The Alphabet Diet is a cooking and eating challenge where, every day for 26 days, a person only eats foods that start with a particular letter of the alphabet—apples and artichokes on Day 1, bagels and blueberries on Day 2 and so forth. It’s not a weight loss method, but it can be used to add variety to your diet, and to your recipe book if you enjoy cooking. Read on for 26 days of inspiration if you plan to take on this challenge yourself.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is a very common healthy eating cliché. Apples may not be a cure-all, but they do have a long list of health benefits, according to health website WebMD. They are rich in fibre, antioxidants and beneficial chemicals called flavonoids. As WebMD explains, the fibre in apples helps control acid reflux, diarrhea and constipation, and the antioxidants in apples “can slow the growth of cancer cells [and] protect the cells in your pancreas, which can lower your chances of type 2 diabetes.” They may even fight memory loss. Apples can be eaten raw, cooked into pies and other desserts or added to soups and other savoury dishes; if you’re looking for inspiration, cooking website The Kitchn has dozens of recipes to put “fall’s favorite fruit” to good use.
Blueberries have gained a reputation as a superfood. According to the BBC’s Good Food portal, they contain some of the highest antioxidant levels among commonly consumed fruits and vegetables; they also may help protect the immune system, regulate blood sugar and support eye health. If you’re lucky, you can find blueberries growing wild from April to September in much of North America. Blueberries can be eaten fresh, tossed into any number of desserts and breakfast dishes, or made into jam and enjoyed with biscuits, bannock, bagels or any kind of bread you fancy!
Cassava, also called manioc or yuca, is a tuber that originated in South America. It is believed to have been brought to Africa by Portuguese traders centuries ago, and has since become one of the staples of African cooking, giving rise to such omnipresent Central and West African dishes as couscous-like attiéké (an Ivory Coast specialty, pictured), pasty fufu (usually dipped into soups and stews), gari (fermented and fried) and dense, portable chikwangue. The tubers can also be sliced and fried for a french fry-like side dish. Often, cassava greens, known as pondu in Congo, are also boiled and served. Tapioca pudding and starch are also made from cassava. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s a good source of dietary fibre as well as vitamin C, thiamin, folic acid, manganese, and potassium.
According to health website Healthline, duck meat is “consumed all over the world, and particularly popular in China.” It’s a “rich source of protein and provides several vitamins and minerals… [and] although it’s higher in fat than a chicken breast, it’s still a nutritious protein source that can be incorporated into a healthy diet in moderation.” Australian cooking website taste.com.au provides a list of inspiring duck recipes, from salad to rice and noodle bowls.
According to Healthline, eggs are “incredibly nutritious.” After all, “a whole egg contains all the nutrients required to turn a single cell into a baby chicken.” Eggs are packed with vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. They are high in cholesterol, but don’t adversely affect blood cholesterol levels for most people. They are rich in so-called “good” cholesterol and choline, a little-known nutrient that is used to build cell membranes; they’re also linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. They need no introduction at the breakfast table, but can also be used any time of day in soups, sandwiches, pasta dishes and baked goods.
Fiddleheads are the curled leaves of the young ostrich fern, which grows most abundantly in eastern Canada. They exist in their curled form for only about two weeks in May, during which they make regular appearances on dinner tables in many parts of Canada and in the Pacific Northwest. The ferns “have been consumed for centuries in New Brunswick, Maine and Japan,” the Canadian Encyclopedia explains. The ferns are usually boiled or steamed before serving, although they can also be served fried, roasted or pickled. They are rich in vitamins A and C, niacin and riboflavin. The Food Network recommends tossing the cooked ferns into tarts, soups or salads. Eating them raw is not recommended.
Yes, grasshoppers are edible, and in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia, they’re considered a real treat! According to WebMD, the insects are high in protein. When TIME asked chefs about the culinary potential of grasshoppers, the magazine received recipes for “bacon” bits, a garlicky Mexican bar snack, tacos, a cocktail garnish, a unique guacamole and a “grasshopper almond flour” used in cakes. One chef described the taste of the bugs (known as chapulines in Mexican cooking) as “earthy and grassy.”
