There are many things that we eat and drink regularly, but have no idea where they come from or how they grow… Until now, that is! Let us open your mind, and possibly your mouth, with some common (yet somehow surprisingly strange) foods from around the world!

Pineapples

Indigenous to South America

A ripe pineappleIt grows on a stick! Well not really a stick – it’s a stem. I had assumed that it grew from a flower, like an apple, and I suppose it does in a way. The pineapple doesn’t hang from a branch however; it grows from the centre of a bromeliad plant, which is a spikey, tropical-looking thing. The plant produces hundreds of little flowers which bear fruit, then these fruits join together to create a pineapple. How very strange!

A pineapple in its starting stagePhoto credit: Rameshng (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wasabi

Indigenous to Japan

A Wasabia japonica plantPhoto credit: Ies

Wasabi is used to add flavour (a hot flavour) to many foods, particularly in Japanese cuisine. A popular snack these days, however, seems to be wasabi peas. These harmless looking little things assault your mouth and nose with their fiery horseradish-ish punch (hence wasabi is also known as the Japanese horseradish). It seems quite incongruous, then, to think that wasabi actually grows underwater!

Wasabia japonica plants in gravel bedsThe Wasabia japonica plant is grown in gravel beds flooded with spring water. This sensitive plant is quite intolerant to sunlight, so must also be kept in the shade. The most commonly used part of the plant is the bit that has been underwater, the stem (although it looks like a root) – this is where the most intense flavour is held.

Cranberries

Indigenous to North America

A flooded cranberry bed

A cranberry bush partially submerged in waterIt was then discovered, due to a tiny pocket of air, that cranberries float in water! So when the berries reach optimum size and colour, during the autumn, the bogs they are growing in are flooded. The next morning the water is churned up so the berries come off the vine and bob to the top! They are then gathered up and shipped off to be pressed into juice.

Rice

Indigenous to southern India

Rice terracesRice is one of the most important grains in the world. It has been said it is a staple food for almost half of the world’s population. It has particular importance in Asia and the West Indies. Although rice is grown all over the world now, it is thought to have first been grown and cultivated in southern India well over 5,000 years ago, before it started to spread out around the globe. Considering how prevalent it is, it’s surprising how little we know about how it’s grown! It is in fact the seed of a grass-like plant that needs plenty of water to survive. However it is not necessary to grow it in water.

A semi-ripe rice plant (paddy)Photo credit: Amartyabag (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Growing rice in water reduces the growth of weeds and discourages vermin from attacking the crop, so that is why you see submerged paddy fields. Once it is harvested, the hulls are thrashed to loosen the rice. Then it’s warmed and the outer husk removed. When the rice comes out, it is covered in bran. If the bran is left on, it becomes what we call brown rice. To create white rice, the bran is removed by abrasive milling. Such a lot of trouble for such tiny grains!

Coffee

Indigenous to Ethiopia

Coffee cherriesArguably the most popular beverage in the world, coffee comes from two different kinds of plant, known as arabica and robusta. Arabica plants are more difficult to grow and are said to produce the superior cup of coffee. The arabica plant must be cultivated for at least five years before its cherries can be harvested. Inside each coffee cherry are two beans (although they are actually classified as seeds). It takes around 3,000 beans to make just one pound of coffee!

Roasted coffee seeds (beans)Once the cherry and the outer section of the bean are removed, it is left to dry out. It’s after this stage that the coffee is usually exported, and up until the point of roasting, the beans are still green. Once they’re roasted, they can be ground and turned into the drink we know and love!

Black pepper

Indigenous to… possibly India!

Pepper before ripeningPhoto credit: Aruna (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It sits on your table or in your cupboard, and there are not many savoury dishes it isn’t included in, but do you know how it grows? And what the difference is between black pepper, white pepper and green pepper? Well you are about to find out! Piper nigrum is a flowering vine that bears fruit.

Black, green, pink and white peppercornsPhoto credit: Ragesoss (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These little berries, when picked before ripening, become black peppercorns. But before then, they are dried and cooked. When the unripe berries are dried, not cooked, they become green pepper. White pepper is made from the seed inside the little berry. And pink peppercorns? They come from an entirely different plant – the Peruvian pepper tree.

Peanuts

Indigenous to Peru

Peanut pollinated fruit stalksPhoto credit: Llez (CC BY-SA 3.0)

So be honest – how did you think peanuts grew? I thought they came off of a shrubby plant, a bit like peapods. I shan’t be embarrassed though, because after doing a quick poll, no one else knew the answer either! Something else I didn’t know was that peanuts aren’t even nuts; they’re legumes! Peanuts actually grow in a very strange way.

