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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Vegan Adventures in Ecuador and More...

            Sorry to keep you all waiting for a new post for nearly TWO MONTHS! I spent the last two weeks of August in Ecuador. My sister is studying abroad there for 5 months, so my cousin and I went to visit her. We were only supposed to stay for one week, but thanks to Hurricane Irene, we got to stay an extra week! Ecuador was beautiful and amazing, and there is way to much to talk about here, but I'll give you a quick summary of our trip highlights: lots of hiking (including to the 4,800m refuge of one of the highest active volcanoes in the world), mountain biking down that same volcano, horseback riding, visiting two volcanic crater lakes (and riding a mule up one), shopping at indigenous markets, tubing, ziplining through the cloud forest, visiting butterfly/hummingbird/orchid gardens, touring the colonial and modern areas of the capitol city Quito, dancing to reggaeton and salsa in the clubs, and visiting a traditional shaman! 

               I was honestly worried about eating vegan in Ecuador, but with some flexibility and a basic knowledge of Spanish I was able to get by. Ecuadorians are not familiar with the term "vegan," and to them "vegetarian" just means no red meat. I was able to find several veg-friendly restaurants in the capitol city, but aside from those places I was able to make do by ordering rice, beans, and vegetables. Ecuador has the most amazing variety of tropical fruits. I couldn't even identify half of them and had no idea how to pick out the ripe ones. Ecuadorians serve fresh fruit juice with every meal. When they can't make them fresh, they use frozen fruit pulp. I tried guanabana, maracuya (passion fruit), mango, banana, naranjilla (small bitter orange), mora (blackberry), durazno (peach), tomate de arbol (tree tomato), uvilla (ground cherry), pitahaya (dragon fruit), taxo, and more. Ecuadorian eating patterns took a bit of getting used to, because they eat "desayuno" (breakfast) and a very large "almuerzo" (lunch), but they do not really eat dinner. Most families just eat leftovers from lunch or a small snack during the evening. This way of eating actually makes more sense, because large American dinners take too much time to digest before bed. 
           We flew back from Ecuador on Labor Day, so I didn't even get a chance to breath because I had classes the next day. I missed my first week of grad school due to our delay in Ecuador, so I have been playing catch-up the past few weeks in school. I am going to Hunter College full time now for the graduate program in nutrition, and it is a lot of work! I have 4 classes each week, but we were told in orientation to expect at least 36 hours per week of outside school work. That's a full time job! I am still working at Starbucks part-time as well. It's tough, especially as a nutrition student, to sacrifice healthy eating and exercise to get school work done. Unfortunately, I have been eating less raw foods since cooked foods are often more convenient and involve less planning. I find myself having to eat out more often as well, since I have less time to cook. However, I have found easy ways to make sure that I always pack a healthy meal to bring to school and work:
  • Salads - add some beans, sprouts, nuts, seeds, or tofu to make a complete meal; buy pre-washed and chopped lettuce mix to save time
  • Fresh fruit - as easy as it gets!
  • Trail mix - make your own to save money
  • Good old PB&J! - sprinkle on some flax, chia, or hemp seeds for a healthy boost and sneak in some bananas or raisins
  • Hummus and veggies
  • Make 1-2 large dishes for the week and separate into individual containers
Oh and be sure to carry it all in a cute reusable lunch box like mine! 

Some recent recipes worth noting:
  • The Best Spinach Quiche Ever - this tofu-based version seriously rivals the best quiche made with cheese, eggs, and cream!
  • Baklava - I found some organic, vegan phyllo dough in Whole Foods, and this recipe certainly put it to good use! It was surprisingly easy to make and tasted just like the authentic restaurant-style dessert. 
  • Stuffed Bitter Melon (Karela) - the only recipe I've tried that can somewhat tame the bitterness of the super-nutritious "karela." This vegetable is used in Asia to treat diabetes and detoxify the liver. It is definitely an acquired taste, but its health benefits are so great that it is worth trying.