Week 7 - Jicama
Two weekends ago, we were visiting one of our favorite quirky neighborhoods in Helsinki, Hakaniemi, where the city market hall and all the good ethnic grocers happen to be located. To my delight, we stumbled across a new Mexican grocer, Dos Tecolotes, and walked inside.
The shelves were lined with imported ingredients from Mexico that made my mouth water: corn tortillas, all kinds of salsa picante and jalapeño sauces, Jarritos soda, and so on. The owners were super welcoming and friendly, and the lady boss invited us to try a fresh salad they had made earlier in the day.
"It's made from what people call the Mexican potato," she explained. "Or jicama. It's very fresh, light, and refreshing."
Both Alan and I took a bite of the salad she offered us and instantly, a familiar flavor from childhood hit our taste buds. We were trying to figure out what that taste was, and were racking our brains for the right word. "It tastes quite like... Could it be... Water chestnut?" I ventured doubtfully.
The lady smiled politely and said, "No it's not water chestnut, it tastes a bit similar but this one is different."
"It's a bit like turnip... What is the name we call it in Malaysia?" wondered Alan out loud.
Unfortunately, no answers came to mind and we left the shop with a big mystery to solve. On the train ride back, I began frantically Googling because it was starting to become one of those things which I knew would keep bugging me if I didn't have some answers.
We knew it definitely was in a lot of the familiar foods we grew up eating. Pai Tee, Yee Sang, Popiah, and possibly even some stir-fried dishes. And then Alan had it... "It's called mengkuang in Malaysia!“ But Googling mengkuang brought up some other images of another plant. I tried Googling for "What is jicama called in Malaysia? In English?" I found, to my surprise, that there were multiple terms used in Malaysia. Mengkuang, bengkuang, bangkuang... And there was no other word for it in English other than "Mexican potato“! Yet this humble root is used all over the world, from Mexican cooking to Malaysian, Filipino, and Indian cooking.
I was mindblown. I thought that with globalization, almost every major ethnic cooking ingredient had been identified, labeled, and could be bought over the Internet or in specialty stores in major cities. How could there be so little available information and so much inconsistency in what it was called for something so staple?
And how on earth did a Mexican potato end up in Southeast Asia?!? The plot thickened. More Googling ensued. It turns out that the clue probably lies in the colonial powers (i.e. The Spaniards) who invaded Mexico and then the Philippines, bringing these valuable plants to another lush, tropical part of the planet where they grew easily. It turns out mengkuang is not even local or native to Malaysia, probably the reason why we have no standard name for it yet! Yet it forms the base of what I had thought to be so many traditional, essential Malaysian dishes.
In the middle of all of this, the conversation on the train ride home turned to tea, and how everywhere in the world, tea is either called some variation of "tea" (teh, tee, etc) or "cha/chai". The reason for this difference? It all depends on whether the leaves were introduced to the country by land or sea. (Poland seems to be an exception to this, as they call "tea" the local equivalent of "herbs", which might indicate they were already drinking leaves in hot water long before it became a global staple?!)
All of this leads me to marvel at how fascinating history and culture is, seen through the lens of food. Taking a closer look at how what is on your plate ended up there can lead to one's assumptions being challenged and everything you thought was "fact" thrown into question. It took me 29 years to learn the original name for what I've been eating all my life, but better late than never! I love that in 2019 when we are talking about robots taking over the world there is still so much nuance and detail to learn about and discover on a local level. It's why I love food, and why I love traveling. There is no better way to learn about another person or culture than by eating with them, or eating their food. There's a great big world out there to discover and I plan on exploring it as much as I can!