A woman collecting peanutsOnce the pretty yellow flowers of the plant are pollinated (by bees, usually), their petals drop off and the stems starts to grow and bend down towards the ground where they dig into the soil. Once it’s under the soil, it swells into the pod, which contains the peanuts. Amazing!

Cashews

Indigenous to South America

Cashews growing on the treeAnd you thought peanuts were odd! Cashew nuts grow off the end of apples. The flower of the cashew tree forms into a pear/apple-shaped fruit, but this is known as a false fruit! The true fruit is the kidney shaped nubbin at the end of the apple. Within that, lies the cashew nut (which is actually a seed). The seed is surrounded by a double shell, which is very toxic. Proper roasting will destroy the toxin, but it must be done outside because even the smoke produced is dangerous!

A cashew treePhoto credit: L. Shyamal (CC BY 2.5)

It’s also possible to eat the cashew apple. It’s very sweet and juicy and sometimes made into a drink. Sadly, it has very thin skin so transporting it anywhere causes damage. Because of this, it’s unlikely we’ll find a cashew apple in the supermarket anytime soon.

Saffron

Originates from Greece and southwest Asia

Saffron crocus
There are probably a few things you know about saffron already – that it’s more expensive gram-for-gram than gold, and that it’s yellow. But did you know it comes from a crocus? Yes, that lovely spring flower! I can read your minds – you’re wondering whether it’s possible to harvest some saffron from the local park/garden, aren’t you? Well, no! Not only do I not condone stealing, but it’s almost certainly going to be the wrong sort of crocus (there are over 70 different species of crocus and saffron is specific to just one of them.)

The cultivation of saffron has been going on for thousands of years, and it’s no surprise that the ancient Egyptians loved a bit of it (they did seem to have had expensive tastes). They used it for medicinal reasons, as did most. Apparently, Pliny the Elder listed 20 remedies that involved saffron; it seems saffron could pretty much cure anything! These days, however, it’s mainly used for flavouring and colouring.

Saffron
Around 90% of all saffron produced now comes from Iran and the reason it is so expensive is because it has to be harvested by hand. Not only that, but each tiny purple flower yields very little spice. So, in the three weeks during autumn that the saffron crocus blooms, each flower is picked and their stigmas are carefully removed. The stigma is the female section of the plant (remember your science lessons?) and the bit that is actually the saffron. The stigmas are dried, packaged and then sold.

Saffron stigmas
If you still can’t quite understand just why this is this is the most expensive spice in the world then think about this: each flower has three stigmas… To make one pound of saffron 225,000 stigmas are needed. That’s 75,000 flowers that need to be picked and dissected by hand to make one pound of spice. Amazing!

Saffron photo credits: たね (会話, Moka2002n, Guillaume Paumier and staciabriggs

Sesame seeds

Originates from Africa

Sesame seeds
Sesame seeds are those little dots of flavour that you really don’t take much notice of; they are on bread, burgers, in crackers, and lots of Asian dishes, amongst other things. I bet now I’ve mentioned them you’ll see them everywhere! Have you ever considered how they grow, though?
Sesame seed burger
The tiny seeds grow in the pods of dark-green leaved plants that bear tubular flowers that vary in colour. The plant is considered to be one of the oldest oilseed crops around; it was being farmed over 5,000 years ago!

Sesame plants
One of the reasons it became – and remained – so popular is because it survives in very harsh conditions; incredible heat, no rain, too much rain… It grows where other crops won’t, and for this reason is it sometimes called a survivor crop. Hardly little things, aren’t they? Except they are not really little. The seeds may be tiny but the actual plants can grow up to six feet tall!

Sesame oil
One of the more interesting things I’ve read about sesame is that the phrase “open sesame” from the story Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, was the chosen phrase because the sound of a ripe sesame pod splitting open sound a bit like a door unlocking!

Sesame seed photo credits: Gudlyf, David Guo’s Master, Krish Dulal and Mariko GODA

Sugar

Originates from Europe

Different kinds of sugar
So, where did you think sugar came from? Sugar cane? Well you would be right, but it was a surprise for me to learn that just over half of all sugar in the UK actually comes from sugar beet. I had never even heard of such a thing!

Sugar beets
Sugar beet is a root vegetable that looks a bit like a parsnip, but has a sugar content of over 16% (and I thought a carrot was sweet!) These root vegetables are an ideal sugar source for us in Europe because we have the right climate for sugar beet to be farmed, whereas sugar cane needs a tropical climate… Something we can only wish for.

