Soul Cocina

Eco Chef Roger Feely

Drought friendly cooking

We set up the Soul Cocina kitchen at the UCI Festival of Discovery this Saturday for a day of drought friendly cooking demonstrations.  We prepared dishes implementing water conservation cooking techniques using ingredients that do not require excess irrigation like potatoes, onions and tomatoes.  We shared techniques like steaming vegetables over pasta water and saving vegetable blanching water to use for soups and sauces. These water saving practices certainly help our situation, however the majority of the water we need to bring food to our table is used in the production of our food.

Guests were amazed to discover that it takes over 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.  When we consider the bun, cheese and other ingredients it takes to make a cheeseburger along with the meat, we see that it can cost a few thousand gallons of water for a simple lunch.  To avoid such excess water use, we considered other protein sources for our demonstration.  A plant based diet has numerous environmental advantages over non vegetarian diets.  Water conservation is definitely one advantage of choosing a plant based diet.  We used proteins such as lentils, pumpkin seeds, and avocado in our demonstration, as well as grasshoppers.  When the United Nations estimates that one fifth of the world's population lives in areas of physical water scarcity and many people around the globe have limited access to clean water, I think it is time we rethink how we eat.  Ironically, the EPA reports that agriculture is the leading cause of pollution in the streams, rivers and lakes of the United States.  When considering water use in the production of the food we eat, there are many factors and variables to consider.  The equation is not as simple as looking at how much water it takes to produce a peanut.  We should consider the serving size and the nutritional content of the food, as well as where it is produced and the methods of irrigation.  It is not a simple equation.  This article does a great job of rethinking and demystifying the social media rumors and information fads regarding water used to produce our favorite ingredients.  Once we can shift our lens to look at all of the factors related to the production of our food, then we can make informed decisions.  One of the dishes we prepared at the festival was bhel puri, a popular street snack from India based on puffed rice that utilizes drought friendly ingredients like potatoes and tomatoes.  If you can find dry farmed potatoes and tomatoes at your farmers market, don't pass them up.  Great eco chefs go out of their way to source dry farmed tomatoes and potatoes, not only to preserve water, but because the coveted ingredients are packed with flavor and nutritional density since they are not watered down by regular irrigation.  We decided to use a rice based dish to highlight the idea of water use as a circular, symbiotic process rather than a linear act.  When rice is grown, at least half of the water applied to produce the rice is returned to the land as it flows through the rice cultivation process.  This is another example of the intricate circle of life where the ebb and flow of water cannot be easily measured.  Peanuts or cashews, both great vegetarian protein sources, are used in bhel puri.  Since nuts are notorious for the high use of water in commercial production, we decided to use an alternative protein source to add the signature nutty crunch.  We chose to use roasted chick peas.  Through deep research, we found that, depending on how they are grown, chick peas can use as much, or even more water than peanuts!  We had an opportunity to use our Rock the Bike Fender Blender to make our mint chutney and tamarind-date chutney for the bhel puri.  In place of the traditional green mango, we used under-ripe plums and peaches for a more local, seasonal approach without sacrificing the integrity of the dish.  As stone fruit season is quickly coming to an end, we see persimmons coming into season, which make for a very festive bhel puri.  As usual, we upcycled some expired Indian newspaper we found at the market to serve our bhel puri, just like on the streets of Mumbai.

California Bhel Puri


Puffed rice (available at South Asian Grocers or make your own)        4 cups

Dry farmed potato, diced and boiled with turmeric powder and salt    1 each

Dry farmed tomato, diced                                                                     1 each

Diced stone fruit or persimmon                                                            1 each

Tamarind chutney (recipe below)                                                         1/4 cup

Mint chutney (recipe below)                                                                 1/4 cup

Crispy fried lentils                                                                                1/8 cup

Roasted garbanzos                                                                              1/8 cup

Chopped cilantro                                                                                 2 T

Diced onion                                                                                         1/8 cup

Lime juice                                                                                            1 T

optional additions:

Minced green chile                                                                             1 T

Chaat masala (available at South Asian grocery)                                1/2 t

Sev                                                                                                      2 T

Pomegranate seeds                                                                            2 T


combine all ingredients and serve immediately.  Serves 4

Mint Chutney

Garden mint                                                                                  1 bunch

Cilantro                                                                                         1/2 bunch

