Anchote: Out of Africa

Africa, is, as we all know, humanity's original home. At least I hope we do. In my enthusiasm to explore the subterranean delights of the Americas, I've shamefully neglected those roots which our ancestors may have munched on before setting off for pastures new. A good breakfast of roasted roots is just what you need before instigating a campaign of world domination. That is certainly the opinion of Richard Wrangham, a primatologist who believes that the incorporation of cooked roots and tubers into the diet of proto-humans reduced the time and effort spent on digestion and provided them with the energy boost necessary to foster brain development. The rest is, as they say, history.

And Africa has plenty of suitable candidates to choose from, with yams (Dioscorea), the marama bean (Tylosema esculentum) and the so-called African potatoes in the genus Plectranthus chief among the underground plant foods available to hungry hominids. I'm happy to try any or all of the above should African readers of this blog care to get in touch with me.

One of the more intriguing root crops of African origin, is anchote (Coccinia abyssinica).  It's grown at altitudes of around 2000 - 2500 metres in - you've guessed it - Ethiopia, not a million miles from the cradle of human evolution. It's a cucurbit, with the family's trademark trailing stems and tendrils.

I was discussing the relative paucity of edible roots in the family Cucurbitaceae with Emma Cooper, gardening writer, blogger and eminent podcaster, last year. She expressed surprise that any existed. I assured her that they did and being keen not to concede the argument, I decided to see whether I could finally locate and grow anchote.

To be fair, she had a point: one of the Cucurbitaceae's less appealing traits is that its members are often laced with cucurbitacins - nasty, bitter compounds which act as antifeedants. They really work.  I have vivid recollections of tasting the root of buffalo gourd, Cucurbita foetidissima. I gingerly applied the cut surface of a root against my tongue; immediately my mouth was filled with the most retchworthy bitterness. Try as I might, I could not get rid of the taste. It was, I can say with complete authority, a once in a lifetime experience.  This undesirable characteristic has been bred out of the cucumber and squash varieties we know and love, although the occasional bitter-flavoured throwback appears, to the consternation of the eater. Previous research indicated to me that anchote is consumed without laborious processing - a good thing as I didn't want to have to go to the trouble of hosing my mouth out after every morsel.

So when I managed to obtain some seeds of Coccinia abyssinica in the spring, I knew I had to try them.  Perhaps the best known plant in the genus Coccinia is C. grandis, the ivy gourd, which is cultivated for its fruits; these are eaten cooked when immature; fully ripe ones go an attractive bright scarlet and are eaten raw. It also has a bit of a reputation as an invasive weed in the tropics. As I find getting alternative root crops to grow can sometimes be a bit tricky, I was hoping that anchote might share the rambunctious attitude of its close cousin.

I planted the seeds indoors; they germinated quickly and proceeded to develop into rather attractive little plants with a distinctly cucurbitaceous appearance.

I planted them out in Kaukau Corner at the same time as the sweetpotatoes - late. Planting any earlier would have been pointless due to the exceptionally cold, wet and cheerless weather that had set in during April and mocked us throughout
spring and into the summer.

As a result, I was forced to pot them on at home and didn't manage to get them into the ground until July. The potted specimens had that slightly tired, yellowish, weather-beaten look by this stage - the equivalent of the muffled cries of protest that otherwise mute plants in my care tend to make when conditions are not to their liking. So when I finally wielded my trowel and gave them their freedom, I was hardly surprised that they didn't grow away rapidly.

More surprising was the amount of tunnelling the local vole population chose to carry out around and below them. On several occasions, I had to push the plants back into the ground after the voles left them high and dry on spoil heaps. I feared for their survival, I really did, but maybe the abundant rainfall and low temperatures kept them hydrated long enough for the roots to regrow. Good news, bad news, who can tell? To the right you can see them in their "prime". At least they eventually greened up a bit.  

On a thoroughly filthy day in late November, I decided to lift the plants and see whether Cornwall 2012 had trounced the anchote like it had the sweetpotatoes. As I squelched in the hog wallow where the bed used to be, I reflected on the fact that some of the foliage was still alive, months after the sweetpotato leaves had succumbed. This I took to be a good omen in terms of cold tolerance. The stems were, however,  pitifully short - not three metres as seemed to be quite common in descriptions of the crop in Ethiopia. No - more like 30 cm, at best.

