Underground Treasures: Tubers

This is the season of relishing a variety of underground edible delights. These are the root and tuber vegetables that are consumed in numerous ways, in a variety of dishes. In Gujarat these are celebrated in the undhiyu, a mix of winter vegetables led by several kinds of tubers including yams, sweet potatoes and potatoes, traditionally slow-cooked in an earthen pot. The winter season is also a multi-coloured celebration of root vegetables like carrots, beets, radish, turnip, fresh turmeric and ginger that add crunch, colour and flavour to salads, and sweets (carrot hawa!).

The distinction between tubers and roots is more botanical than culinary. Both root vegetable and tubers are geophytes, a botanical classification for plants with their growing point beneath the soil. All tubers fall under the root vegetable umbrella, but not all root vegetables are tubers. Root vegetables are aptly named because the meat of the crop is the root of the plant, growing downwards and absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. Above ground are the leaves, below ground, are the roots which are eaten as vegtables. Tubers, however, form at the base of the root. Tubers store energy and support new stem growth. You can get several tubers from one above-ground plant, while root crops will have one root vegetable from each plant.

The general belief is that tubers are starch heavy and difficult to digest. Many people feel very full after eating tubers. In fact, the complex carbohydrates found in tubers balance the glucose levels in blood, and help remain full for a longer period, thereby prevent cravings and overeating.  While they do contain more carbohydrates than protein, tubers are a rich source of essential nutrients—vitamins (especially vitamin C), minerals like copper, manganese and potassium, and beneficial enzymes. They are also high in fibre that helps to keep the digestive and excretory system healthy. 

Indigenous people all over the world have traditionally consumed a variety of local tubers to supplement their diet as a balanced and healthy food source. In the Andean region of South America, tuber-forming or storage root crops have been continuously domesticated from wild ancestors and improved via selection and breeding during centuries by the local indigenous people. Some have been used as part of traditional medicine for their healing properties. Tubers thus provided food security as they could survive the vagaries of weather conditions, especially drought.

Tubers are slowly attracting attention again for all these reasons. Tubers are packed with nutrition, but majorly neglected in our diets. They are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, and are chemical-free unlike most fruits and vegetables. Unlike other food, tubers survive for three-four months after being pulled out of the soil.

Realising their multi-faceted potential for a hunger-free world, the Food and Agriculture Organization has categorised tubers like the sweet potato, along with pulses and millets, as Future Smart Food (FSF). 

However with the spread of monocultures and new varieties of cereal crops, as well as accessibility and popularity of other vegetables, over time the genetic as well as nutritional properties of tubers have been largely forgotten or neglected.

This is what motivated Shaji NM, a farmer from Kerala to take on a one-man crusade to save and celebrate tubers. Shaji grew up in a family of farmers that often resorted to subsisting on a diet of different tubers that they cultivated, or collected from the nearby forest, when they could not afford any other food grain. While Shaji himself became familiar, early on, with a variety of tubers, as he grew he saw that these were slowly being forgotten as the market became flooded with cereals and vegetables from far and wide. He also realized that while traditionally most farmers had cultivated some tubers in their fields, these were being increasingly replaced by the cultivation of cash crops like pepper, cardamom, nutmeg. Shaji felt that he needed to do something to protect and preserve tuber varieties before they disappeared altogether. And thus began a mission that has been continuing for almost two decades now. 

Shaji began travelling across Kerala to look for wild tubers. He went deep into the forests to meet the local tribal communities. It is here that he discovered a variety of wild yams and other tubers that were part of their traditional diet, grown in small patches near their homes, or collected from the forest. These were not grown nor available commercially. Shaji saw that many such varieties were on the verge of disappearing and he began to collect the seeds of all the varieties that he came across. He brought the seeds back and started growing these on his own one acre of land. But he also began to give the seeds back to the local communities, encouraging them to cultivate these and include these in their diet.

Today Shaji has accumulated a rich basket of tuber species. Greater yam, lesser yam, elephant foot yam, arrowroot, colocasia, sweet potato, tapioca, Chinese potato are just a few among the over 200 varieties of tubers that he grows on his small farm named Kedaram that means ‘cultivation’ in Malayalam. Shaji’s passion has extended to preserving other endangered plant varieties as well. He cultivated over 52 varieties of indigenous and traditional rice varieties, 100 varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as medicinal plants. With a small fish farm, rearing of honey bees and a few cows and goats, Shaji has demonstrated the enormously rich potential of even a small landholding.

Shaji organizes a seed festival at his farm every year. He generously gives away, for free, the seeds of tubers and rice to others who want to cultivate these with the strict condition that the people return the same amount of seeds they take from him once they harvest the crop. This helps to ensure that the seeds are properly cultivated.

Shaji N.M., a truly grassroots biodiversity champion, strives to spread his mission every way he can from personal interactions, to technology like Facebook to connect and train farmers. The Tuber Man of India as he is popularly called has been recognized for his efforts through several state and national level awards.  He was awarded the India Biodiversity Award 2021 in the individual category of Conservation of Domesticated Species.

I will certainly relish my undhiyu with more respect this year!

–Mamata

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