Lerenes: Ancient tubers in the local market

calathea allouia

Calathea Allouia
Source: http://plantillustrations.org

Part of the beauty of visiting local marketplaces, such as the Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras, is re-discovering traditional and often forgotten foods. In this light, I want to dedicate this week’s post to the Guinea arrowroot – known in Puerto Rico as Lerenes. Their scientific name is Calathea allouia and around the Americas they are known by many other names and in different languages. In English-speaking areas, it is also known as sweet corn root, topeetampo, topi-tamboo, and topinambour. In Spanish, it is called dale dale in Peru, and agua bendita or cocurito in Venezuela. Lerenes are also known as aria or làirem in Brazil. [Source: J.E. Hernandez Bermejo & J. Leon (eds) 1994 “Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective”.]

Lerenes and Plantains - Plaza del Mercado (Rio Piedras, PR)

Plantains & Lerenes  at the Plaza del Mercado (Rio Piedras, PR)

During my visit to the Plaza del Mercado, we bought a pound of lerenes – On sale: $3/pound, down from $3.50. We spent some time at the stand, talking about the lerenes and the other products available at the market. During this time, I was able to observe other patrons at the produce stand as they joined me with a similar purchase, making comments that showed their excitement and surprise at finding these tubers in the market.

Once in the kitchen, the lerenes were cleaned and boiled in salted water. After an hour, they were finally ready to eat. I was instructed that traditionally, the skin is peeled off after cooking, before consuming – and so I did. While it can be done by hand, peeling lerenes is time consuming. After a few, I just ate them with the skin on, just as I do with potatoes. I liked the flavor and texture, even of the unpeeled ones. The lerenes taste is a cross between the starchy, creamy flavor of potatoes and the sweetness of corn, with a nice crunchy texture.

I tried lerenes as an appetizer, eating them in the seemingly traditional manner. Sitting at the kitchen counter and eating this root made me think of older times. Perhaps, decades ago, in rural Puerto Rico, families would sit around a bowl of freshly picked, boiled lerenes, peeling and eating them along with conversations about their days or perhaps catching up on the community gossip. While a rare, local treat for me, it was a basic sustenance crop for rural families of the times, and still may be among present-day rural Latin American communities.

Lerenes have been cultivated by indigenous populations in the tropical Americas for about 7,000 years. The book “Buried Treasures: Tasty tubers of the world” (B. Hanson (ed) 2007) suggest two possibilities for the English name, Arrowroot. One possibility is that the name derived from the Arawak term Aru-Aru, meaning “meal of meals”, denoting the importance of this tuber in the indigenous diet. A second possibility comes from the use of the plant to treat poisonous arrow wounds. Centuries later, lerenes have survived, although with a much minimized role in our diets. Luckily, they are still available thanks to the efforts of small-scale farmers who cultivate this root alongside other crops and to those who support their local products. With this, I can only hope to have encouraged you to venture to your local market: Support local agriculture and discover unknown culinary treats along the way.

“Vamos muchachos a buscar lerenes
Palos van y palos vienen”
– Estribillo de Vejigantes (Puerto Rico)

My thanks to A. Espada, L. Espada, and E.V. Rivera for their help in this post.