I decided I'd better eliminate rambunctiousness from my lexicon, at least in association with anchote. And in that spirit, I stuck the fork into the soil and prepared myself to be utterly underwhelmed.

More than once in my root growing career, I've had to revise my expectations downwards; rarely do I revise expectations upwards. But this was one of those occasions. Admittedly, the anchotes were far from large and impressive, but in terms of root to shoot ratio, they were up there with the best. Unlike the ocas and their habit of flaunting their lush tops while the tubers have yet to develop, the anchotes seemed to have adopted the opposite tactic. I think I can live with that as a lifestyle choice. I would have preferred the smooth skinned, conical roots which are apparently the usual shape, but in the Realm of Radix, it pays not to be too picky - a yield of sorts was obtained.

Remaining cautious, I carried out the buffalo gourd test, but no, my mouth did not pucker and neither did my gorge rise. Raw anchote tastes similar to a raw potato, with perhaps a hint of turnip. Unremarkable, but not unpleasant and in any case, anchote is eaten cooked, not raw.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Knowing nothing about anchote preparation, I boiled the root for about twenty minutes and then rubbed off the skin, which came away fairly easily.

We shared a root. It wasn't bitter. The faintly turnipy flavour had persisted, but now with something slightly sweeter and vaguely reminiscent of chestnut. It was  palatable, pleasant even. In the world of wacky root crops and unverifiable ethnobotanical accounts, I consider that to be an unqualified success. Are you satisfied now, Emma?

So, I'm a happy hominid and glad that I managed to track down one of the world's more obscure root crops; it's particularly gratifying to extend the grasp of Radix into the highlands of Africa for the first time. I'll certainly grow anchote again and maybe the weather will be kinder and the voles less abundant when I make my next attempt. I wouldn't mind the roots being several times larger, either.

It turns out that Cornwall is not the only place outside Ethiopia where anchote cultivation is being attempted. I recently discovered that there's a grower in Wisconsin (and why not?) who is far more experienced than I am and he tells me that he gets his seeds from southern California; just like Homo sapiens, it seems that Coccinia abyssinica is ready and able to move beyond its ancestral home in Africa.


Catofstripes said…
Impressive. Any hints where to go for seeds?
Jay said…
I love the post, Rhizowen. I live in a desert climate here in Tucson, AZ and have the exact same question as the last person who posted. I would love to access to some seed to trail via a trade or purchase.
Rhizowen said…
Hi Catofstripes - remind me in the spring - I may be able to help.

Hi Jay - glad you enjoyed the post. I'm not sure which perennial cucumber you mean - Echinocystis or maybe Marah. They're all cucurbits, so in that sense, yes, they are related. The only grower I know of is the one in Wisconsin, although I'm sure there are others.
Jay said…
Hey there Rhizowen,

I am currently growing out some tuberous nasturtiums from my father. If I am able to grow them out to seed would you be willing to trade for some Anchote seed? I would even be willing to try to obtain them from Wisconsin - if I knew where.

With living here in a desert climate and seeing how well a friend was able to grow perennial cucumber (Coccinia grandis) I can only imagine that the Anchote will probably do well here.
Kano said…
I am an Ethiopian and currently growing Hanchote in Minnesota. The foliage is in excellent condition, though I do not know yet how the yield will be.

In fact the correct name of the plant is HANCHOTE and not Anchote.

Please can you email me the address of the place where I can purchase Hanchote seeds?

Rhizowen said…
Hi Kano

Thanks for your the very interesting information and good luck with growing anchote, or should I say hanchote. You might like to consider joining my Radix Root Crops Facebook page
and posting pictures of your harvest. I for one would be very interested to learn more about this fascinating crop.
Desta Fekadu said…
Thank you for your very interesting information and the attempt to grow anchote out side its home land. I want to share you more and more info as I'm working on anchote research in Ethiopia.
Rhizowen said…
Hi Desta
Thanks for your comment. I look forward to making contact with you and learning more about your research into this fascinating crop.
see, people do want to buy your weird stuff
Zoi Dugan said…
a co worker of mine who is from Ethiopia had brought over these seeds. I have been trying to find information on this plant everywhere and this is the only site I could find anything about it. I am cooking anchote tonight and will be getting the seeds tomorrow! you cannot find this plant any were in America
Rhizowen said…
Thanks for the information, Zoi. What did you think of the taste of anchote?
Julien said…
Seems like my source for these seeds is out of stock :/ I found another, but far more expensive and I was shocked to see the photo... Just to notice you...