Humans have used honey as food and medicine for thousands of years. Honey also has natural antibacterial properties and is effective against dozens of strains of bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella. It’s also effective as a cough suppressant and a sore throat soother. Some studies suggest it works better than glucose or sugar as an energy booster for endurance athletes. In the kitchen, it can be used in (or on top of) bread and cakes, and in hot drinks, but also as a garnish for salads and savoury snacks and a flavour enhancer for curries.
If you’ve been to Ethiopia, or eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant, you’re probably already familiar with injera. “It’s the national staple and the base of almost every meal,” travel website Lonely Planet explains. “It is spread out like a large, thin pancake, and food is simply heaped on top of it.” Rolls of the spongy flatbread are usually arranged around the rest of the food, waiting to be ripped apart with diners’ fingers and turned into edible scoops. Injera is made with teff, a tiny grain that flourishes in the highlands of Ethiopia, and briefly fermented. On its own, it has a sour taste that doesn’t agree with every palate or stomach; however, according to Lonely Planet, it “contrasts beautifully with the fiery sauces it’s normally served with.” According to Healthline, the teff flour that injera is made from is naturally gluten-free and a good source of protein and minerals, including magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Spicy jalapeno peppers are one of the most common types of peppers in Mexican cuisine. They also have a long list of health benefits, which are thought to be derived from capsaicin, the same chemical compound that makes jalapenos spicy. One study cited by WebMD shows that people who ate hot peppers several times a week “were 13% less likely to die during the 19-year study than those who ate few to no peppers. Researchers think capsaicin’s role in promoting blood flow and preventing obesity may contribute.” If you have a large supply of jalapenos on hand, hot pepper blog Chili Pepper Madness has some suggestions for how to make the most of them in the kitchen, including pickling your peppers, roasting them, making your own salsa or tossing them into soups. Jalapenos are considered a medium-hot pepper, with pungency ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units—a far cry from their spicier cousins, the habanero (100,000-350,000), the tongue-searing South Asian ghost pepper (800,000 +) and the genetically engineered Carolina Reaper (2,000,000 +).
According to Healthline, kale is “one of the most nutritious plant foods in existence.” It is high in vitamins A, C and K and contains a long list of minerals. A cup of raw kale contains more vitamin C than an orange. Kale also contains flavonoids, which, studies suggest, have “powerful heart-protective, blood pressure-lowering, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-depressant and anti-cancer effects” and antioxidants which have been shown to strengthen eyesight. The Old Farmer’s Almanac describes it as a hardy plant which grows well in traditional vegetable gardens. Food magazine Bon Appétit has dozens of ideas on what to do with kale, from smoothies to salads to pasta sauce.
As Healthline states, lentils are “an inexpensive way of getting a wide range of nutrients.” They’re high in B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, as well as in fibre, which supports digestive health, and protein, which makes them a great meat substitute for vegetarians. Eating lentils has also been associated with a lower risk of heart disease. It’s best to pre-soak lentils before cooking. The Food Network provides plenty of inspiration for cooking your lentils—try them in chili, salads and Indian-inspired dishes. They can also be used to create vegetarian or vegan takes on burgers or shepherd’s pie.
Moose meat is a delicacy in many northern First Nations communities in Canada, and also in Alaska. The meat is eaten in steaks, sausages and even on pizza, according to Gastro Obscura. One Alaskan cook interviewed by food blog Epicurious, Suzanne Bishop, says the meat is dense, gamey, not particularly fatty, and tastes like the moose’s habitat smells. For many Indigenous cooks, the nose is the best part; the hair and skin are carefully burnt off over a fire, and the meat of the nose is soaked in salt water and then slow-cooked in a stew, eaten on its own or made into a terrine (jellied moose nose), the flavour of which has been likened to corned beef. Moose bologna has been spotted in some butcher shops in Newfoundland. Bishop puts her moose meat in tacos, sausages and stews. (In the event you see “moose milk” on a restaurant or bar menu, know that it didn’t come out of a moose’s udder—it’s a high-octane eggnog, often with coffee or Kahlúa added, that has its origins in the Canadian military.)
