From Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, Latin America consists of some 20 countries. This enormous territory boasts an extremely rich culinary heritage, one where a number of our daily vegetables originate: tomatoes, potatoes, squash, beans, corn and peppers. But off the beaten track there’s a wealth of unusual vegetables and herbs to discover. Let’s find out what it’s possible to introduce into our vegetable gardens.
A number of edible tubers hail from the Peruvian Andes. No need, obviously, to present the most popular, the potato ! However, a few of them are still virtually unknown, like oca, Oxalis tuberosa, and mashua, Tropaeolum tuberosum. Not to mention the refreshing yacon, Smallanthus sonchifolius, whose crunchy texture possesses a sweet pear flavor. This vegetable grows like dahlias, and with its impressive height resembles the Jerusalem artichoke.
Additionally, the yam bean, Pachyrhizus erosus, produces an oblong white tuber that you’ve very likely eaten if you’ve ever traveled to Mexico. When it’s served raw with lime and chili powder, some Mexicans call it catzol or xicama in Nahuatl (a native language), which means “root from which juice flows.” Its juicy, crunchy texture makes this one highly refreshing too. And its pea taste reminds us that it belongs to the legume family.
Another Andean vegetable, the pepino, Solanum muricatum, blends the flavors of pear and melon and therefore is also known as the melon pear. Its yellow mauve-striped fruit is eaten raw alongside fish and seafood dishes.
The dwarf tamarillo, Solanum abutiloides, is a non-hardy shrub capable of reaching a height of two meters during the season. It has tropical-looking large, soft, velvety leaves, and its white blooms give way to small orange-colored fruit that is tasty to eat.
It’s the red fruit like cherries, of special interest in making chutneys or fruit ketchups, that are edible in the sticky nightshade (litchi tomato), Solanum sisymbriifolium. With its bushy bearing and impenetrable prickles, its lanceolate (spear-shaped), lobate (deeply indented) foliage and its light-blue flowering, the sticky nightshade is a must for pot or flowerbed layouts.
And of course, there are the inevitable chile peppers, whose multiple varieties impress through their colors, shapes, flavors, and capsaicin concentrations (mild to fiery). Currently they’re grouped into five species, of which the most used are the Capsicum annuum (mild and hot), C. baccatum (ají) and C. chinense (habanero).
Beyond traditional coriander, Coriandrum sativum, curious and creative cooks have other corianders at their disposal. Pipicha, Porophyllum linaria, is a wonderful grayish-green plant that contrasts beautifully with its tiny violet and white flowers. Its long slender leaves have a highly distinctive flavor that’s difficult to describe. It’s been compared to coriander, but with notes of lemon or anise, or mint and citrus. The pipicha is used fresh, often as a condiment or as the final addition to a dish for adding flavor to meats, in grain- or potato-based salads (tabbouleh, rice, bulgur), in tomatillo salsa, enchiladas and tamales.
Whereas the bluish round leaves of the Bolivian coriander (papalo), Porophyllum ruderale, give off a very powerful musky odor and have a flavor something like a blend of arugula, rue and coriander. The leaves are never cooked, since they lose all their flavor. They’re used in numerous dishes in Mexico, Bolivia, and in fact all of South America – in salsas, and added to soups, meats, salads and beans.
The panicles of quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa, sport colors that vary according to the cultivar (green, yellow, orange, black, pink), but the seeds are either white, pink or black. Quinoa is grown essentially for its grains, which are boiled or popped, but the leaves can also be eaten. The seed coatings contain saponins, which protect them from birds, and the seeds therefore have to be washed to get rid of those.
The dictum “You’re born a gardener and die an apprentice” sums up the extraordinary side of the vegetable garden: we’re never finished learning and discovering new varieties and species. With the right materials and a few basic rules, growing our own seedlings is something we’re all capable of. Consider taking a workshop if you’ve got any worries. Experiment with buying seeds abroad, which can be delivered to Canada very inexpensively. It’s a passion guaranteed to feed you!