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South American treasures

South American superfoods are full of minerals and antioxidants, and ripe for culinary exploration

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 11:50am
 

It's hard to believe there ever was a time when food from overseas wasn't a part of our gastronomic culture, but nowadays few would blink at the cornucopia of world foods from Africa to the Americas on supermarket shelves.

Flavours, like fashions, come and go. Right now, there is a taste for so-called superfoods from South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Peru. Quinoa and acai you've probably heard of. Quinoa was the sacred staple of the Incans - a grain-like seed that is mineral-rich and gluten-free, which boasts a complete set of eight essential amino acids. It can be used as a replacement for couscous, and is good in a pilaf.

Acai, an Amazonian berry rich in antioxidants and available in pulp or powder form, cropping up also in supplements and mixed juices, has been touted as a strengthening and disease-fighting powerhouse.

However, do mesquite, maca or lucuma ring any bells? Probably not, but that's set to change.

Perhaps king among these new arrivals is maca, a Peruvian root, similar in appearance to a small turnip, usually sold in ground, powdered form.

"Maca is one of the most amazing foods on the planet," says Shazzie Wolfe, founder of Detox Your World, an online supplier of indigenous South American products.

"It's an adaptogen, which means it helps your body adapt to hormonal change or stress, making it great for women with PMS, fertility or menopausal issues. It's a complete source of protein, high in minerals, and it even has a trace of vitamin B12 - so it is a food that vegetarians and vegans should be incorporating into their diets."

Another fan is nutritionist Kate Magic Wood, author of Britain's bestselling raw food recipe book Eat Smart, Eat Raw. "I like maca for its sustaining qualities," she says. "The root grows at an exceptionally high altitude in the Andes, so the crop can withstand extreme conditions. It has stamina and endurance, and as it releases its power and energy steadily it seems to pass on similar properties to its consumers."

Lucuma, also available as a powder, is a nutrient-dense yellowy-orange fruit from Peru. Wood says it's "like a mango, with a little shortbread", and Wolfe calls it "as gorgeous as sweet honeycomb". Lucuma is rich in beta-carotenes, niacin (B3) and iron.

Mesquite is a relative of carob, and native to Mexico. Seed pods harvested from the mesquite tree are ground into a meal, from which desert dwellers traditionally made flatbreads. It is mildly sweet, lightly biscuity and has a strong protein profile. It is a terrific source of major and trace minerals, especially magnesium. It also has a low GI value, meaning it releases its energy to the body slowly and doesn't cause steep sugar spikes.

There are many others - including camu camu, Brazilian ginseng, guarana, yacon, pau d'arco, maté - each with their own unique properties, culinary and traditional medicinal or herbal uses, and taste profiles.

But what is it that makes foods from this region so good?

"Superfoods weren't big until about five years ago," says Wood. "We had aloe vera, spirulina and maybe bee pollen, but that was about it. But around 2005, other magical foods began to creep in, and while some well known ones, like goji berries, aren't Latin American, around 60 per cent of them are. Perhaps South America is abundant in nutritious superfoods because of its fertile soil, which hasn't been as intensively farmed as in other parts of the world."

But not all food experts are convinced. Dietitian Sue Baic is keen to sound a note of caution, especially with the term superfood.

"Calling a food a superfood singles it out as being necessary or special, but in reality all fruits, vegetables and wholegrains could count as superfoods in terms of nutrition," she says. "The traditional Western vegetables are just as good as some of the exotic ones. There's the risk that some consumers may think these unusual foods are inherently superior to the ones available in their own country - that's not true."

Although a fan of foods such as quinoa, and while acknowledging that many of us could do with eating more wholegrain, Baic argues that wholegrain cereal, wholegrain bread and porridge oats can be just as good and healthy. Nevertheless, she agrees that the more unusual foods could have their place and may be worth dipping into.

"If these foods help to broaden the diet and increase interest in food and cooking - then all is well and good," she says. "I think the message must be that these are interesting food products, with good nutrients - but they're certainly not essential."

Wood says trying some new indigenous Latin American foods can offer great new taste experiences, especially when consumed raw.

"Just start with one or two - experiment a little bit, and try new ones gradually," she says. "Maca is a good one to start with, as it's not bitter - try a teaspoon in yogurt or porridge or blend it into an orange smoothie. It's important not to overdo it, as it is strong and a little goes a long way. Some of these foods are the big personalities of the plant world. Get to know them gently."

Wolfe is delighted with the interest. "Health shopping used to be boring. But superfoods like raw cacao and maca came in - exciting health products. People are bored of the same old stuff in supermarkets. The more we get these foods on the shelves, the more likely the bad stuff will be crowded out."

She adds: "When you have a whole superfood diet, you feel great and look great and your state of mind alters. My goal is to find food which makes me feel fantastic - potent and nutrient-dense foods like these I find amazing. I want others to uncover their true essence and have a great life through these foods too."

Superhero foods from South America

Maca: also known as Peruvian ginseng, this Andean root vegetable is usually cooked and eaten like a potato. Available in ground dried form, a teaspoon can be added to smoothies, oat porridge, yoghurt, creamy sauces and dishes, such as curries. Wood suggests a dressing of cashew nuts, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, chilli, crystal salt and maca.

Lucuma: dubbed the "Gold of the Incas", this is a hugely popular fruit in Peru. Available in powdered form, try replacing some of the sugar and flour in an ordinary cake recipe with lucuma, or adding it to any recipe involving chocolate. Wolfe recommends sprinkling it on cereals.

Yacon: a crunchy, fruit-like vegetable root, rich in minerals and complex prebiotic sugars, called fructo-oligosaccharides. Its taste has been described as reminiscent of a mix of apple, pineapple, melon and celery. As well as being good for gut health, it's also helpful in stabilising blood sugar levels, and so may be useful for diabetics. The dried root can be nibbled as is, while natural yacon syrup is a relatively healthy natural sweetener. Yacon flour is a sweeter alternative to normal flour.

Mesquite: these are ripened seed pods from the mesquite tree, grown in Mexico. The ground meal/powder produced from the pods has a molasses-like taste, and its sweetness comes from fructose. Use it in smoothies. Wolfe recommends it in fudge, cake bases, and puddings. It can also be used as a flour replacement for gluten-free baked goods.

Purple corn: a variety of corn that typically grows in the Peruvian Andes, and is rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have shown anti-carcinogenic potential and may help prevent heart disease. Wolfe recommends using the flour in buckwheat pancakes, and a little of the more potent powdered extract in a cereal, smoothie mix or dressing.

Incan berries: also known as cape gooseberries, these tart little seed-packed berries come from a variety of physalis, and are grown in Chile, Brazil and other parts of South America. They are rich in B-vitamins and can be eaten as other dried berries, or added to smoothies and cereal.

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