Nectarines are a juicy summer fruit, about the size of apples, related to peaches but without the distinctive fuzzy skin of a peach. According to the BBC Good Food portal, nectarines “have a good nutritional profile, containing lots of vitamins and minerals, including beta-carotene, which gives them their yellow-red colour” and which can be converted by the body into vitamin A, needed for optimal skin, eye and immune health. They also contain folate, and minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. Nectarines also have a polyphenol called gallic acid that “is currently being researched for its potential health benefits in a number of conditions including diabetes, certain cancers, brain health and obesity.” Like peaches, nectarines can be eaten raw, but also used in desserts, jams, salads, salsas, drinks and as a meat garnish.
If you’ve ever tried raw oysters, you most likely either love them or hate them; their fishy, salty flavour and distinctive texture aren’t for everyone. However, according to dietitian Julia Zumpano of the Cleveland Clinic, it’s “hard to beat all the health benefits of oysters from a nutritional standpoint.” They’re low in calories, high in protein and rich in vitamin D, vitamin B12, copper, zinc, selenium and iron. They’re also purported to be an aphrodisiac, although Zumpano says that assertion isn’t necessarily backed up by science. Enjoy them raw with a generous squirt of lemon juice, fried, roasted, grilled or in soups and stews.
Pickles are thought to have originated in India as far back as 2000 BCE. As PBS explains, pickles “are created by immersing fresh fruits or vegetables in an acidic liquid or saltwater brine until they are no longer considered raw or vulnerable to spoilage.” Although many different fruits and vegetables can be pickled, including beets, peppers, ginger, green beans and even cherries, cucumbers are what often comes to mind when we think of pickles. Classic dill pickles are easy to make in your kitchen, if you have cucumbers, garlic, dill, vinegar, salt, clean glass jars and a bit of time and space. The resulting pickles can be used to jazz up sandwiches, salads, cocktails, and even (somewhat controversially) pizza!
Quinoa is a seed native to the Andes Mountains of South America, where it has been a staple of local cuisine for centuries. It has been described as a superfood. According to LiveScience, it’s “a good source of protein, fiber, iron, copper, thiamin and vitamin B6” and “an excellent source of magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and folate”; it also has more protein than most grains. It is gluten-free, rich in fibre and promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Boil it and serve it on its own with seasoning as a side dish, or put it in soups and salads (pictured). The Food Network has some ideas.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, roughly half of the world’s population relies on rice as a staple food. The earliest archaeological evidence of rice cultivation dates back as far as 7000 BCE in China. Rice is technically “the seed of an aquatic grass” which grows underwater. According to WebMD, white and brown rice are the same plant; with white rice, the bran has been polished away and with brown rice it has been left on. WebMD says that brown rice is the choice for maximum nutrition. Brown rice supports heart health, reduces the risk of cancer and aids digestion. It is rich in vitamins B1 and B6 and several minerals. According to HuffPost, brown rice has a nuttier, chewier taste than white rice. It can be fried, used in soups, salads or pilaf, or pressed into veggie burgers.
Various types of seaweed have been cooked and eaten for centuries in Asia, in Britain and Ireland, and among North American Indigenous people on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. According to Serious Eats, several different varieties of seaweed are edible. Nori (pictured) is the smooth, crisp, relatively mild seaweed that many North Americans have discovered through sushi. Kelp is meaty, flavourful and used in soups in Korea and Japan. Wakame is described as “delicate and lightly sweet,” prized in soups and salads. Dulse is chewy, with a taste that has been described as bacon-like, and can be eaten raw or fried as a snack, crumbled into smoothies, soups or other dishes, or sprinkled on popcorn. Arame is “mildly sweet” and looks like dark vermicelli; it can be rehydrated and used in salads or stir-fries. Seaweed is a good source of vitamins and minerals and is also rich in iodine.
The first wild tomatoes grew in the Andes Mountains of South America; they were later domesticated in Mexico and spread to Europe by Spanish colonizers. Tomatoes are now grown commercially around the world. According to WebMD, tomatoes are rich in a substance called lycopene, which supports cell growth; they are also a source of potassium, vitamins B and E and other nutrients. Around the world, tomatoes are eaten raw and processed into juices, soups and sauces. Cooking Light has a list of more than 40 ideas for what to do if you have a sudden oversupply of tomatoes—from bright summer salads to savoury pies.