Sugar beets being harvested
The beets are harvested towards the end of the year, when the sugar content is deemed to be highest. The processing plant is usually close to the farm, as to take the harvest a long way is costly; it’s quite a heavy, bulky crop! Once there, a sample of the crop is tested to see what the sugar content is, and the farmer is paid accordingly. The beets are sliced very thinly and sprayed with hot water and chemicals to clean the juice that comes out. The liquid is then filtered and boiled in a vacuum to create syrup. Crystals start to form in the syrup and additional “seeds” are thrown in to encourage further crystallisation. (These “seeds” are in fact, tiny sugar crystals.) The crystals are then separated from the syrup by being spun around in a centrifuge, and ta-dah! We have white sugar, as we know it! It really is amazing to think that white, sweet, sandy stuff comes from a root vegetable, isn’t it?

Sugar photo credits: Sunbeam Free Photos Art & Fun and 028mdk09

Brazil nuts

Originates from… well, Brazil!

Unshelled brazil nuts
While you’re gobbling down your chocolate brazils (the only way to consume brazil nuts, in my opinion), consider how that tasty morsel came to be in your mouth. Well, I can tell you it is a very delicate process! So remember to be grateful to the huge but sensitive brazil nut tree.

Brazil nut tree
The brazil nut tree is the giant of the Amazon rainforest, standing up to 160 feet tall with a diameter of up to 6.5 feet wide. It can produce up to 250 pounds of nuts a year each. The nuts grow in cannonball-like pods that weigh up to five pounds each. Inside each pod is around 26 seeds, or brazil nuts. This isn’t how I imagined they grew! It’s like a nut, within a nut, within a nut! These pods fall from near the top of the tree to the forest floor at around 50 miles an hour (please, spare a thought for the poor guys that have to rummage around finding and collecting these pods; it’s a dangerous job!)

Brazil nut fruit
For many years, scientists were confused – why would Mother Nature put the seeds of a plant in such hard pod? What animal has jaws big and strong enough to crack open the pod and spread the seeds? How is the plant actually reproducing? Enter this little guy:

Agouti
He is an agouti! He has a sweet face but jaws like a workman’s chisel! And he loves a nut! He cracks open the pod, has a few for dinner, then buries the rest for another time. But sometimes he forgets about them (don’t judge, we’ve all got a tin of something from 1999 in the back of the cupboard). Left alone, the seeds can lay dormant for years until conditions are right from them to start growing.

Brazil nut seeds
Another creature that helps the tree to reproduce is the bee, but not just any bee… The orchid bee, unsurprisingly, is dependent on a certain kind of orchid to survive because the males need its scent to attract females. The orchid bee also happens to be the only bee that is able to drink the nectar of the brazil nut flower (and therefore pollinate it). This is because the bee has to be strong enough to kind of lift up the hood of the flower to get to its nectar.

Euglossini, otherwise known as an orchid bee
So, if there are no orchids in the forest then there are no bees, and no brazil nuts. This is why brazil nuts cannot be farmed effectively; the orchids are so sensitive that any disruption to their habitat causes them to die. So the nuts are harvested by simply foraging for them on the forest floor!

Brazil nut photo credits: Quadell, mauroguanandi, Lior Golgher, brian.gratwicke and Jacob Rus

Dragon fruit

Originates from Mexico

Open dragon fruit
Dragon fruit
Well, let’s face it, it’s not a surprise that this fruit grows in a way that I find unusual, is it?! It looks ever so exciting and tropical, plus it’s called dragon fruit! I kind of imagined this fruit would grow on a tree like an apple would, albeit a more tropical-looking tree. However, it actually grows on a cactus!

Dragon fruit cactuses
The cactus has long, thin, flat, droopy “branches” and the fruit (sometimes called pitaya) grow, dangling , on the ends. It’s quite nice to see; the pink fruit looks nice against the bright green cactus, and it’s also, apparently, quite nice to smell too! The large flowers are white and bloom at night, releasing an incredible fragrance!

Pitahaya flower
It may be a bit of a treat to find a dragon fruit here, but in Central and South America, the fruit is very popular, as it is in Southeast Asia, where it has been cultivated. Not only can the fruit be eaten, but the unopened flower buds can be cooked and eaten as vegetables too!

Dragon fruit photo credits: tippi t, angela n., Nhã Lê Hoàn and Wm Jas

 

If you want to see one of these foods growing in their natural habitat, don’t forget your travel insurance! You’ll be covered for things including cancellation, lost baggage, and medical expenses (even medical expenses due to some brazil nuts falling on you)!