Food is essential for life – it nourishes, provides energy and helps maintain health. But more than that food is what binds families, cultures and countries together. It is an integral part of life from daily meals, to family celebrations, holiday occasions and business and social events. In celebrating 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables and September as National Fruits and Veggies Month, I thought it would be fun to take a look at food traditions around the globe that center on fruits and vegetables. So I asked five people who are from or have lived outside the U.S. for their insights on the role produce plays in that country’s cuisine.
Aline Tahan hails from Lebanon. I originally met her on Instagram last year when she entered my Fruits and Veggies Month contest. According to Aline, the most popular Lebanese vegetables are parsley, mint, wild thyme, rocca (arugula), dandelion greens, cabbage, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, okra, cauliflower, onions, garlic and olives. Her favorite vegetable dish is Tabbouleh prepared with finely chopped parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions, bourghul (bulgur) and dressing of lemon, olive oil and salt eaten with cabbage or lettuce leaves. Another favorite is Fattouch created with parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, radishes and rocca dressed with lemon, olive oil, garlic, sumac and salt. “Lebanese dishes are mainly made from raw or cooked vegetables either with or without meat,” says Aline. “Vegetables like mint, radish, onions, cucumbers tomatoes and garlic sauce are always served at lunch with the meat as a side dish called Mezza at the beginning of the meal along with Arak, a traditional alcoholic drink produced from grapes.” She also notes that Lebanese cooking brings out flavor and taste mostly from all the vegetables and fruit. When it comes to fruit, she enjoys them plain or mixed with oats and nuts. Most fruits eaten in Lebanon are the ones we eat in the U.S. like apples, pears, grapes, strawberries, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, cherries, peaches, apricots, prunes and watermelon but are usually seasonal for better taste.
Sara Masetti, a documentary film producer in New York City grew up in northern Italy where she learned to cook with her mother and grandmothers. Tomatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, peaches, apricots, strawberries and blackberries are common vegetables and fruits eaten there. Fruit salad is a favorite way she prepares strawberries with lemon juice and sugar, either alone or with bananas, peaches and blackberries. If it’s served at dinner, she add a splash of white wine! Of course, nothing says Italian like tomato sauce and Sara prepares it the classic way, combining a jar or can of tomato sauce with sautéed chopped onion, fresh garlic, salt and a splash of red wine cooked for 10-15 minutes. Toward the end of cooking, she adds 1/3 tsp. of baking soda to reduce acidity and serves it on cooked pasta. Minestrone is a standard soup often served as a main dish with carrots, peas, collard greens, celery, tomatoes or other veggies along with small pasta. Salads are popular and can also be a main dish with lettuce, shaved parmesan, fresh mozzarella, tomato, lean cured meat (bresola) and sometimes cooked green beans. It seems Italians have come up with the perfect way to entice kids to eat vegetables: veggie balls! Mix diced boiled potatoes with cooked spinach, Parmesan cheese and raw egg and form them into balls, roll in fine bread crumbs and bake in the oven. “Literally, you can use any veggie you want to sneak in,” explains Sara.
Dallas-area registered dietitian and nutrition and culinary consultant, Cindy Kleckner, lived in St. Ives, New South Wales on the North Shore of Sydney, Australia from 1997 to 1999 with her husband and two sons. “What I remember most was the beautiful way food was treated with such reverence,” says Cindy. “Quality was paramount.” While seasonal produce is preferred, a lot of produce is available year-round that’s imported from countries like Mexico. Much of the home cooking is done on the “barbie” or grill. Grilling is a way of life and veggies are a big part of it: red onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots using minimal oil. Some are eaten hot or tossed in a salad. Mediterranean-inspired dishes use eggplant and cauliflower grilled with savory spices, garnished with pomegranate arils and “yoghurt.” Cindy was surprised by how much Australians eat pumpkin: roasted, mashed, added in cake batter or as part of a breakfast bowl. “Almost every restaurant had pumpkin soup on the menu,” she says. Vegetables were also eaten raw as “vegetable sticks” with Middle East and Italian-inspired white bean and avocado dips. Learning different names of veggies was fun for her, like rocket (arugula), capsicum (sweet pepper) and aubergines (eggplant), courgettes (zucchini) and witlof (Belgian endive). Fruit is also abundant with bananas, apples, pears and citrus common year-round. Summer brings berries, mangoes, cherries, pineapple, watermelon, “rockmelon” (cantaloupe), zespri (kiwi), pawpaw and exotics like Asian dragon fruit. Fruit is added to salads and stone fruit is lightly grilled and served as a dessert. Apples and passionfruit are popular in the fall while rhubarb and quinces are found in winter desserts.
