Climate scientists studying habitats around the world say thousands of people may one day have to change the daily routines they’ve adopted for centuries.

A team of researchers at the University of Arizona is focusing their attention on the foods those cultures and communities cherish. They want to preserve the precious recipes that have become established family traditions.

At the same time, though, the group leading the ‘Tasting Tomorrow’ project wants to adapt those step-by-step instructions.

By testing in the fields and in the kitchen, they hope to find substitute ingredients that could both mimic the feeling in the original dish and better thrive in a new climate.

Ecologist Erin Riordan works as a conservation scientist for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. As a member of the Tasting Tomorrow team, Riordan has honed in on a list of fruits and crops people in the Sonoran Desert have harvested for hundreds of years.

For her, it helps to think of the desert region itself as a massive laboratory to test foods that flourish in a hot, arid climate.

“If we can help provide solutions that are broadly applicable,” she said, “then we can really help move people into a space of not just surviving in a hotter, drier world, but actually thriving and living healthy lives.”

Riordan said Southern Arizona communities can offer these solutions through foods like the domesticated tepary bean. These edible seeds, she said, may one day help families in central Spain keep a classic dish that’s formed part of their cultural heritage.

“We don’t want to lose these (foods and dishes),” Riordan said, referring both to plants that grow in Arizona and dishes that are important to the city of Burgos, an ocean and thousands of miles away from Tucson.

“A good way to preserve some of these foods is through use.”

The scientists moving Tasting Tomorrow forward think in 50 years’ time, Burgos will resemble the hot, dry climate that defines life in Southern Arizona.

If it gets harder to grow the Spanish red beans used to make the traditional stew called

olla podrida,

Riordan said the research team has already tried a substitute ingredient. The tepary bean, she said, has some similarities to the pinto beans people buy in grocery stores.

“They’re a smaller bean… they’re really high in protein and they are incredibly drought and heat tolerance,” Riordan said, “So they’re really just this fantastic poster child of what it looks like to feed yourself in a hot and dry world.”

Renowned chefs, like James Beard award winner Janos Wilder, are a great resource for the Tasting Tomorrow project. Riordan said Wilder and his culinary peers can pinpoint the closest textures to that original recipe.

Tasting Tomorrow has also tried the substitute approach for a Spanish blood sausage recipe also enjoyed in Burgos. In this version, the cooks swapped out rice, and instead used Sonoran white wheat berries. For Riordan, the choice to use this wheat brings Arizona’s history to a full-circle moment.

“Here’s something that came from Spain (in the late 1600s), from the region where we’re looking at this dish. It’s (now) become adapted to our hotter, drier conditions, and we may be bringing it back to them.”