Of all indigenous crops in existence, he is caught in a love affair with the potato of the tropics, amadumbe, confesses Qinisani Qwabe, farmer and founder of Ubuntu AgriRenaisance.
So much so that he strongly advocates for the mass production of the root tuber Colocasia esculenta in a bid to curb the crisis of hunger in Mzansi.
Qwabe explains his love for the indigenous crop began when he was a young boy growing up in eSihuzu in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
“I grew up eating them and fell more in love with them when I started going to spaces where they are not cultivated.
“Right now, I am advocating for a mass production of indigenous foods, especially for the likes of amadumbe. These are crops that I know can help us end hunger,” he explains.
Globally the vegetable is a staple in African, Indian, and Oceanic cuisines.
The indigenous veggie has a rich, earthly flavour, is high in carbohydrates but has a low glycaemic index (GI) and more protein and amino acids than any other root crops.
It is rich in fibre, magnesium, potassium, iron and vitamins A, B1, B2 and C.
Qwabe says he was surprised to learn that the root vegetable contained vitamin C.
“I thought citrus only had vitamin C, but it turns out Madumbi do as well. They are also rich in magnesium and calcium,” he says.
Potato, potahto… amadumbe, taro, yams?
But are they yams, though? They are commonly called taro or even cocoyam in other parts of the globe. A heated debate about the root vegetable rages amongst experts who study indigenous foods.
Qwabe says he will always correct people who refer to amadumbe as yams. “They’re root potatoes that resemble sweet potato.”
A colleague that studies Nigerian roots begs to differ, he says. “In Nigeria, amadumbe are called cocoyams and are a staple of people in the country, just like maize meal is a staple in Mzansi,” Qwabe says.
Ancient root, rooted in history
This yummy sister of the potato is well-known in South Africa and is the yummy sister of the potato. Commonly grown in wetlands, the herbaceous perennial plant is known to grow in rivers as well.
“You do get some of them that grow naturally inside rivers or ponds, it’s just those ones you cannot eat. We grew up calling them ‘amadumbe engwenya’, meaning they are Madumbi for crocodiles!” Their red flesh should serve as a warning not to consume them.
Be warned on consuming any of the tubers raw though. Their high levels of calcium oxalate can cause kidney stones and a little bit of mouth numbing.
When cooked the right way, toxins are minimised. Like their starchy counterpart they are loaded with nutrients and vitamins and can be enjoyed in several ways. Cook them in curries, mash them with butter, bake them into healthy chips, or even turn them into a bit of “ZuTalian” fusion as gnocchi. Trust us, we have a recipe!
If you are looking to incorporate some indigenous crops into your vegetable garden, the low maintenance tuber variety could be your best bet, says indigenous food advocate Qwabe.
Tip to consider:
1. Convenient growers
Of all tubers amadumbe are the most convenient to grow in your garden, says Qwabe. The only challenge you may come across is acquiring the tuber for planting.
“For some people it might not be easy to get. But for us who are on this (eastern) side of the country its easy, because people in rural areas consume a lot of amadumbe.”
2. You are going to need water…
Tubers of this variety are wetland herbaceous perennial plants, he cautions.
“They don’t like dry areas, which is why they are usually planted next to rivers because there is a constant supply of water.”
3. …but not too much water
While they need plenty of water, they require soil that drains well.
4. Weeds compete with the crop
The only other thing you will have to worry about is de-weeding, Qwabe says. “They compete a lot with weeds so you can imagine if you are planting in a wet area where there is going to be a constant supply of water, obviously weeds will erupt. Be careful to remove (weeds) or they will compete, and you won’t have a good harvest.”
5. Compost, compost, and more compost
Amadumbe requires a well-balanced fertiliser to start with. Qwabe suggests NPK.