Roxana Wroblewski, a native of Argentina who now lives in a northern suburb of Dallas, is a second-career dietitian who recently completed her dietetic internship and passed the RD exam. Typical Argentine vegetables are lettuce, tomatoes, chard, corn, spinach, broccoli, avocado, onions, zucchini and pumpkin while the most common fruits available all year are bananas, oranges, tangerines, apples, pears, grapes and quince. Peaches, apricots, strawberries, plums, watermelons and honeydew are signs of the summer season. One of Roxana’s favorites is chimichurri, the Argentine pesto, a versatile sauce commonly eaten with choripan (sausage sandwich). It is made with parsley, oregano, onion, garlic, chopped peppers, chili flakes, olive oil and vinegar. Other Argentine dishes featuring vegetables include Pastel de Papa, the Argentine version of Shepherd’s Pie, with mashed potatoes and meat; Carbonada, a stew with potatoes, corn on the cob, carrots, bell peppers, onions and meat; Zapallitos Rellenos, a round zucchini filled with cream, cheese and meat; and Matambre, a roulade of flank steak or pork filled with vegetables such as carrots, garlic, parsley, peppers and spinach. Dulce de batata, a dessert made with sweet potatoes, resembles marmalade and is often eaten with cheese. Dulce de membrillo, cooked quince fruit, is a sweet, mildly tart item sold in blocks, then cut into thin slices and eaten on bread, sandwiches or with cheese. “Fruit salads are popular in the summer, combining canned peaches and pineapple with fresh grapes and bananas and fresh-squeezed orange juice,” explains Roxana. “Dried fruits like raisins, figs, apricots, dried pears and cherries signal Christmas, when they are used to make panettones and turrones.” Finally, she notes that Argentines “do not mess it up.” Vegetables are in main dishes or side plates and fruits are exclusively considered dessert.
A first-generation Vietnamese Chinese American, New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist Jen Nguyen grew up eating traditional Vietnamese meals. She was born and raised in Santa Ana, California where her parents settled after they fled Viet Nam by boat in 1986. In addition to familiar fruits and veggies that we eat in the U.S., Jen’s meals included fruits like mangosteen, passionfruit, pomelo, rambutan, lychee, longan, jackfruit, durian and dragonfruit and vegetables such as bitter melon, water spinach/morning glory, watercress, taro, bamboo shoots, daikon, choy sum, bok choy, banana flower, pennywort, pea shoots, lotus root, chayote and perilla. Vegetables were always a part of the table as either a side, in soup or mixed into dishes. “It’s rare to just have meat on the table as meat is a delicacy in Viet Nam and fruits and vegetables are abundant,” she notes. With a main entrée, there’s usually a soup on the table that offers some sort of vegetable in it and/or a side of greens that’s sautéed lightly in oil and soy sauce. “I absolutely LOVE beets and grew up eating them in a soup that my dad made with pork spare ribs,” says Jen. “In that soup, we had beet greens, beets, carrots and potatoes.” Green (unripe) bananas are often used in spring rolls and as a side dish to compliment salty dishes at dinner. Cut fruits are eaten as a snack throughout the day, served when guests come over, gifted to families and eaten as a dessert. According to Jen Vietnamese cuisine is a blend of Chinese, French, Thai, Cambodian and Malaysian cultures and may include other fruits and vegetables found in those countries as well.