Real Food Encyclopedia | Jicama
Tuberous jicamas are native to Mexico, where they have been eaten for hundreds of years. The Mayans mention the vegetable numerous times in the Books of Chilam Balam, a collection of Mayan manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Aztecs also valued jicama. Both the Aztecs and the Mayans probably only utilized the vegetable raw, as it was prized for its crisp, juicy texture. In the 16th century, Spanish traders introduced the tubers to the Philippines, from where it spread to Indonesia, China and further on into West Africa.
What to Look for When Buying Jicamas
Jicamas look like giant, round potatoes, with light brown, almost flaky skin. Peel the skin off to reveal a creamy white interior, with crispy flesh that has the same texture as an apple or pear but is less sweet than either of those. Look for smaller jicamas — any root that pushes the three to four-pound mark is likely to be tough, fibrous and less sweet. Avoid any roots that feel mushy, are cracked or have black or discolored spots on them.
Sustainability of Jicamas
Jicamas are not widely cultivated, but even so they may pose a bit of an environmental problem. First, it can be very difficult to find organic jicamas, so you’ll have to search them out. Second, if you’re committed to local eating, jicamas are not the best choice unless you are near the Mexican border. Although there is a tiny local jicama-growing industry in Texas and Florida, and they occasionally pop up in California farmers’ markets, the bulk of the jicamas in US markets are shipped from Mexico or even further south.
Jicamas are winter crops, generally available from November or December through spring.
Jicamas and Geography
Are you ready for your mind to be blown? Jicamas are actually in the bean family. That’s right: Pachyrhizus erosus (jicama) is in the Fabaceae (bean) family, counting as cousins green beans, peas, black beans and chickpeas. And although the tuberous root is the part of the jicama plant we most commonly eat, its bean pods, similar to lima beans, are also edible. There are two types of jicama that are cultivated: jicama de agua and jicama de leche. The former is round and squat with clear juice, while the latter is more tapered in shape, with milky-white juice. We most commonly see jicama de agua in markets in North America.
Jicamas grow much like other pole beans — they are vining in habit and produce white flowers, but the root is fairly slow growing, taking three to six months until it can be harvested. They need a long, warm growing season, and cannot be successfully cultivated in most of the US — parts of Florida, Texas and Hawaii are the exception. The vast majority of jicamas we see in US markets are grown in Mexico, Central America or South America.
Unwrapped in your refrigerator crisper drawer, jicamas will stay fresh for two to three weeks. A cut jicama can be wrapped well in plastic wrap and stored for up to a week in the ‘fridge.
Cooking with Jicamas
Jicamas taste kind of like a super crunchy apple crossed with a potato, in the best possible way. To prep, you must first peel their brown skin, but you may also need to remove an additional layer underneath the skin if it is tough and fibrous. You will generally not have to do this with younger, smaller jicamas. The tubers are almost always used raw in salads, salsas (see recipe below) and as crudités — the Aztecs got it right in revering the roots’ crispy, refreshing texture.
However, jicamas can also be fried (like spiralized jicama fries), tucked into stir-fries to replace water chestnuts, boiled and mashed like potatoes or baked. They pair fantastically with citrus of all types, creamy avocado, chiles and chile powder, and with pungent herbs like cilantro and mint. In Mexico, a common snack is jicama cut into sticks, tossed in chile powder and sprinkled with lime juice.
Crispy, crunchy jicama can be pickled (try bread and butter pickled jicama) or made into a jicama relish for canning. It can also be lacto-fermented: here’s a recipe for jicama apple cumin kraut and lacto-fermented jicama pickles.
Jicamas are very low in calories and high in fiber, making them a great snacking choice. They are also rich in Vitamin C and contain small amounts of folate, iron, potassium and manganese. The roots even have omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.