Thanks to determined gardeners, flowers and fresh produce are flourishing in the most unlikely circumstances – and it's as healthy for the social life as it is for the diet.
Nick's Garden: Tiny pavement plots help a community grow
A recent conversation with friends turned to street food and to the countries and cities where really good pavement snacks could be found. Their choices were as varied as their palettes: Malaysian fried Hokkien noodles, ayam bakar grilled marinated chicken from Indonesia, even hot dogs in Manhattan. Although the last suggestion became a matter of some disagreement, nothing was greeted with as much derision as my chosen street food destination: Abu Dhabi.
I could understand my friends's incredulity. After all, I was rather stretching the definition of street food since the closest Abu Dhabi comes to street vendors are the manicured fast food outlets that line the Corniche, but if you take the time to walk through some of the city's quieter residential neighbourhoods, you'll see some of the most amazing horticultural sights involving food.
My first encounter with Abu Dhabi's brand of urban food production came when I was trying to negotiate a particularly treacherous pavement in the city's Tourist Club area. As I weaved my way through the illegally parked cars, the most beautiful, shoulder-height blooms caught my eye and I found myself investigating a small thicket of plants that were growing in an ostensibly unpromising but obviously cared for piece of waste ground between a barber's shop and a laundry.
Delicate ivory and purple flowers quietly attracted butterflies and, although they looked familiar, like the flowers of a mallow, I knew I had never seen this plant before. Of all the gardens and landscapes I had encountered in Abu Dhabi to that point, this tiny urban plot was by far the most unexpected and inspiring. I knew that if my curiosity was to be satisfied I would need to identify both the plant and its grower before I left. Without thinking, I plunged into the laundry and asked for his whereabouts. Despite my being greeted with nervous looks, a man came forward out of a cloud of steam and walked with me to the pavement, where he gently pointed to some green, chilli-shaped seed pods and mimed the process of eating. I instantly recognised the seed pods as the base ingredient of my all-time favourite Indian dish.
"Bhindi bhaji?" I asked.
He nodded and smiled. To my delight I had seen my first-ever example of Abelmoschus esculentus, a member of the Malvaceae family more commonly known as okra or lady's fingers.
Alerted to this seemingly uncontrollable impulse to grow vegetables in the most unpromising circumstances, I soon started noticing small plots of vegetables growing in overlooked patches of earth all over the city, a process of discovery that reached its zenith when I moved to a quiet residential street in Al Mushrif.
To my amazement, residents had taken up the paving stones and were growing beans, carrots, gourds and all manner of salad in the street. Thanks also to the geese, chickens and ducks that patrolled my route to work each morning, it was like living in the middle of a decidedly eccentric and gently anarchic city farm. Here, swapping "as-salamu alaykum" and "namaskaaram" with my neighbours who watered their plants each morning allowed me to make friends and break down social barriers in ways that simply had not presented themselves in other areas of my life in the capital. Plants allowed me to meet new people and to feel engaged in my neighbourhood and community.
It's not only for these social reasons that I'd add Abu Dhabi to any street food or top 10 list. Places like Bangkok and New York, where city-centre food production is more established, have provided important evidence for its ecological, environmental and educational benefits.
But if anywhere is the real home of urban food production it's Havana. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost the ability to feed itself and more than 1.3 million tonnes of chemical fertiliser a year was lost. As people started to go hungry, radical action was needed. The result was nothing less an organic agricultural revolution. Land use was switched from export crops to food production, and tractors were switched for oxen. People were encouraged to move from the city to the country, and organic farming methods were introduced. Famine was averted and the result was a unique system of urban organic farming based around organoponicos, or gardens that use organic methods to meet local needs.
The environmental cost of the production of food, its processing and transportation can all be reduced by growing your own fruit and vegetables closer to home. Not only does this reduce packaging and food miles but it can also encourage you to eat more healthily. You never know - it might even make you some new friends.