Second to the potato, Ulluco tubers or Ullucus tuberosus is one of the most economically important and widely grown plants in the Andean region of South America. In fact, it happens to be the staple and predominant root crop in many highland areas of the Andes. Primarily grown as a root vegetable and then as a leafy vegetable, ulluco or sweet cucumber is also known by various other names such as papalisa, ulluku and milluku. The leaves and tubers of this plant are found to contain high levels of nutrients like carotene, calcium, and protein. Ulluco is a main ingredient in many South American dishes. One of the most striking features of this vegetable is that its tubers are varying in color which includes yellow, pink, purple and red colors. Some are even candy striped with waxy and shiny skins.
Ulluco has a crispy texture and this texture is maintained even after being cooked. Although it can be cooked in many ways as you would a potato, frying and baking the vegetable is not a good idea as it has high water content. Boiled Ulluco has the flavor almost similar to that of boiled peanuts but with a firm and crunchy texture. Their skin is soft and thin and hence there is no need of peeling before eating it. Although Ulluco is mostly grown for home use, some farmers consider it an important cash crop that could benefit both the health and economic situation of people living in the highland areas.
Nutritional value of Ulluco
Ulluco is very nutritious and at the same time a good source of carbohydrate. The nutritional content is found to vary considerably, especially the levels of protein. Fresh ulluco tubers are made up of 1to 2 percent protein, 14 percent sugars and starches and 85 percent moisture. These tubers are also a rich source of vitamin C, providing about 23 mg of vitamin C per 100 g servings. They contain moderate amounts of fiber and no fat content. The leaves of ulluco are also a good source of protein.
Uses of Ulluco
In terms of nutrition, Ulluco is high in carbohydrate and fiber levels in addition to moderate amounts of protein and low levels of fat. The tubers of this vegetable are consumed as staple food by the Andean people. They are used in several traditional dishes including salads and soups. The tuber has high amount of water and are often grated, shredded, mashed, boiled, pickled or added to stews and soups to thicken them. As a thickening agent, Ulluco is preferred to potatoes, as they produce a smooth soup without any lumps or grains. The skin is very thin and can be easily removed after cooking. The flesh of ulluco is either white or yellow, like young potatoes, but has a crispy texture. They are often boiled and served cold in salads in many restaurants and urban houses in Ecuador.
Ulluco tubers have a longer shelf life. They keep fresh for almost a year when stored in a dark and cool place at ambient temperatures. When exposed to sunlight, there is the possibility of their skins turning green in color. Canned Ulluco is largely available in the market nowadays. As opposed to many other canned vegetables, canned ulluco retains its natural texture and flavor except for a slight loss in color.
The people of Andes sometimes freeze dry the tubers of ulluco and turn them into a product known as llingli, which keeps for a long time. This product is then ground to make flour that is often added to dishes. When compared to the fresh tubers, the dried ones are more tasty and flavorful. The fresh green leaves of ulluco contain many nutrients, which are considered to be beneficial for the health. These leaves, having a taste similar to that of spinach are usually added to salads or boiled to make a soup.
Although Ulluco is a popular vegetable in its native country, it has not become known much to the outside world because of the popularity of potato and also the difficulties involved in cultivating it. It can be eaten uncooked, but is slimy when raw. Another advantage of Ulluco is that all parts of the plant are fit for consumption at all stages of its growth. The tubers that look like potatoes are considered to be a delicacy in South America. The leaves are highly nutritious and the tubers can be stored for almost a year. Moreover, the plant is resistant to tough weather conditions, tolerant to pests or diseases and also produces reasonable yields even when grown in poor soils.