I do a lot of reading on tropical regions and am fascinated that certain plants have such desirable qualities that they have been transported, cultivated and cherished throughout the tropics long before Western influence. Though we do love our sweet and tangy fruits here in Florida, the most important food crops in the tropics are the ones high in starch, comparable to our potato or cereal crops like wheat and corn. While the Atkins diet has made everyone a little too conscious of their carb intake, the rest of the world isn't getting fat on burgers and venti mochas like we are. I hope that someday I can replace grease with good old fashioned carbs the way God intended. Here is a small variety of the food that keeps millions alive in the tropics, and just might make you healthier!
If eating food from an exotic developing country doesn't do the trick, you could always just go there and get a tapeworm or malaria. Here are some of the tropical food crops that are better than tapeworms any day!
Though the pictured variety is ornamental, Colocasia Esculenta is a real workhorse of a root crop! Available at grocery stores as an oblong, bumpy, brown tuber and at your garden center as simply "Elephant Ear", Taro is valued from West Africa to the Mediterranean, from India to Japan and from Polynesia to the West Indies. In other words, most of the tropics. It can be made into a flour, a paste called Poi, can be boiled or fried, and you can even cook the leaves and stalks as a vegetable. Just be sure taro is fully and properly cooked to remove the toxic calcium oxalate.
Also known as Manioc, Tapioca or Yuca, this is probably the most important staple crop in the tropics.
My fiance shared her memories of working as a cashier at the grocery store where people of diverse backgrounds would pile it with their groceries on the conveyor belt. Sensing her confusion they would helpfully exclaim "ooka root!" which helped her very little so she rang it up as something cheap every time. "They seemed really happy with the price, so that's how I kept ringing it up!" When I told her it was Yuca, I had to tell her "No not Yucca, thats a spiky plant from the desert!" but agreed it was confusing so I just didn't bring it up again.
You can plant cassava in zones 8-11 from roots or cuttings, and they return from the roots in the event of frost.
Cassava shows up almost as often as the word "food" in every book I've read about Africa, and thanks to its resilience in the face of civil war, neglect and drought, there is always cassava to fall back on. When Africans repeatedly come back home to find their crops obliterated by warfare or stolen, cassava becomes the only crop worth growing. It keeps people alive, but without vitamins and minerals they are malnourished. I find it funny that one of the traditional favorites up north is tapioca pudding, which comes from the same plant that feeds and sustains the tropics.
As with many other tropical root crops, it is very important to properly cook cassava to deactivate the toxins.
Almost everyone in central to south Florida grows bananas, and everyone else eats the Cavendish variety from the grocery store, but are you using the whole plant to its fullest advantage? The various forms of banana can be fried, boiled, dried and made into flour. The flower at the bottom of the stalk can be cooked as a vegetable, as can the tender part of the stem. The whole plant can be used to make fabric after treating the fibers with lye or bleach, and the Japanese have been using Musa Basjoo this way for many centuries. In developing countries, the banana is one of the most important foods in preventing famine.
This is the Latin American equivalent of Taro, and is also sold stateside in garden centers as "Elephant Ear". You may find it in traditional Caribbean or South American dishes. If you find this at the market be sure to plant it right in the ground or a pot and you'll soon have a huge leafy plant on the cheap! As with Taro, be sure to thoroughly cook Yautia, deactivating the toxic calcium oxalate.
Easy to find at the supermarket, Jicama is the root of a vine in the morning glory family with a taste best described as water chestnut with a hint of apple or nuttiness. I'm always sure to use this in my salad at Sweet Tomatoes to add a nice and flavorful crunch. When you plant your grocery market find, just remember that the root is the only edible portion of the plant.
These are not sweet potatoes, but are related to the infamous and invasive "Air Potato" plant. These tubers are grown in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa as a staple crop comparable to cassava. You can find them at the supermarket as "name", and can also grow them in the garden as long as you don't let them get out of control. They range in color from white to orange and even purple! Be sure to properly cook these for safe eating.
As you can see, most of these root vegetables are poisonous when raw and do need proper cooking, but are indispensable for authentic international cuisine. Just think of how much money you would save by utilizing these exotic alternatives to boring old potatoes!
Recommended Reading These books provide insight into the lifestyles of the tropic's backwaters, including sustenance. The last two are chock full of gardening advice.
Banana by Dan Koeppel
A history of Bananas
Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
Travels from Cairo to Cape Town
The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux
Kayaking throughout the Pacific Islands
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Memoirs of a boy soldier
The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget by Andrew Rice
A recent history of Uganda
Surviving Paradise by Peter Rudiak-Gould
An english teacher lives on a small island in micronesia
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
Recounts the travels of an adventurer looking for El Dorado in the Amazon
Don't Throw It, Grow it! by Peterson and Selsam
Shows you how to grow what you find in the produce Aisle
Feb/Mar issue of Florida Gardening Magazine
Has a great article on root crops by John A. Starnes Jr.