Year for the Planet Week 4: Solving My Protein and Energy Dilemma

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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This week, I wanted to take on my other two meals of the day. These are the meals I eat in between work, which could mean writing grants, articles, stories, or making art, or catching up on email. I tend to work straight for 5-6 hours with two food breaks in between.

My goal was to eat to get enough energy to last me through these hours. I tend to crash and then turn into a Fridge Forager, so it’s important for me to design something that I can stick to and not feel deprived.

Rice and meat

This is strange for an Asian to write, but I stopped eating rice when I realized that it was one of those foods that I can’t stop overeating. It causes blood sugar spikes, so I end up feeling hungry soon after. I still eat it when I’m in East Asia or when I’m having sushi, but otherwise I’m that Asian chick who doesn’t eat rice.

Instead, I became one of those people who would blitz a medium head of cauliflower each time she had a rice craving. It feels great because I don’t feel sleepy afterwards. It’s not for everyone, especially because cauliflower is expensive, but I don’t mind having it every now and then.

To eat for the planet, most people will tell you to cut down on meat consumption. This is already the easy part for me; I don’t eat meat except on occasion. Think pepperoni pizza once every two months. I tend to be flexitarian when I’m traveling or on an art residency, mainly out of cultural politeness. I’m happy to have stopped eating beef completely. In terms of animal protein that pollutes the planet, beef is the worst. While there are things I initially missed, such as Korean bulgogi, it’s been a decade and I don’t miss it at all. There are so many great dishes out there that I can eat.

The lack of meat makes me concerned about the protein I consume because I exercise almost every day. So after going through available options, I realized the most viable one on this side of the world was tofu. Because I usually feel a bit faint about two hours into my writing, I need something that will keep me full for a while. And so I picked something equally cheap, sustainable, and locally produced: good old sweet potato. Now the problem was, how to cook them into a dish that was actually easy to make and delicious enough for me to cook on a regular basis.

Tofu and sweet potato. Could I have picked two more boring ingredients? I normally hate this stuff.

The path of less resistance

In taekwondo, one valuable lesson I learned was resourcefulness. Use first what you already have—and use them creatively. That’s the path of less resistance, which gets you to a certain level of proficiency. This taught me to learn how to train wherever I am, making use of whatever equipment I can improvise with (as long as it’s safe). I consider myself a functional, not enthusiastic, cook, as I usually make things just for myself. And so I sought to see what is available to me.

I’m in my hometown of Manila usually in-between residencies or fellowships or speaking gigs. During these times, I’m at my parents’ house. Since I was 21, many of my travels would see me out for months, sometimes years at a time, so it’s great to see family during these rest times.

Unfortunately, the members of my family are hoarders, and the house looks like a bodega of stuff, mostly unopened, all in plastic or in large boxes. I had decided to slowly discard all of the things we didn’t need, as I’m a big believer of material things eventually owning you. Earlier this year, my attention had wandered to the kitchen, which I usually avoid as it has a lot of things I wouldn’t touch. Think cans of Spam, for instance. And lots of used plastic bags. Oh lord, those plastic bags.

One day, I was fed up with how crowded the kitchen looked, yet it had always seemed as though all the stuff stored there was rarely used. It was like we were preparing for the apocalypse. My time in Manila had already stretched to several months at this point, and I could swear there were cans and bottles that were gathering dust because they were never opened.

Gold mine

It was actually behind these cans of Spam that I saw the gold mine in my family’s cupboard. Spices. Lots of them. Rosemary! Thyme! Oregano! Cumin! And lots and lots of crushed red pepper and hot sauce. My relatives on the Filipino side who immigrated to the US like to send them. If you study Filipino culture, you’d know they like to send large boxes of stuff (a lot of them come from warehouse clubs like Costco) to families back in the Philippines.

The spices keep for a long time, but because they were long forgotten, the labels said they were to expire this year and the next. Holy crap.

I didn’t want to waste these, and I’ve also researched extensively on the benefits of these spices (more in a future post), so I eagerly opened them all and started experimenting with my tofu and sweet potato base. Here is what I finally came up with:

Tofu, Tomato, and Sweet Potato Spice Bowl

180 grams tofu (3 servings), cut into cubes
100-150 grams sweet potato, peeled and sliced thinly
1-2 tomatoes, sliced
1 teaspoon each of:
– Turmeric
– Rosemary
– Thyme
– Garlic
Dash of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper
1 Tablespoon olive oil

Instructions:

Heat the pan and add the olive oil. Fry one side of the tofu cubes for about 7 minutes or until brown. Flip them over.  Add the sweet potato slices, and flip over after about 5 minutes. When both sides of the potatoes are a bit golden brown (or soft when you poke them with a fork), add the tomatoes and sauté for about 2 minutes. Then add all of the spices and mix well.

The sweet potato has a lower glycemic index value, so it won’t increase blood sugar levels as fast as, say, white bread. I don’t crash. I feel really full afterwards, unlike when I eat pizza where I would sometimes scarf the entire thing because I was always hungry. In this meal, I love that everything has a benefit to my body: the protein in the tofu, the carbs in the sweet potato, the vitamins in the tomatoes, the amazing spices that turn these into a magic bowl. Cooking time is about 15-20 mins, and it’s a welcome break from writing. It keeps me going until bedtime, and for the first time I’m actually submitting articles and applications ahead of my deadlines. Ahead. Of my deadlines.

I have this dish at a set time, so if I feel hungry beforehand, I would usually eat a small salad of lettuce, tomato, olives, basil pesto, with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing.

One month later

I feel fantastic. It’s been a month with all of these changes since Week 1, and I’ve already lost 5 pounds. It’s probably just holiday weight, but still I’m glad to set this course for myself, one meal at a time. I’ll have to check how I go in the long run and confirm that I’m getting the right amount of nutrients. Four weeks down, 48 to go.

My last hurdles would be stress-eating desserts and my 3x-a day iced coffee. I run on coffee and I have a tremendous sweet tooth. I am not looking forward to these two changes at all, so please excuse my reserving these for last!

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