Foodie Fun with Tropical Plants

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We scientists have been eating lots of exotic new fruits and veggies here in Costa Rica. Besides the staple of rice and beans at every meal, we’ve explored the flavors of tropical edible plants in many forms. The squash and potatoes of Costa Rica, for example, are “chayote” and “yuca”:

“Chayote” (Sechium edule), or the vegetable pear, is in the cucumber family and the most commonly planted squash in Costa Rica.

“Chayote” (Sechium edule), or the vegetable pear, is in the cucumber family and the most commonly planted squash in Costa Rica.

We enjoyed chayote in stews alongside other vegetables, as otherwise it is said to be bland and not very nutritious! It can be cooked and eaten when it’s ripe and light colored throughout or even before it ripens:

Whole green chayote (left) next to some papaya slices (right).

Whole green chayote (left) next to some papaya slices (right).

“Yuca” (Manihot esculenta), also known as cassava or manioc, is arguably the most important food plant for humans living in the tropics worldwide. We’ve had it fried-up golden and crispy many times here.

We’ve been trying interesting tropical fruits both in the “comedor” (dining hall) and in the field. Although several of these are imported en masse to the US on a regular basis, it has still been cool to find them on our plates and out in nature.

Papaya (Carica papaya) and pineapple (“piña,” Ananas spp.) are native to the American tropics and common as desserts or breakfast food here. “Granadilla” (Passiflora ligularis) is a type of passion fruit that is particularly fun to eat. Its many edible seeds are covered with a sweet aril, or mucilaginous coating, and packaged into a little sack inside of a light, styrofoam-like rind.

In the field, we got to taste “uchubas” (Physalis peruviana), little tomato-like fruits that are sometimes called ground cherries or cape gooseberries.

"Uchubas": they are, indeed, in the tomato family and close relatives of the tomatillo.

“Uchubas”: they are, indeed, in the tomato family and close relatives of the tomatillo.

We also tried Vaccinium spp. berries (from the blueberry family) on the way to the top of a 3400 meter mountain:

Feasting on Vaccinium spp. berries near Cerro de la Muerte, thanks to our ethnobotanically-oriented tour guide.

Feasting on Vaccinium spp. berries near Cerro de la Muerte, thanks to our ethnobotanically-oriented tour guide.

Finally, many of us looked forward to the array of tropical fruit juices that typically accompany the first two meals of the day. We’ve had, at my latest count, Costa Rican guava (“cas”) juice, starfruit (“carambola”) juice, passion fruit (“maracuya”) juice, tamarind (“tamarindo”), naranjilla, and soursop (“guanabaná”) juice!

One of many beloved tropical fruit juices.

One of many beloved tropical fruit juices.

We even enjoyed fresh “agua de pipa” (coconut water, from Cocos nucifera) sipped straight out of the fruit sold outside of a local grocery store.

Pura vida!

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