Ube is a purple yam popular in Filipino cuisine. As BBC Travel explains, it’s used in rice porridge, ice cream and other desserts, such as sapin-sapin, where it is layered with sticky rice and coconut milk, halo-halo (crushed ice with tapioca pearls and other toppings) and ube halaya (pictured), a classic Filipino dessert made by boiling mashed ube with sweetened milk and butter. According to the BBC, the tuber’s “starchy texture easily absorbs different aromas—the richness of cream, for example, or the woodiness of coconut—while also subtly offering its own unique nuttiness.” In recent years, ube has enjoyed growing popularity, showing up in cookies and cakes around the world and even in lager in China. “I think the trend is driven by a lot of Instagram posts,” one London-based Filipino chef speculated to the BBC. Ube is also nutritious, rich in carbs, potassium and vitamin C.
Ube isn’t the only naturally occurring purple food—violets are also edible. According to HGTV, violet leaves and flowers can be harvested in early and mid-spring. Their flavour has been described as “subtle but quite enjoyable.” They can be eaten raw in salads and on sandwiches, or the leaves can be cooked and served like spinach. The flowers can be candied (pictured) and served as an edible garnish on “cakes, custards, ice cream and other desserts.” The leaves and flowers both contain vitamin C. HGTV cautions that it’s easy to confuse violets with certain other plants, so if you go out foraging for violets, make sure you know what you’re looking for.
The watermelon is native to tropical Africa and cultivated around the world, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. It contains “vitamin A and some vitamin C” and is usually eaten raw, the encyclopedia explains, although the rind is sometimes preserved and pickled. Watermelons have been “depicted in early Egyptian art,” indicating that they have been cultivated for at least 4,000 years. “Domestication and selective breeding have resulted in intensely sweet large fruits with tender flesh and fewer seeds,” according to the encyclopedia. In addition to eating watermelon raw, you can grill it, use the juice for sweet drinks, smoothies or cocktails, or make it into sorbet or even salsa.
XO Sauce is the name of a luxurious, spicy seafood sauce popular in Hong Kong. According to Gastro Obscura, the name was inspired by the XO (“extra old”) label on high-end cognac. The sauce is also high-end: “Whole diver scallops, which can cost upwards of $50 per pound, are the signature ingredient that earn this saucy sensation its expensive name,” according to Gastro Obscura. Chinese home cooks make versions of the sauce in their own kitchens, frying the scallops with “shrimp, chilis, cured ham, shallots, and garlic to toasty, savory perfection.” Some fancy versions also contain cod roe or baby anchovies. Gastro Obscura says the blend can bring out “sweet, salty, and savory elements in dishes that would otherwise lack a dynamic range.”
Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit, usually associated with Japanese cuisine. According to The New Yorker, the fruits are “among the most exquisite members of the citrus family: more floral than an orange and nearly as tart as a lime.” Fresh yuzu is hard to find in most of the United States; yuzu from abroad cannot be imported in the country, and American yuzu is rare and expensive “outside the farmers’-market radius of the California coast.” Processed yuzu products are easier to come by; the fruit has been infused into hot sauce, vinegar, vodka and marmalade. In Japan, it’s a key ingredient in ponzu, a soy sauce blend that “often accompanies cold noodles or fried pork cutlets”; it is also added to cocktails and used in yuzu kosho, a spicy-sour condiment, as well as serving as a flavouring for candy and potato chips.
Zunda is another popular Japanese flavouring. It’s a salty-sweet, bright green soybean paste made by boiling baby soybeans until they are soft. “Seasoned with sugar and salt, the resulting paste is sweet, salty, and a little crunchy,” Gastro Obscura describes. Zunda is a symbol of the city of Sendai, where it is used in mochi and other traditional desserts. Zunda mochi can be homemade with frozen raw soybeans (edamame), salt, sugar and store-bought, unsweetened mochi.