Nature’s hidden treasure

My eyes sighted smoke rising up through the air on the grass patch of Curzon Park in Mysuru. The evening had just made its way, and I was stepping out of the ‘Roots and Tubers Mela’ where I had spent the entire afternoon exploring. People had gathered around what seemed to be a campfire. And my curiosity pushed me towards the crowd.

Taking a look, I saw a coal-filled pit with tubers being roasted in it. Gazing at the charred skin and hearing the sizzling crackle made my mouth water and not being able to contain myself, I soon asked the man roasting them for some.

“They cost Rs 20 each. We have wild sweet potatoes and tree potatoes,” said Aiyappa. He was a member of the Jenu Kuruba community from Abbalathi, Periyapatna who had attended the fair with a rich variety of tubers that grew in the forest, and was now roasting them for customers.

Biting into the hot and smoking tuber, my tongue caught of the burnt taste of the skin and the soft flesh that lay inside. It was the perfect snack that lighted up my evening. 

Back to the roots

Root and tuber crops go back a long way to the very beginning of human existence and are regarded as the relics of primitive agriculture. They were an integral part of our food system in old times and continue to hold importance as food crops among forest-dependent communities. 

“We gather tubers from the wild, offer them to the gods of the forest, perform puja and then we proceed to eat them. Tubers are a very important part of our meal and a staple diet. Therefore, they are an integral part of our culture too,” explains Poovi, a forest-dwelling woman of the Jenu Kuruba community from Abbalathi village.

She was one of the participants in the Tuber Mela, out of the more than 25 groups that brought different kinds of tubers for display and sale. Apart from the Jenu Kuruba community, the mela also showcased tuber collections from Betta Kuruba, Soliga, Irula, Kunabi and Siddi people, portraying how much of importance tubers have in forest regions and the rich knowledge that the locals of the region possess.

Apart from forest dwellers, agricultural workers and other economically deprived people from the dryland region of Karnataka also consume naturally grown tubers like nasa nasa gedde, kunkara gedde, kattale gedde, gotti gedde and many others, as they are an easily available and affordable source of energy.

Tubers and roots also have much significance in many Indian festivals. While celebrating Huttari, the harvest festival of Kodagu, a dish called kalinji is prepared from an edible tuberous vegetable of a particular climber species of yam. Another popular festival where tubers and roots have a great role to play is Makara Sankranti, where sweet potatoes and yams are cooked for meal.

Tubers are also used as an important ingredient for Ayurvedic medicines. They are rich in nutrients and can be used to cure many ailments and diseases.“Tubers are used to perform Amruthi Karna — the purification of the body from toxic minerals. Ashvagandha is used as an aphrodisiac and to cure neurological conditions. Shatavari is used to improve nourishment and tissues in tuberculosis, as a nerve tonic and to cure emaciation. The elephant foot yam is used to prepare tablets used in the treatment of piles and hemorrhoids.

It is even used in the preparation of copper bhasma — an Ayurvedic medicine prepared by burning copper to get oxidised copper. Copper is a toxic metal, and is therefore filled into the tuber through a hole and then burnt inside. This removes all traces of copper and oxidises it completely,” says  Dr Shivprasad Huded, a professor at JSS Ayurveda college, Mysuru.

Beneath the surface

Potato is one tuber that has outperformed all its brethren. Potatoes have become an integral part of the modern food system, and remain popular in both urban and rural areas. Other tubers such as taro, cassava, sweet potatoes and yams remain hidden under its shadow and have become restricted to some regions.

“Potatoes, carrots and beetroots, the popular tubers in the market, are vulnerable to pests and diseases and require significant amounts of chemical inputs, investment and attention. Wild tubers, on the other hand, are hardy, resilient to pests, and have a longer shelf life. They favourably adapt to diverse soil and environmental conditions and a wide variety of farming systems. They are an ideal food that people can incorporate into their daily diet,” says Dr Shrikumar an Ayurvedic doctor based in Ishwaramangala of Puttur taluk, who has been cultivating and conserving various types of tubers.

Efforts to tap the potential of these crops that grow below the ground began when the tubers grown by the Kunbi community residing in the forests of Joida taluk in the Kali Tiger Reserve caught the attention of Balachandra Hegde Sayimane, a farmer and forestry researcher. 

“Along with Jayanand Derekar, a local Kunbi youth leader, I organised a Tuber Mela in Joida back in 2014. This mela showcased their rich food heritage. Their main tuber, the big taro (Colocasia esculenta) that grows to the height of an average man, kona (greater and lesser yams), tannia (arrow-leaf elephant ear) and sambrali (Chinese potatoes),” he narrates.

Since then, they have been organising tuber melas every year after the harvest season. With each passing year, the mela has gained more popularity, with visitors coming from far-away places to witness and buy a wide variety of tubers. The last mela to be conducted saw an astounding presentation of 46 varieties. The Kunbi community has even received the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Plant Genome Savior Award for preserving a unique taro variety known as ‘Kunbi mudli’.

The recently concluded Tuber Mela in Mysuru, organised by Sahaja Samrudha in collaboration with the University of Horticultural Sciences, Bagalkot, is another effort to popularise tubers. 

Future prospects

“There is a huge market potential for tubers. More than being a food item, tubers have a huge demand in the starch industry. India produces only 50% of its starch requirement and starch is used in textiles, cardboard, mosquito coils, roofing tiles, detergent, firecrackers, etc. Therefore, many buyers have lined up to purchase tubers from the farmers,” says Dr K Ramachandra Naik, principal scientist for All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Tuber Crops, functioning at the regional horticultural research and extension centre, Dharwad.

In particular, Nourish Inc, a Dutch company, in partnership with the University of Horticultural Sciences, Bagalkot, the Karnataka government and farmer producers organisations wants to set up a starch factory in Dharwad.

“We have distributed tubers to a thousand farmers, and the factory will begin its operation shortly. The company has promised to buy all the sweet potatoes grown in Dharwad region and still requires more. There is also a high demand for other tubers like greater yam, colocasia and elephant foot yam. We are also contacting buyers of cassava, which has a high demand in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as it is used to make sabudana and edible flour. Even pharmaceutical companies have approached us as they extract nutrients from tubers,” says K Ramachandra Naik.

The high demand of the industry, therefore, could save the farmers from losses in case they could not sell their produce as food.

Tubers on our plate

“We are supporting activities like melas and bringing out publications such as recipe books to popularise tubers in urban regions. Value addition efforts are also on to facilitate people to include tubers in their diet. We have tried over 30 recipes such as holige, madli, chips and jamun from sweet potato, and we are experimenting with other tubers,” he adds.

Tubers and roots have always played a great role in our food culture, and have the potential to be an integral part of it. Tuber is also hailed as the new superfood as it provides food security and is a great source of energy and nutrients. They grow well without chemicals, grow in varied environments, hold the promise of reducing human-animal conflicts and saving the crops from animal invasion, have medicinal properties. “Several of these crops are under-exploited and thus deserve more research and promotion. The focus of these fairs is to sensitise people, mainly urban dwellers, towards the benefits of tuber consumption and explore cultivation possibilities and value-addition prospects,” says GD Dinesh Kumar, senior assistant director of horticulture, Mysuru.

So, the next time you have a family dinner or you are out on a trip with friends, do not forget to add tubers in your menu.

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Nature’s hidden treasure

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