, so to me Asian ingredients were accessible, whereas to you they might not be. Living in France, and rural France at that, I am able to shop hyper locally and seasonally (it’s almost hard to do the opposite), whereas for you this might be harder. Funnily enough Asian ingredients, specificially the Indonesian ingredients I grew up with, are now a lot harder to come by.
Either way, if you can’t find an ingredient I mention in a recipe Google ‘replace [ingredient name] in cooking’ to figure out what might be easier to source for you or just send me a message and ask me if it’s something you can skip, just keep in mind I may not be able to respond as quickly as you’d like as I am just one person.
I’m here, you’re there
When it comes to recipes, a lot of the issues with access and sustainability are hard to cover on the English-section of the world wide web. The EU has fairly strict regulations on what can be sold as food and has at least somewhat of an environmental focus (though not nearly enough), whereas the US tends to be a bit more slapdash with what is allowed to be sold for consumption and (from an outside perspective) has zero focus on our collective future (and I don’t even know what the rest of the world is doing). In that sense the information I have about which ingredients to use and which to avoid is extremely limited. Also, I’m not making money running this website and my health is a dumpster fire, so not everything is as well-researched as it could be.
If you have questions: do your own research, particularly on what you could be doing locally. Just be sure to dig deeper than the first search results on Google, between anti-vaxxers, the diet industry and racism the information you find on Google’s frontpage can be extremely off.
Do what you can
I understand a lot of people aren’t in a position to make the choices I make and don’t have access to the information I have access to. Between my embeddedness in food, food journalism and intersectional activism and my location I can make much more informed choices about my food than others.
The least I and other people in food can do is to pass on what we know both passively (by sharing recipes that have sustainability built into them) and actively (by writing pages like this or articles like the ones listed below) so the average eater (whatever that is, I hope I made it clear there is no such thing) has a better understanding of what might work for them.
At this point the world is quite literally on fire so please try and do everything you can to shop sustainably and research what else you can do to try and turn this shit around.
What I do
The most basic things I try to do to cook more sustainably are:
- Shop mostly for local, seasonal produce or products with BIO-certification, see below for more on the latter
- Shop for groceries max twice a week, once by car and once in town on foot, to support local business (we have a tiny supermarket, butcher and baker as well as a tiny market once a week)
- Shop with a grocery list so I don’t end up buying things I won’t use before they go off. Note: this requires a semblance of meal planning, though for me that’s more of a vague idea of the things I’d like to eat and then eating what I’ve bought as the mood strikes/ use-by date comes into focus
- Keep a close eye on use-by dates, both when shopping and in my cupboards, fridge and freezer, so I use stuff up before it goes bad. This often guides my grocery list. If you’re ever left with some random items in the fridge that need to go, just Google whatever it is plus any other ingredient you may want to use +recipe and you should find some good results. Note: best-by dated products can usually be used for longer so do a smell and mold check
- Buy things with the least unnecessary packaging
- Bring my own grocery bag (I’ve been hearing this since the early 80’s so I don’t know why people are still not on board with this), alternatively: demand a plastic bag ban in your country
- Use unsweetened soy or oat milks and yogurts, most nut dairies require a ton of water to produce which makes them less sustainable (see NYT link below). Unsweetened is just a personal preference so I can decide how much sweetness, if any, to add myself
- Compost what we can, in rural France with a big garden this is easy and a lot of municipalities here hand out free composting bins. A lot of cities and towns in other countries have composting centers where you can bring scraps and pick up compost so check to see if this is offered locally or demand that this is offered locally for you
- Vote for whichever political party or candidate has the greenest plans (though if they are racist, it’s a no from me)
- As of December 2020 the recipes I share here are vegan or vegetarian. I can’t promote the idea of ‘doing what you can’ to bring joy back to eating when that means buying cheap meat that was produced under horrifying conditions for animals and immigrant workers in slaughter-houses alike (both in the US and Europe), so here we are*
The above and below used to be one list, but I wanted to compose a list that is more about what you can do than a slap on the wrist for what you’re doing wrong. I still think the below can be useful to give you an idea of some of the issues at hand:
- This walk-through the New York Times made a few years ago is super helpful to get a grasp on what choices you can make from an environmental perspective (and also where choice is complex). Note this article is of course very US-centric so some conclusions might not apply to your part of the world
- BIO-certification is an EU-certificate for things that are grown to a certain set of sustainable standards. Unfortunately the certificate does have its issues. For example it doesn’t take into account animal welfare or worker’s rights. The organisations behind it also have a tendency to try and extort small businesses into getting certified at high cost or risk a fine. I know multiple bakers in the Netherlands who bake with BIO-flours that experienced this and are no longer allowed to tell customers they do. Finally getting certified is extremely costly for farmers, you have to run your farm by the BIO-standards for 2 years before you can even apply. This leaves some farmers to decide not to get certified while going above and beyond what Bio-certification requires. All that said the BIO-certificate is easily recognizable and easier and easier to find in shops. In France and the Netherlands it’s usually not that much more expensive than non-Bio (think between 5 to 50 cents more, or a euro at an extreme). So while it’s certinaly not everything, at least it’s something and gives a clear indication to producers that we want to buy sustainably
- A lot of tinned tomatoes in Europe are produced using abusive labor practices (think indentured servitude or modern slavery)
- Octopus is being overfished and no longer sustainable
- The carbon footprint for prawn farming is off the charts and prawns farmed in Asia are farmed using abusive labor practices (more indentured servitude and modern slavery, see podcast mentioned below)
- Sugar production is rooted in slavery and hasn’t really moved beyond that, try to buy Fair Trade sugar. Fair Trade also has its issues, but again: at least it’s something
- Chocolate also has an issue with abusive labor practices, you’re best bet is finding bean-to-bar chocolate producers who also make clear statements about worker’s rights on their website. Chocolate produced without abusive labor practices is more expensive but at least you won’t have blood on your hands
- AOC- or AOP-certified cheeses have to be produced to very specific and strict standards which often involve locality, seasonality and grazing practices. This can make them more sustainable than cheeses that are produced year round, as those require cows to calve and produce milk year round, which is unnatural for cows. AOC and AOP cheeses are easy to come by in large parts of Europe
- Listen to The Outlaw Ocean podcast to understand the huge issues we are dealing with at sea, both in terms of human rights violations, polution, piracy and overfishing
Of course all of the above is conditional to new information coming out, and more shit is coming out every day. If you’ve found some other issue or solution on how to live more sustainably please do get in touch.
* Because I wrote my book Nomnomnom mostly pre-pandemic and pre-these insights hitting a little harder it still contains meat recipes, though I made sure it also includes plethora of vegan and vegetarian recipes and variations as well as a special index to find these recipes more easily