It goes without saying, but before rampant industrialization and commercialization of food, there was only the people and their land, with the former scouring the latter in search of sustained sustenance and equanimus equilibrium. At the same time that technology is shrinking the world, cultural nostalgia and fetishization of the past imbues new interest in foods of yore, more and lesser-known items appear on the shelves of stores with increasing frequency.
Of particular intrigue to health food shoppers are the quasi-comically named subcategories of “superfoods”, foods not simply content with being edible and delicious, but ones that go above and beyond the call of duty: valiantly fighting off ferocious free radical foes, miraculously moderating malicious moods and boldly beautifying badly blemished skin.
A sort of native-chic and indigenous aura exists around these, as they often originate far back, from the native inhabitants of the land. But once that level of artifice is peeled away and the foods are examined for what they actually offer, it is remarkable to see the interaction of nature and nutrition achieved.
One of the more exciting and effective superfoods to have been revisited and revised to modern needs is the Yacon root. While native to Peru and stretching back in history to the Moche era (100 – 700 AD), its caught on and currently cultivated through North America, from Maine to New Mexico and even Oregon, to the rejoicing of diabetics worldwide. Why? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The yacon is a distant relative of the sunflower. But while sunflowers are known for their seeds, it is instead the delicate yacon tubers that are prized. Hiding beneath the ground, these engorged white storage organs look a bit like an ugly albino potato, a homely exterior that belies their tasty sweet flesh. Crisp and juicy, the longer they stay in the ground, the sweeter they get. With texture like an apple and a full flavor redolent of melon, legend places their origin high in the Andes with uses ranging from the ceremonial, linked both to Day of the Dead and winter solstice Inti Raymi, Festival of the Sun, to thirst quenchers, dug from the ground during long bouts of travel for refreshment.
Early gastro anthropologists wrote the root off as merely a lump of sugary nothingness, but in recent years, examinations of the chemical compounds making up these sugars have lead to exciting new low-glycemic uses.
While other roots and tubers store their carbohydrates in the form of glucose, yacon stores them as inulin. The human body lacks the enzymes to process inulin, so it simply passes through the body un-metabolized, with almost no calories, of particular interest to diabetics. This type of sugar also feeds the healthy pre-biotic bacteria in the large intestine, leading to increased absorption of a number of vitamins and foods, elimination of toxic compounds and clinical studies have even shown increased bone density, of particular interest to almost everyone.
Dried yacon slices are perhaps the most delectable preparation, the sweetness is diminished through dehydration and they serve as a nice snacking alternative to chips. A tea is also made and works to moderate blood sugars and, in the same vein, yacon syrup is a low-glycemic sweetener a bit like molasses.
The indigenous people of Peru have proven a prodigious source for foods in the past, namely myriad varietals of potatoes, and the recent utilization and supply of superfoods from there, Maca, Camu Camu, Sacha Inchi, provide an valuable case study in the integration of indigenous foods to the modern menu.
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Leading image: yacon chip
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