Anyone skimming the internet these days is bound to notice the high-energy hoopla surrounding miracle cures promised by the boosters of yacon extract, yacon syrup, and other yacon elixirs. The valid medical properties of yacon have been well-known for centuries: South Americans have long understood yacon’s value as a “fruit” useful to diabetics. Yacon does not cure diabetes; its special sugars are simply diabetic neutral. In short, it’s an alternative to food that diabetics should not or cannot eat.
You’re not familiar with yacon? It’s still a specialty crop in the United States, but due to its low calorie content, dietitians with one eye on weight loss have started putting it on health spa menus. The newest trend is the yacon smoothie.
The only hitch is that the idea is not entirely new: the Incas considered yacon a health drink many centuries before anyone knew how to spell the word smoothie. In fact, they probably invented the idea. Let’s review a little bit about the history of yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius).
Yacon (pronounced ja-KON) is a Spanish adaptation of two Quechua words yacu and unu, terms for two different kinds of water. The core idea behind the Quechua name is “water plant,” something you eat raw for its juice, or something you drink. So in that sense the original Inca name meant smoothie, at least to them. Yacon thrives in just about any area that receives consistent moisture and moderate heat. The plants need a long growing season, and the tubers form in fall when the length of day shortens.
The New World twist to this story is that yacon is not like sugar cane dripping with syrup. It’s a crunchy tuber shaped very much like a yam or sweet potato. When eaten raw it has the snap of apples combined with a hint of celery. This unique fruit-or-veggie flavor is one reason yacon is so adaptable to smoothie recipes: you can make a fruit drink from it, or a vegetable mix, or a combination of both. Thus yacon is an ideal foundation ingredient.
If you travel to Peru or Bolivia where yacon is still an integral part of local diet, you will find it sold among the fruits and melons. And you will also see street vendors whose sole product consists of various kinds of yacon smoothies. So much for reinventing the wheel!
Unfortunately, suspicious of any foods that did not fit neatly into a European definition of good, the Spanish who conquered Peru never warmed up to yacon. It remained an “Indian food,” something inferior, or more baldly put, a food without economic value. It was not the type of high-energy fare like potatoes which the Spaniards could ration to the Indians they enslaved for mining gold.
The Spanish first mentioned yacon in 1615 as a native curiosity, although recent archeology has found agricultural evidence dating from at least 500 A.D. This only goes to show that the native people of the high Andes understood the value of yacon and how to raise it symbiotically among the other plant foods they nurtured in their steep terraced gardens. The reason they liked yacon was its huge productivity: one plant can yield as much as a bushel of tubers that can be stored all winter — famine insurance similar to potatoes.
The botany of the yacon plant is also something of an odd-ball: A relative of the sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke, yacon sports small yellow, aster-like flowers with a slight scent of tangerine (these flowers make excellent herbal teas), while the tubers resemble those of another close cousin, the dahlia. Yet unlike dahlia tubers which remain somewhat crispy even when boiled, yacon is not enhanced by cooking, and in the raw state it is easily rendered to puree. This is why it is such an ideal ingredient for smoothies.
Furthermore, it is easy to freeze and can be popped into a blender while still frozen for instant sorbet. The only preparation step required for freezing yacon is to peel it first. The skin is slightly bitter and unpalatable and is not easily removed once the tubers are frozen.
There are no hard and fast recipes for yacon smoothies. You invent them as you go, using whatever ingredients you may have on hand.
Since yacon begins to oxidize (turn brown) once the skin is removed, this process can be interrupted by using acidic fruits like lemon juice, lime juice or chopped oranges.
Yacon and pineapple are a natural pair, but if you want to avoid fruit sugars altogether, celery, carrots, and even pumpkin can be added to your smoothies.
Baker Creek’s Cosmic Purple carrot will transform the most neutral looking yacon smoothie into a carnival of color. After all, if you are going to make smoothies to keep yourself healthy, there is no harm in giving your “Inca tonic” the eye appeal it deserves.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.
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