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Jicama: a sign of changing culinary seasons in Mexico

Karen Hursh Graber

Jicama is a root crop. Although it isn't pretty, it's crisp texture is delightful.
© Daniel Wheeler, 2009
Jicama
© Daniel Wheeler, 2009

After returning home to Oaxaca from a recent two-week trip out of the country, I walked up to the corner produce stand to check out possibilities for dinner. The first thing that caught my eye was a neatly arranged pile of jicama, not because they are especially attractive (they're not) but because jicama is one of the signs that the seasons are changing and the produce that grew during the rainy season is being harvested for fall and winter. Peanuts, tangerines and sugar cane, all of which are elements of both Dia de los Muertos altars and Christmas season piñatas cannot be far behind. The jicama (Pachyrizus erosus) is a tuberous legume grown for its turnip-shaped roots, which can grow to a weight of fifty pounds, although those found in the markets average from three to five pounds. A perennial that grows from seeds into a trifoliate-leaved vine about twenty feet long, the jicama needs several years of growth before the tubers get big enough to harvest. From November through early spring, jicama is a common street snack in Mexico, cut into sticks and served raw with lime juice and powdered chile.

A native of Mexico, Central and South America and Asia, the jicama has been part of the Mexican diet for centuries. Culinary anthropologist Sophie M. Coe tells us that jicama "was almost always eaten raw and praised for its cool crispness" by the Aztecs. The Mayans, in whose diet root crops were prominent, mention jicama in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, in which a couple of riddles are told about it, one of which compares the tuberoot to the calf of a woman's leg and peeling the jicama with tucking back a skirt. Coe suggests that the rounded yellowish objects on a Classic Maya vase may have depicted jicamas, rather than the commonly perceived tamales.

Although the Maya appear to have had vivid imaginations when it came to riddles, they and other pre-Hispanic people did not seem to have prepared jicama in any way but to eat it raw, possibly because it was, and is, prized for its crisp texture. As for the flavor, it has been compared to a cross between an apple and a potato although, in countries where it is commonly eaten, it is appreciated for its own delicate flavor. This makes it a perfect vehicle for transporting spicy salsas and dips from bowl to taste buds.

Although jicama is grown in Texas, most of what is sold north of the border is imported from Mexico and South America. Available in the U.S. from December until June, it is frequently used in stir-fries, especially as a substitute for water chestnuts, because it does not lose its crispness. As an accompaniment to dips and salsas, it should be cut into sticks. For fruit salads such as the western Mexican pico de gallo, it should be cut into cubes. It is ideal for crudite trays because it does not discolor, even after a few hours on the buffet table. It can be marinated and served with olives on a relish tray, and leftover sticks of jicama can easily be added to a sauté of other vegetables, such as carrots and green beans. It may be steamed or microwaved on its own and served with butter and honey, or added raw, cubed, to chicken salad or potato salad. To "Mexicanize" a potato salad as a side dish with fajitas, add some cubed jicama, cilantro and black beans and use an oil rather than mayonnaise dressing. The only rule that always applies is to peel its dusty-brown colored skin before preparation and consumption.

When purchasing jicamas, look for a smooth, firm skin with no cracks or insect damage. The flesh is crisp and white, with either a watery juice (agua) or a milky juice (leche). Although sometimes called "Mexican yam bean" or even "Chinese potato," the jicama is becoming more and more well known in the north in places outside of California and Texas, where it has been appreciated for years. Nutritionally, it is a good source of potassium and vitamin C (25% of RDA) and half a cup of cubed jicama contains only 39 calories. Like other root crops, it has a fairly long shelf life and can be stored up to two months at 55º -59º F, leaving plenty of time to try the following jicama recipes.

Pico de Gallo: Western Mexican Fruit Salad
Although in much of Mexico pico de gallo refers to a raw table salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions and chile, in the western part of the country it is a fruit salad that combines jicama with other seasonal offerings, especially citrus. The jicama absorbs the flavor of the citrus juices while remaining crunchy, making this salad a fresh-tasting accompaniment to a Mexican brunch.

Ingredients:
4 large navel oranges, peeled, seeded, quartered and sliced
2 jicamas, peeled and cubed
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cubed
2 cups seedless grapes (cubed mangos may be used when in season) juice of 1 lime
powdered arbol chile to taste

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Refrigerate until serving time. Serves 8.


Jicama con Vinagreta al Ajo: Jicama with Garlic Vinaigrette
Jicama is good on a relish tray with black and green olives and strips of red and yellow bell peppers. Serve the vinaigrette on the side for dipping at a buffet or spooning over at a sit down dinner.

Ingredients:
1 large jicama, peeled and cut into sticks the size and shape of potatoes for French fries
2/3 cup good olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed in a garlic press salt to taste
black and green olives
red and yellow bell pepper strips
paprika

Place the peeled and cut up jicama in a bowl of ice water for about 15-20 minutes before serving. Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Using a wire whisk, combine the olive oil, lime juice, garlic and salt, beating until the ingredients have emulsified. Arrange the jicama slices, olives and bell pepper strips on a relish tray or oval dish. Sprinkle the jicama slices with paprika. Serve the vinaigrette separately.


Ensalada de Camarones con Jicama: Shrimp and Jicama Salad
This dish is typical of the Pacific coast region of México. It can be served alone as an appetizer or as a light luncheon dish with a cream soup and French bread or bolillos.

Ingredients:
1 pound freshly cooked and peeled small shrimp
2 jicamas, peeled and shredded
1 fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
½ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
salt to taste
tomato wedges for garnish

Place all ingredients except tomato wedges in a bowl and toss gently to combine. Serve on salad plates, on a bed of shredded lettuce if desired. Garnish with tomato wedges. Serves 4.

Published or Updated on: November 1, 2004 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2004
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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