15 November 2009


Have you ever heard of a "yam bean"? Of the three cultivated species of yam bean, the first to be scientifically recorded was the Mexican species Pachyrhizus erosus. That is the species commonly known as jícama (HEE-kah-mah) in Spanish, and the one you've most likely tasted at one time or other. The jícama is obviously a root crop so why is it called a yam bean in English? First of all, the word "yam" is the common name for some species in the genus Dioscorea (family Dioscoreaceae). These are perennial herbaceous vines which originated in Africa and they are cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers (The sweet potato, "Ipomoea batatas", has traditionally been referred to as a yam but it is not part of the Dioscoreaceae family). The yam bean of Mexico, however, takes a form very similar to that of the African yam even though they are of a different family, genus, and species. They both have an underground taproot or tuberous root that resembles a tuber and a long vine that grows above ground. The "bean" part of "yam bean" stems from the fact that the yam bean seeds are produced in a pod that looks something like a bean pod but the seeds are not edible and they are purported to be rather poisonous. The vines are very long and sometimes extend twenty feet or more in length. The "tubers" can weigh up to fifty pounds or more but they are usually cultivated to reach an average market size similar to that of a small grapefruit. It is a prolific plant and somewhere around thirty-five hundred pounds or more of jícama tubers can be harvested from a single acre.

The people who live in the Mexican "Bajío" region of Guanajuato that covers much of the territory around Irapuato where I live are lucky in that the best jícama comes from the the town of San Juan de la Vega which is a small town on the Río Laja near San Miguel de Allende between the town Comonfort and the city of Celaya. Jícama is also grown in several other areas of Mexico at different elevations to ensure a year around supply for the market. At this time of year you can often see roadside jícama stands on the highway from San Miguel to Celaya just north of Comonfort. You can buy a sack that is almost too heavy to carry for about thirty pesos and it is the best jícama that you will ever have tried.

By now you can surmise that I like jícama. You are correct. I LOVE JÍCAMA! It is the best diet food that I have ever come across. Being rather rotund (to say the least), I am on a perpetual diet (or I'm supposed to be). Jícama is something that tastes good, satisfies my hunger for quite awhile, and is good for me. I have it for lunch at least two or three times per week. I like to eat it in the traditional Mexican way with lime juice and chili powder as you can see in the photo below. I can eat about two cups for lunch and not be hungry again until way into the evening. Jicama has a texture similar to water chestnuts and has a mildly sweet, nutty flavor. The sweetness comes from a combination long chain sugars called oligofructose-inulin (also called fructo-oligosaccharide). Inulin and oligofructose are not digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract; therefore, they have a reduced caloric value. They stimulate the growth of intestinal bifidobacteria (the good bacteria). They do not lead to a rise in serum glucose or stimulate insulin secretion (note that "inulin" and "insulin" are two completely different things). One cup of jícama has only fifty calories, twelve grams of carbohydrate in the form of dietary fiber, no fat, no cholesterol, and forty percent of the daily recommended dose of Vitamin C.

To eat it, I peel off the light brown skin, slice it up, cut it into smaller pieces, dowse it with lime juice, and sprinkle it liberally with a chili powder called Tajín which can be bought in any Mexican supermarket. Tajín comes in several styles but I like the classic style that contains nothing more than a combination of dried ground "chiles" (chilies) with a touch of "limón" (lime). There are no preservatives or artificial coloring added. The cool crunchiness and sweetness of the jícama, along with the bite of the lime juice and the heat of the chile gives this dish an eye opening and palate awakening flavor that I find very satisfying and not at all overbearing. There are also a lot of other things you can do with jícama. It can be steamed, baked, boiled, mashed, fried, sautéed with carrots or green beans, stir fried it with chicken or shrimp, simmered in a savory stew, eaten with guacamole or seasoned dips, or just plain cut up into squares and used in fresh fruit salads. If you haven't ever done much with jícama I suggest that you give it another look. Oh, yes, one more thing. I also like to sprinkle chile Tajín on my ice cream cones of the water based "nieve de limón y nieve de piña". Wow!

¡ Buen Provecho !


GlorV1 said...

Bob, now you've got me wanting to try jicama. It really sounds refreshing and we have a lot of Mexican stores here in Modesto and in fact there is one down the street aways that probably carries jicama. I'm going to try it. I have a lot of limes on the trees and the chile, well I dry a lot of chile tepin and probably can crunch up really good in one of those coffee grinders and grind the chiles till they are powdery. My mouth is actually watering thinking about that or maybe it's the mole that's waiting on the stove. My husband is still in the basement and I'm getting hungry. Great post. Take care.

YayaOrchid said...

I too LOVE jicama! Very refreshing and cooling in the hot summer days. I would love to visit the area you live in Bob. It sounds like there are so many places to go and things to do.

Chrissy y Keith said...

I have all of these things in my possession nearly all the time. I just used my Tajin con limon on popcorn today.

jennifer rose said...

Despite its high water content, jicama remains crunchy when cooked in a stew or stir-fry. It works as a fairly decent substitute for water chestnuts.

Bob, you are evil. I want some jicama. Now.

Alice said...

I think jicama rocks, too! High in vitamin C and folic acid -- I eat it every morning for a snack in the same way as you. I wonder, though, if it's the jicama or the Tajin I like more? :)

Billie Mercer said...

I, too, love jicama. First had it in Yucatan many, many years ago. It was always served at summer poolside and picnics. Strange, I haven't eaten as much here as I did in the States. I must remedy that.

Mexico Cooks! said...

Hey Bob! Your blog just gets better and better.

Yaya, here's a glimpse of Bob and Gina in Irapuato:



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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.