Posts Tagged ‘Indigenous Vegetable of the Week’


Pewa: Small Fruits that Pack a Huge Punch

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By Molly Redfield

The pewa (Bactris gasipaes or peach palm in English), while just about the size of a Ping-Pong ball, is a nutrient-dense fruit that provides more protein than an avocado, which contains approximately 3 grams of protein. Growing in South and Central America on palm trees that reach heights of over 20 meters, pewa is known as the “noble Panamanian fruit.” This nickname refers to the fact that 92 percent of its seeds, pulp, and skin are usable.

Pewa is an important staple food that grows across Central and South America.
(Photo credit: Washington & Jefferson College)

With a nutrient value similar to a hen’s egg, minus the cholesterol, pewa is an important food source for many birds, notably macaws, parrots, and parakeets. Its high fiber, vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, and calcium content have also made it an important staple food for many Indigenous Peoples. For centuries, Indigenous groups have used pewa in jellies, compotes, flours and edible oils. Preparation of this fruit includes boiling, often in salted water, to remove the trypsin enzymes under its skin that would block protein digestion. After stewing, the pewa fruit is peeled and flavored with honey or salt, dried, smoked, or cooked into other foods.

Indigenous communities in Central and South America have also developed preservation methods for keeping this perishable fruit available during the offseason. After cooking the pulp, they would mash it and then store it underground in leaves. A month later, the pewa would be fit to consume and Indigenous communities could store them for roughly one year. Another way Indigenous groups have stored pewa is through creating a fermented alcoholic beverage with the fruit. Among various Indigenous Amazonian groups, this drink, called chica, is still used in various religious ceremonies and rituals.

In Costa Rica, stores sell whole pewa fruits, pewa flour, and pewa soups, and the fruit is also available in infant formula. Pewa’s popularity is currently increasing on global markets because it is a gluten free substitute for wheat flour. And according to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (APGRI), expansion of the fruit’s commercial success could lead to economic development for farming communities across South and Central America.

Without question, this small, inconspicuous fruit surely packs a huge punch.

For more information on pewa click here.

Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.


Papalo: Smells like a skunk, but adds unique flavor

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By Catherine Ward

Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale subsp. Macrocephalum) is still a relatively obscure plant to many Americans; however it is slowly gaining popularity in New York kitchens as immigrant farmers increasingly grow the herb and sell it in markets. Papalo is an ancient plant that is found throughout Mexico, the American Southwest and other South American countries. The stems and leaves of papalo were used as a condiment in Mexico before the colonization of the Spanish in the 16th century. Today, papalo is so popular in the state of Puebla, Mexico that people keep a bouquet of the herb on tables so it can be added fresh to dishes as desired. The name papalo is derived from the Nahuatl language and means butterfly, which could be attributed to the butterfly-shaped leaves of the herb.

People living in Mexico, Central, and South America commonly use papalo as medicine for high blood pressure and stomach disorders (Photo credit: Chef Jacques Gautier)

Papalo has a very unique flavor that has been described as tasting like a mixture of cilantro, argula and mint. And some people claim that the herb smells like laundry detergent or soap. The leaves of the plant have oil glands that produce chemicals used to deter insects, which is the reason behind the very distinct smell and flavor of papalo. The plant is often referred to as mampuitu in Spanish, which translates to skunk in honor of its pungent aroma.

The herb is usually eaten raw as a garnish in many central Mexican dishes and is particularly favored on cemitas (a type of Mexican sandwich). Papalo is also believed to have medicinal benefits according to some cultures. People living in Mexico, Central and South America commonly use papalo as medicine for high blood pressure and stomach disorders. In Bolivia, the Chacobo Indians utilized the herb on infected injuries to reduce swelling. The Quechua people consume papalo daily as they believe it reduces high blood pressure and treats liver problems. While Papalo is an interesting herb that is steadily gaining popularity in American cuisine due to its unusual flavor, it remains an important part of people’s daily diets in countries such as Mexico and Bolivia because of its medicinal properties.

Catherine Ward is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.



The Case for Cassava: A Potential Nutritional and Economic Powerhouse

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By Caitlin Aylward

After rice and corn, cassava is the third most important calorie source for people living in tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Although the cassava plant is a lesser-known crop, its rich nutritional content and powerful economic potential has many development specialists interested in the plant.

Cassava is the third most important calorie source for people living in tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Nutritionally, the cassava plant is comparable to a potato, but has a higher fiber and protein content. The cassava plant is primarily harvested for its tuberous root, which is a major source of carbohydrates for many people in the developing world, and contains vital nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. Additionally, the leaves of the cassava plant are excellent sources of vitamins, protein, and lysine, an essential amino acid.

The cassava plant grows well in tropical climates with high humidity, and is also a uniquely drought resistant crop that thrives in nutrient-poor soils. Consequently, the cassava plant does not require extra fertilizer or additional inputs, making it an ideal crop for poor farmers.

Although cassava is tolerant to drought and poor soil conditions, it is not well suited to modern farming techniques. Unlike most plants that naturally reproduce on their own, famers can only breed the cassava plant by replanting stem cuttings from parent plants (also known as vegetative reproduction), which is labor-intensive and costly. In addition, the cassava root is bulky and highly perishable, making it difficult to manage. Because of these challenges, researchers have spent less time developing the cassava plant as compared to rice, corn, and wheat.



Durian: King of Fruits or Smelly Feet?

