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.

A Walk Through the Plaza del Mercado

Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Today I concluded a short family visit to Puerto Rico with a stroll along the Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras, a district of San Juan. The Plaza is located in the downtown area, amid a busy commercial area. Upon entering the Plaza, the smell of meat from the butcher shops hits you. You encounter a few rows of small shops selling different goods, with attendants ready for a sale. Of course, there are fruits and vegetables. Local produce is labeled, sitting alongside imported  goods. We bought avocados, pumpkin, and lerenes (Guinea Arrowroot, a native root crop). Butcher stands display several types of feet – cow’s, pig’s and chicken’s – with a few kinds of dried fish, mostly the traditional bacalao (codfish), along with other cuts of meat. You also find botánica stands, selling candles, herbs and other goods for your corporal and spiritual health (along with other purposes). There are a also stands selling lottery tickets.

Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras PR Plaza del Mercado - Rio Piedras

Outlining the small maze of shops, there are clothing stores, a barbershop, a multi-purpose doctor’s office, and other varieties of goods and services. In the heart of the Plaza you find the food court,  with traditional offerings including morcilla (blood sausage), pork, rice, beans, seafood turnovers, and other varieties of tasty and calorie-dense Puerto Rican dishes. You also find traditional food from the Dominican Republic, such as mangú, reflecting the changing demographic in the area, and creating the wonderful Spanish Caribbean plate I had for lunch.

Lunch: Pork, baked ripe plantain, mangu, and morcilla, with a cold Kola Champagne.

Many urban centers in Puerto Rico have their Plaza del Mercado. Sadly, their use has been in decline as people opt for air conditioned supermarkets and, more recently, wholesale stores, like Costco and Sams. At the same time, there is a growing interest in local agriculture and locally produced goods, especially among the youth. Artisan products, such as jams, soaps, coffee, and beer, are more prevalent and accessible.

Sample of vendors from the Mercado Agricola Natural in Old San Juan (Photo taken from: "Nuestros Agricultores y Placeros", www.mercadoagricolanatural.com.

Sample of vendors from the Mercado Agricola Natural in Old San Juan (Photos taken from: “Nuestros Agricultores y Placeros”, http://www.mercadoagricolanatural.com)

According to some informal conversations, this (still small) increase in local production seems to be fueled by the harsh economic times, and the need for innovation when faced with an ever increasing unemployment and lack of other opportunities. Local production is also receiving some help (although maybe not enough) from the local Department of Agriculture, through various small initiatives, including education for farmers and consumers. As a result, the few Plazas del Mercado left in the island are now accompanied by a growing number of farmer’s markets, some catering to the “organic/natural”consumer, while others target welfare recipients. Urban agriculture is slowly rising, starting in people’s homes. In addition, new high-end restaurants are shedding a spotlight on fresh, local produce.

These are just a few initial observations. There is much to learn about the evolving Puerto Rican food system. While some might opt for the convenience of the supermarkets and wholesale stores, there is still a place for the small producer in the market. Further attention to the agriculture sector has the potential to improve the social and economic situation in the island. More will be explored in future entries…any comments, ideas, or information to further this conversation would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks to E.V. Rivera and A. Espada  for their help in preparing this post.