In Mexico and in Texas it is not unusual to see people snacking on something that looks like raw potatoes coated with paprika. Actually, the snack is a crunchy root vegetable called jicama (pronounced hik-a-ma) that is typically peeled, cut into slices that resemble French fries, and eaten raw with a sprinkling of chili powder and a squeeze of lime juice.
What Is Jicama?
Known to the Nahuatl-speaking people of Mexico as xicamatl, the jicama, or Mexican turnip, is a member of a group of plants known by the peculiar designation, yam beans. Jicama is actually a member of the Bean Family, and produces bean pods that look something like lima beans, but it's the root of the plant that is most commonly consumed. There are two varieties of jicama root, the jicama de agua, which produces a watery juice, and the jicama de leche, which produces a milky sap. Most Mexicans and North Americans prefer the jicama de agua, which has clear, sweet juices in a crisp root.
Jicama is also grown in the Philippines, where it is known as singkamas, and is used to make a salad called lumpia. The vegetable is also cultivated in northern Vietnam, where it is known as cây củ đậu and used to make pies. Chinese expats across Southeast Asia call it dòushǔ (豆薯) or liáng shǔ (涼薯) in Mandarin, and sai got (沙葛) in Cantonese. Jicama is consumed in Malaysia and Singapore too, mainly in salads called rojak and yusheng. In Thailand and Indonesia, the jicama is consumed at fruit bars and used in various spicy fruit salads. In Laos, a smaller variety of jicama, called man pao, is peeled and eaten like an apple. There is another vegetable in Ecuador and Peru that is related to the Jerusalem artichoke (a plant in the Sunflower Family) that is also called jicama.
The jicamas you see at the market are dwarfed by those that are sometimes found on farms in the tropics. Allowed to grow to maturity, the jicama vine can climb up to five meters (15 feet) on vertical supports, and roots weighing as much as 23 kilograms (50 pounds) have been recorded. It takes at least nine months to grow a full-sized jicama, but most commercial plantings are harvested in just five months, yielding tubers about the size of a fist weighing less than a pound (450 grams) each.
What Are the Key Nutritional Benefits of Jicama?
Jicama has a very low-glycemic index, and is a low-carb food. A cup of jicama contains about 12 grams of carbohydrates, with more than half its carb in the form of fibre. A cup of jicama only costs you about 60 calories.
Although a serving of jicama contains a significant amount of vitamin A, plus about half a day's supply of vitamin C, and modest amount of potassium, its main value regarding diet is as a source of the complex carbohydrate inulin, not to be confused with the human hormone insulin. Inulin is a “prebiotic” food source for the probiotic, friendly bacteria that live in the gut. Jicama is actually more beneficial than yogurt for certain strains of bacteria.
It is important to know that you should never ever eat any part of the jicama plant except the root. The leaves, stems, and seeds are all poisonous. Jicama “beans” are used to make rotenone, an organic poison used to control fire ants and garden pests that pose a deadly threat to other invertebrates and to fish.
What Health Issues Are Especially Responsive to Jicama?
Researchers are just beginning to explore the healing potential of jicama. A research team in Japan, for example, has found that a hot-water extract of the vegetable stimulates the immune system to fight bacterial infections, and without activating the parts of the immune system that cause allergies and autoimmune conditions. Jicama is one of the ingredients in a Thai over-the-counter herbal remedy called Kwao Krua, which is used to treat infections, “but there is better evidence that the kudzu root (which the remedy contains) is the anti-infective herb in the mixture”. There is fibre in jicama too, but it is unusually low in phytate, a chemical many high-fibre foods contain that interferes with the absorption of iron and zinc.
The bottom line is that there aren't any health conditions that are cured by jicama, but eating it on a regular basis is good for maintaining regularity and avoiding indigestion, similar to eating probiotic yogurt.
Where Does Jicama Fit in the Families of Vegetables?
Jicama, surprisingly enough, is a legume, in the same plant family as beans and peas, hence its green bean-like flavour.
What Is the Best Way to Eat Jicama Raw?
If it grows together, it goes together, the produce experts at Melissa's tell us. They recommend a fruit salsa of papaya, mango, and jicama in tiny cubes, with or without a lemon juice dressing.
Los Angeles-based personal chef Jennifer Martello, recommends using jicama slices as a gluten-free alternative to crackers. Martello tops jicama squares with hummus or a creamy black bean dip, and then garnishes them with grated carrots for a healthy canapé.
Also in Los Angeles, ‘Homegirl Café and Catering' uses jicama as a crunchy addition to coleslaw, but recommends adding some lemon or grapefruit juice to the salad so that the jicama keeps its appealing white colour.
There are many seasonings for raw jicama beyond the usual red pepper and lime juice. Jicama pairs well with cilantro, ginger, lemon juice, orange slices or orange juice, red onion, pico de gallo, salsa, or soy sauce. You can add it to chutneys served with fish, or eat jicama Filipino-style with shrimp paste, rice vinegar, and salt. Try slicing it thin and dip it into salsa instead of chips.
What Is the Best Way to Use Jicama in Salads?
Add thin slices of jicama to fruit salads or use it as one of the vegetable ingredients in spring rolls. Serve jicama with the yusheng (literally “prosperity toss”), a salad common in Southeast Asia. Combine it with sashimi and ginger, without the rice or nori seaweed wrapper.
What Is the Best Way to Cook Jicama?
Devotees of Mark Sisson's website ‘Mark's Daily Apple' probably have seen recipes for using jicama as a substitute for higher-carb foods. Sisson shreds jicama and fries it in bacon or chicken fat to make faux hash browns. Some of his readers pulse jicama in a food processor to produce a rice-like consistency which is then boiled as a rice substitute.
Garlic, red peppers, and jicama sticks offer different taste combinations for stir fry. You can also make fried egg rolls with chicken or pork, coconut hearts, peanuts, and jicama.
Just be aware that when you boil jicama, it swells. In fact, each gram of starch in this low-carb root can absorb 54 grams of water, thus doubling the size of the jicama as a whole during the cooking process.
What Are Some Ways to Make Jicama Juice More Interesting?
Jicama is great in juices too. Because the juice has a green bean flavour, you may want to add it to celery or carrot and then add strongly flavoured vegetables like kale. You might also want to try jicama with cantaloupe, ginger, and mint to make a creamy, spicy melon juice.
How Do I Get Kids to Like Jicama?
Use cookie cutters to cut out jicama stars, circles, triangles, or cartoon shapes. Serve jicama with colourful dips made with strawberries or tropical fruits.
How Long Does Jicama Keep?
The root will keep for up to two months in dry conditions at temperatures between 12°C and 16°C (53°F and 60°F), but it will get mushy if kept in a refrigerator. Don't refrigerate unpeeled jicama, and don't try to keep jicama slices for more than two days, not even in the cooler.
Tips for Frugal Use of Jicama
If you eat, and find yourself out of water chestnuts, then you can use jicama instead. Jicama's texture will stand up to high heat, and contributes a similar sweetness to water chestnuts in the finished dish.
The most important thing to remember when buying jicama at the market is to avoid washing it and tossing it into the crisper. Put the unwashed jicama root into a vegetable bin, and then store in the coolest place in your home until you are ready to wash, peel, and eat it. Any pre-sliced jicama should be eaten right away.
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