Mashua is one Andean root crop whose flavour is resistant to all my enthusiastic attempts to acquire a liking for it. Every time I see those fat and enticing tubers, my mind fills with desire, yet one taste and my ardour wanes.
That's a pity, because it grows quite well here (watch out for cabbage white caterpillars though) and the yields are often not bad. It throttles weeds with its vigorous, tangled growth and has beautiful flowers.
With an intensive breeding effort for early tuberisation, this plant might have a future as a food in northern latitudes. I know for a fact that seed production is quite possible, if you give it protection from early frosts.
Maybe it's just my incorrigible palate, but prepared simply, by boiling or roasting, it tastes simply terrible. Reading some of the literature, it appears that it needs special preparation - boiling followed by freezing, for example. Perhaps mashua ice cream is a possibility in that case: just add lots of cream and lots of sugar. Following on from my success with yakraut, lactofermented yacon tubers, I thought I ought to explore the same method as a means of rendering mashua more palatable. I mean, people do actually eat this plant as a staple carbohydrate, don't they?
When I was lifting the remnants of the harvest weeks ago, I noticed that some of the frosted tubers had developed a slightly lactofermented smell before decaying further. I wondered whether it might it be possible to arrest decay at this stage and work with these natural processes to produce a more palatable foodstuff.
Lactofermentation of starchy roots is not unknown. In Hawaii, poi is made from cooked and fermented taro corms and is considered a delicacy. Cassava roots can be turned into fufu by the same basic method. Might mashua be similarly converted by the application of this tried and trusted technology?
I grated the tubers and was surprised by the differences in flesh colour between the three varieties.
I sprinkled salt on the layers as I filled the jar, then I weighed it down as before.
I was also surprised by the large quantity of juice that was produced and by its colour - not dissimilar to red wine. Could this be the anti-oxidant elixir we've all been waiting for? That smell, mashua's distinctive signature, quickly persuaded me to abandon all thoughts of imbibing it.
Fermentation was initially sluggish for the first few days, then the room began to smell of something like burning rubber; this was followed by several days of frequent mephitic wafts that wouldn't have been out of place emanating from a Borneo bat cave. Finally the smell subsided, to be replaced by the familiar odour of happy lactobacilli at work. Could it be a case of Tropaeolum tuberosum tamed?
The ghastly logic of what I had started and therefore must complete was clear: I must taste this witches' brew and let my palate decide whether or not mashua's base metal had been converted to gold.
This new product, henceforth to be known as mushua, had a powerful, though not unpleasant smell. So what did it taste like? Well, a bit like sauerkraut, with that peculiar violet perfume taste in the background - moderated, but not eliminated. It wasn't that good, but then, as I manoeuvred a small clump of mushua strands around my mouth, I realised that it wasn't that bad either. I just kept getting the powerful insight that it might be an excellent way of eliminating internal parasites. Hippocrates used to bang on about about food and medicine being interchangeable. Mushua seems to prove it.
Mushua's not going to win any prizes in a taste trial, but the fact that I actually managed to eat what must have been close to a mouthful suggests that I might, just might, be on the right track. Next time I'll cook the tubers first and then ferment them. Or ferment them, then cook them and then ferment them again - there's got to be a way to reach some kind of culinary rapprochement with this tricksy Tropaeolum. Are there any other brave souls out there who would like to share my heavy burden? Mushua is probably just the base camp in a long ascent to Beulah Land, where all bitterness is cast aside. Amen.