How Cambodia Taught Me to Love Real Food

When we moved to Cambodia three years ago, I had no idea that I'd have to throw out everything I knew about food and cooking and grocery shopping, and start from scratch...pun absolutely intended.

Before Cambodia, I considered myself fairly proficient in the kitchen. My favorite dish to make was chicken piccata (the first meal I'd ever made my husband while we were dating), and I tried new recipes frequently. But I was not above grabbing the packaged dinner or (gasp) frozen Hot Pocket to take to work if I was short on time.

We shopped at the local farmer's market, but it was really more of a "let's do this on the weekend for something new and fun!" event, than a regular, conviction-fueled habit. I went through phases of shopping for organic or local, but it fizzled out after a week or two. One summer, we signed up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share. And it became more of a pain than a pleasure because of all the vegetables we received that I'd never cooked in my life (eggplant, anyone?).

So there I was, an inconsistent home cook who had never cooked beans or eggplants in my life, and who wasn't above the MSG-laden packaged dinner. And then Cambodia happened.

I still remember one of the first times we visited a local wet market and realized...this is where we buy our food. I've lived overseas before in North Africa and Bangladesh - not exactly cushy places - but I never had to buy my own food in the market. I've never walked up to a woman sitting surrounded by gristly meat and a pig's head, pointed to a slab of meat covered in flies, and said, "I'll take that one!"

Andrew and I quickly came to two convictions: no beef or pork, and we'd make it from scratch if we wanted to eat it.

Photo by Mark Roy, Creative Commons

For the first year or two, we had a domestic helper who shopped at the market for us, giving me a pass on most of the decision making when it came to buying food. The hardest part for me was figuring out how to write out the list in Khmer. But when she left to get married, it fell upon me to do the local shopping.

And slowly, I came to love it - not just the shopping part, but the ability to turn raw vegetables into something delicious and nourishing. And I knew exactly what went into everything we ate.

Poipet is free of most Western packaged goods. We can buy spaghetti, rice, white flour, and occasionally bread (very occasionally!). Milk and yogurt are as far as dairy products go here. Canned tomato products, oatmeal, cereals, baked goods - anything along those lines has to be purchased 2+ hours away and brought here.

And so I've learned to adapt to a whole foods diet - buying vegetables, fruit, and chicken every week, and making almost everything from scratch. It has taught me to be creative, resourceful, and non-wasteful with all the food that comes into our kitchen. 

I've learned to make homemade BBQ sauce, hash browns, pulled chicken sandwiches, roasted eggplant, homemade pizza dough and sauce, pumpkin puree, granola, tortillas, bread, and homemade chicken stock - all things I'd have bought at the store in America.

And amazingly? Andrew and I love it. Yes, it takes more time. It can be a pain to make bread and tortillas, and sometimes we just go without, because I'm too lazy to make it. 

But we feel healthier, more energetic, and more appreciative of the wide variety of food that God has provided. Although we can't guarantee our food from the market is organic, I can tell you our stomaches rebel against the chemicals and preservatives that lace American food whenever we visit home.

"Whole foods" really refers to eating food as close to their natural state as possible - which is the exact opposite of the diet the average American eats every day. Our culture has told us that food exists to satisfy an urge, as quickly and cheaply as possible. And so we have meals you can heat and eat in five minutes, or restaurants that serve $1 meals as you pass by a window in your car.

But cooking and eating a whole foods diet has forced me to slow down - to learn more about the food I buy, to experiment with different ethnic cuisines and methods of cooking, and to sit down and really enjoy the food I've put together. When you spend an hour making dinner, you're much more likely to savor every bite and smell and texture.

Photo of Cambodian market, by Qool, Creative Commons.

If you want to change your diet to a nourishing, healthy whole foods diet, here are three places to start.

1. Start with one food at a time. 

If you often buy the packaged version of the real thing, why not switch to the original? For example, baby carrots are just manufactured versions of regular carrots, cut down to size and covered with preservatives to make them stay orange and fresh in the package. It takes less than five minutes to peel and cut up a regular carrot. Maybe you can take that five minutes away from scrolling Facebook or reading blogs.

If you find yourself often grabbing sugar-laden, artificially-flavored cereal for breakfast, grab a bag of natural muesli (or better yet, make your own granola with about ten minutes of hands-on time) instead.

If you try to overhaul your diet drastically all at once, you'll probably fail. Start small, somewhere you know you can make a change, and let it snowball from there.

2. Plan your meals.

One of the problems I ran into when I switched to eating whole foods was buying vegetables for one meal, but having no idea what else to make with them. But planning out meals has saved me so much money and time and stress.

Every week, I sit down for about 30 minutes and look at our calendar, planning out what meals will work for us. I use Plan to Eat, which has saved me hours of flipping through cookbooks and making lists.

Plan to Eat is an online meal planning service. I save recipes using a bookmarklet, then drag and drop the meals onto a calendar, which then auto-populates my shopping list, even splitting up the items into different stores. So easy, right? You can try it out for free for a month here.

3. Grab the Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle THIS WEEK ONLY (September 9-14, 2015).

This bundle of e-books, e-courses, and bonuses is an unbeatable good deal, especially if you want to transition to a real-food, healthy cooking routine. The bundle covers all kinds of topics, including natural remedies, fitness, special diets, gardening, natural skin care...but their real food picks knock it out of the park.

There are 17 e-books on real foods and meal planning, an e-course to jump start you on lacy-fermentation (homemade kombucha!!!), and a bonus free month to Once a Month Meals freezer cooking website. And that's just one part of the bundle.

Because the bundle is sold at such a steep discount, it's only sold for 6 days - September 9-14, 2015. It's worth over $1,900 and priced at $29.97. I've already bought by bundle and can't wait to start ordering my bonuses!

Read more about the bundle here. You can check out the different e-books, e-courses, and bonuses offered, as well as all the FAQs if you're not sure it's what you need.

So how about it? What's one thing that keeps you from making and eating food from scratch? Is it time, money, or knowing where to start?

And if you have already made the switch, what tips do you have to share with someone who may be feeling overwhelmed by the change?

P.S. I'd love to share more about what's going on in our lives and encouraging resources with you! Sign up for my monthly newsletter here, and as a thank-you, get a list of resources and tools to supercharge your time studying the Bible.

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