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By Eun Jae Park

Native to tropical Southeast Asia, the durian fruit has been described by some as having an odor and taste ranging from fresh custard to a week-old corpse. Known commonly as the “King of Fruits,” this spiky, egg-shaped fruit has been a vital part of the Southeast Asian diet for centuries. Most commonly consumed raw, durian can also be boiled, fried, fermented, or roasted. Of the 300 native species, only several fruit-bearing varieties of the Durio genus are in common production in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Philippines, Burma, and Vietnam.

The durian fruit is infamous for its odor. (Photo credit: The Houston Museum of Natural Science)

Those who have encountered the durian have described their experience with the fruit as a lifelong love or hate relationship due to its unique smell and flavor. In many Southeast Asian countries, the fruit has been banned from subways and public buildings for its disagreeable odor. Early 20th-century plant explorer Otis W. Barrett described the fruit’s overpowering aroma as having strong notes of “garlic, Limburger cheese, and some spicy sort of resin.”

But Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned anthropologist from the mid- 19th century, fell in love with the durian and characterized it as “a rich custard highly flavored with almonds… but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion-sauce, sherry wine, and other incongruous dishes.”

The durian industry has expanded beyond Southeast Asia, and durian can now be found throughout the world. From small street vendor stalls in Chinatown, New York to supermarkets in Tokyo, Japan, frozen or fresh durian is now available internationally. According the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Thailand accounts for approximately half of the world’s annual durian production at 781,000 tons. China alone imported over 138,000 tons of durian from Thailand in 2010, and international demand has only grown since.

Durian lovers worldwide can now enjoy the controversial fruit without having to travel to Southeast Asia. Although durian may not be for everyone, it has certainly earned a special place in the hearts of those who appreciate its unparalleled smell and taste.



Yacón: Sunflower’s Sweet Cousin

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By Seyyada Burney

Despite its striking resemblance to sweet potatoes, the Peruvian Ground Apple, or Yacón, is part of the Asteracea, or sunflower, family. This herbaceous perennial grows to between 1.5-2 meters in height and produces both rhizomes, from which new shoots will continuously grow, and storage roots or tubers that are eaten or processed.

Newly harvested yacón can be eaten raw or processed directly. (Photo credit: Soren Holt,

Yacón roots consist of mostly water and inulin. Inulin is a naturally occurring polysaccharide or fructose that our bodies cannot absorb and so is used as a low calorie sweetener for diabetic, hyperglycemic, or simply health conscious individuals. The crisp and sweet yacón root is traditionally eaten raw, but can also be grated and squeezed through a cloth to extract juice.

Until recently, yacón cultivation occurred primarily within native regions such as Peru and Bolivia where yacón plants along field borders provided yearlong refreshments and ingredients for natural remedies. Today, however, foodies and farmers alike grow yacón in regions as diverse as the United States, Japan, and Tasmania for a multitude of uses. Yacón syrup and other yacón derivatives are gaining popularity as sweeteners and antioxidants. They also act as a prebiotic, promoting digestion in much the same way as bananas and garlic.

Many specialty food or gardening websites and blogs now offer yacón rhizomes, root, syrup, and tea as well as helpful tips on how to grow yacón or make your very own yacón cookies!

Have you ever tried to grow yacón, or use yacón syrup in your cooking? Tell us about your experience by commenting below.



Moringa: The Giving Tree

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By Elena Davert

Referred to as a “supermarket on a trunk,” moringa is potentially one of the planet’s most valuable plants. Serving not only as a reliable source of diverse foods, moringa also provides lamp oil, wood, paper, liquid fuel, skin treatments, and the means to help purify water.  But despite its multiple uses, and well-earned nickname, the tree is relatively unknown to most people in the United States.

Referred to as a “supermarket on a trunk,” moringa is potentially one of the planet’s most valuable plants. (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The moringa tree comprises 4 different edible parts: pods, leaves, seeds, and roots.  The green-bean looking pods are the most sought-after parts, not only because of their taste – similar to asparagus – but also because they are highly nutritious. They provide a good balance of amino acids and minerals and possess one of the highest vitamin C levels of any tropical vegetable.

The moringa leaves are also an excellent source of nutrition. People commonly boil the tiny leaflets and eat them like spinach.  Like the pods, the leaves contain vitamins A and C as well as more calcium than most other greens. These leaves also contain such high levels of iron that doctors frequently prescribe them for anemic patients.

Before fully mature, pods can also be picked for their soft seeds.  The seeds can be boiled and eaten like fresh peas, or fried to taste more like peanuts. Seeds can also be pressed for oil that can be used for cooking, medicinal ointments, lamp fuel, or even as an ingredient in soap. The thick, soft roots are another important food resource, and are usually used to make a condiment similar to horseradish. Boiling roots and shoot tips is also common because of their high-protein content.

Although the moringa tree is best known for its endless supply of food, one of the most innovative uses of the plant has been to treat water and waste water.  Researchers at Leicester University, UK, have found that mixing crushed moringa seeds with polluted water help settle silt and other contaminants. This is highly cost effective because the seeds can replace the expensive imported material usually used for water purification in rural areas. The seed filtered water still needs a final filtration before it is completely drinkable, but the seeds make the process easier and help other water filters last longer.

Moringa trees are also used in agroforestry and mixed cropping because the shade can protect other crops from the sun and, while smoke from household fires can pollute the air, the soft, spongy moringa wood burns cleanly with little smoke or smell, making it a more healthy source of fuel.

Elena Davert is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.