Ginger                                                                                           1/2"

Garlic                                                                                             1 clove

Lime juice                                                                                      1 lime

Green chiles                                                                                  to taste

optional dollop of yogurt

~blend all ingredients with a few drops of cold water in bicycle blender until smooth

Tamarind Date Chutney

Tamarind pulp                                                                               1 cup

Medjool dates                                                                               4 ea

Jaggery (Indian unrefined cane sugar)                                          1/2 cup

Water                                                                                             2 cups

Ground cumin                                                                                1/2 t

~blend all ingredients in bicycle blender, simmer in sauce pan until reduced by half


Our next dish was the taco de chapulines con aguacate de molcajete. Entomophagy has been practiced around the world for centuries.  Marco Antonio who takes care of the SERES land in Guatemala makes a wonderful larvae kombucha and says that people around Esquintla have been making the refreshment for generations.

In 2013 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a report that declares the answer to global food security may be edible insects.

Chapulines are grasshoppers.  Grasshoppers contain up to 75% protein.  100% of the body is edible as compared to beef which has 40% edible meat.  Compared to the over 1800 gallons of water it takes to produce a pound of beef, grasshoppers need only one gallon to produce a pound, making chapulines the least water intensive source of protein I have come across.  However, until grasshoppers are accepted as food by mainstream western diners, and until we learn to raise grasshoppers for consumption, the economic cost of chapulines will remain just as high as beef (not considering the hidden costs) and we will be left importing chapulines from dubious sources (as suggested in this article) for adventurous foodies.  To enjoy grasshoppers at home, you certainly can catch them yourself.  Foraging for grasshoppers is heaps of fun for the entire family and a great form of pest control for your garden.  Foraging grasshoppers in Mexico is a great alternative to spraying pesticides in fields of alfalfa and other crops that the bugs love. Not only does it eliminate the environmental and health hazards of spraying chemicals, but foraging chapulines also gives local communities a sustainable source of protein and income. 


We made our own tortillas for the tacos, using corn that had gone through the nixtamalization process.  We cook and soak the corn in limestone, calcium hydroxide (simply known as cal in Latino markets), before grinding the corn to make tortillas.  The nixtamalization process has quite a few benefits for the corn.  First off, the alkalinity of the cal makes the corn more "glutinous" by breaking down the sticky component of the corn's cell walls which allows the corn to form a dough (masa) which will stay together when creating tortillas.  Ground corn that has not been treated with lime would fall apart and not form tortillas.  Also, the corn develops a specific texture, aroma and taste through nixtamalization.  And very importantly, the process increases the nutritional value of the corn.  The high ph level of cal helps to free the bound niacin present in corn to allow the body to absorb the niacin.  There are also much higher levels of minerals like calcium, iron and zinc available in corn processed with cal.  Nixtamalized corn eaten in combination with beans and other proteins provides an amino acid balance that works together to provide a complete protein source.  So combining grasshoppers with nixtamalized corn in the form of a fresh hand made tortilla is one of the least water intensive ways I could think of to nourish the body with protein.  We served the tacos the traditional way with a guacamole prepared in a lava stone mortar and pestle (molcajete).  Avocados are not super water intensive trees, however due to their shallow root system, they are not able to retain much water between periods of rainfall.  So commercially, avocados are irrigated rather aggressively during a drought.  We have avocado trees at the SERES center near Antigua, Guatemala and after a few years of drought without ever watering the trees, they produce glorious dry farmed fruit.  The avocados are not as big and plentiful as they would be if they were watered, but they are dense with flavor and nutrition.  We garnished the tacos with epazote, toasted pumpkin seeds and pomegranate.  The pomegranate adds color and sweet tartness.  Pomegranate is water intensive commercially, but the tree I used to eat from in front of where I lived in Triana across the bridge from Sevilla, Spain was never watered and bore hundreds of luscious pomegranate fruit.  We only use a few gems of pomegranate per taco, so no matter how much water is used to produce a pound, we only use a fraction of an ounce per taco.  The epazote is very drought friendly, most herbs are, and it packs a powerful flavor in small quantities that compliments the earthy chapulines quite well.  Lastly, the pumpkin seeds (pepitas).  Pepitas are high in protein, like many seeds, are often simply discarded after using the pumpkin or squash and they are drought friendly.