Yacon might be new to most dinner plates but those clever Peruvians have been eating it for quite some time. This sweet nashi pear-like tuber is sweeping through the super-food crowd faster than a dose of goji berries. If you haven’t already, you will soon be hearing about yacon syrup as the next non-sugar sugar.
But don’t let the hype put you off, yacon is a lot easier to grow than goji berries and gives you a much better return for your labors. I planted one small yacon rhizome late last winter in an old concrete wash tub and harvested a big bucket full of tubers this autumn when the tops had started to die off.
Yacon is a relative of the sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke and the little rhizomes at the base of the stalks do look like Jerusalem artichokes. It is a perennial and has a small yellow flower at the end of the growing season. If you leave it in the ground the tops will die down over winter and sprout away again from the rhizomes in spring. You can dig the tubers up like spuds. Yacon tubers keep pretty well in a cool, dark spot or you can also leave them in the ground and dig a few as you need them.
If you dig up the whole plant you can break up the rhizomes for replanting. If you’re not replanting till spring, keep them heeled into some dirt or stored a bucket of damp earth over the winter. Yacon will not grow from tubers like spuds, you need a little bit of the rhizome. My one plant produced a dozen plantable rhizomes in one growing season.
So why so super? Well folks, the good thing about yacon is, without too much puritanical nutritional speak, it is full of water and fructooligosaccharide – a sugar that tastes sweet but isn’t metabolized by our body. This makes yacon great for diabetics and dieters alike. The Coke Zero of root tubers.
More interesting still, even though we don’t digest these sugars, the beneficial bacteria in our guts can’t get enough of them. They are a prebiotic, providing food for the probiotic good guys in our intestines. If I add “digestive health”, “gut flora” and “colon” to this paragraph I think we’ll have a yacon nutritional bingo.
Anyway enough of that – what really matters is how to grow them, what do they taste like and how do you eat them? Yacon like rich, loose soil and plenty of water. The tops can grow up to 2m tall and they like a good lot of water to support the growth of the tubers which can get up to a kilo in size. My plant would droop if I didn’t keep the water up to it over summer, but then it was in a tub.
Yacon tubers are easy to scrape or peel and they have a nice uniform skin with no fiddly eyes or nobbly bits. They’re not starchy like spuds, they’re watery and crunchy like nashi pear. You can roast yacon and it caramelizes well in a bit of butter which is surprising, but they don’t go fluffy – think more like roasted swede (or glazed baby carrots if you’re not from South of the border).
To be honest, I think cooking them is a bit of a shame and my favorite way to eat yacon is raw in salads, wraps, and spicy salsas. Grated, cubed or julienned yacon is a fantastic flavor absorber for whatever you put with it. Peruvians farmers agree, growing yacon around the edges of fields to provide thirst-quenching sweet refreshments at smoko time.
If you’re a hipster paleo foodie you’ll probably find yacon makes a fine smoothie with your Peruvian maca powder and a sprinkling of kale. Do let me know how you get on with that!
A word of caution… just because it’s from Peru doesn’t mean it is going to make you “perform, look and feel amazing”. If someone raves on to you about Peruvian Cuy you can tell them you don’t fancy spit-roasted guinea pig – even if it is a national dish.