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Penn State Researchers Battle Food Insecurity with Native Plants Cookbook

16 Dec, 2022 - In the mountains and fields of Cambodia, there’s an underused and little-studied source of food that could help the 45% of Cambodians experiencing food insecurity: wild, native plants that are edible and nutritious but might not be familiar to everyone.

As part of a larger research initiative investigating the intersection of gender and agriculture, Sovanneary Huot — a doctoral candidate in rural sociology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences — has created a cookbook, titled "Cambodian Food Culture: Wild Food Plant Dishes," to provide a written record of some of these plants, including their nutritional values and recipes for how to cook with them.

“Wild food plants feature prominently in rural food systems and can mitigate malnutrition, hunger and poverty,” Huot said. “However, harvesting and consumption of wild food plants are likely to decline. The erosion of wild food plant knowledge is a possible contributing factor, and I wanted to tap into and document this knowledge, which has been somewhat neglected by researchers.”

The cookbook includes 13 recipes — including soups, salads, drinks and desserts — and features in-depth nutritional information on 24 indigenous plants, referred to by the researchers as “wild food plants.” These plants, such as climbing wattle and aquatic morning glory leaves, often are high in vitamins and minerals that Cambodians otherwise might be missing in their diets.

According to Rick Bates, professor of horticulture, Cambodia was an important location for the research due to not just its high levels of food insecurity, but also its low levels of food diversity.

“In an average household, there may be enough calories for its members, but most are coming from rice and maybe a little bit of fish and garden vegetables,” Bates said. “The diversity of the diet could be improved, but many people are living in high levels of poverty, so it’s difficult.”

The overarching research project is called Scaling Suitable Sustainable Technologies, a follow-up to a previous project called Women in Agriculture Network: Cambodia, which identified wild food plants as an opportunity to combat hunger. The researchers hope to gain a better understanding of how people in Cambodia already use these plants, as well as ways to increase their production and use.

For her piece, Huot wanted to focus on wild food plants in the context of gender. She explained that while these plants usually are found and managed by the women in the villages, many researchers still didn’t know how and why these women used them.

“Women have been recognized as central players in household food consumption and nutrition,” Huot said. “They’re more involved in wild food plant production and utilization than men are. So, wild food plants and gender are key dimensions of the food system in Cambodia. My research focuses on these connections.”

Furthermore, Bates noted that while there is an oral history surrounding the plants, there is no formal record.

“A lot of the knowledge about which plants are useful and how to collect them is passed down through the generations of these villages, but it’s not published anywhere,” Bates said. “So as young people leave the village and move to the cities, there’s a risk of this indigenous knowledge being lost. That was one of the things we wanted to accomplish with the cookbook, to capture some of that information and get it in print.”

After traveling to Cambodia in February, Huot spent five months conducting 28 key informant interviews — including with local authorities, cooperatives, women groups and nursery garden owners in the community — 231 household surveys, and 20 in-depth interviews with selective participants from the household survey. Many of them were women. She also led a group of students from the National University of Battamban into the mountains to collect wild food plants and bring them back to start wild gardens at the university and in the community.

Huot said that while there is still a lot of work to be done on the project, she looks forward to her work making a difference in the lives of Cambodians.

“I hope to share my research results and cookbook widely to audiences at both the grassroots and policymaker levels. By disseminating knowledge about the benefits of wild food plants, I hope that my work can help sustainably scale up wild food plant production and use.”


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