The savoury flower of elephant foot yam and how it's loved in Goa

The exotic flower is eaten widely in the rural parts of the state for a few days before the advent of monsoon

By Arti Das
Published: Saturday 13 July 2019
Sunnachi bhaji, a dish made from the flower of elephant foot yam and dried peels of kokum, truly represents the Goan food diversity (Photo: Arti Das)

Over the past five years, I have regularly spent my weekends at a village called Mashem. Situated in the southern taluka of Canacona, Goa, the place offers visitors the most interesting topography. While on one side, the sparkling blue Arabian Sea flows by, the Western Ghats overlook it on the other. This gave me ample scope to explore the rich biodiversity of the place, especially in terms of food.

During one such weekend in the scorching summer of May, I discovered the flower of elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius). It looked exotic, emerging fresh from the red earth, and its purplish pink thick-skinned petals immediately caught my attention. Even though the yam is widely eaten in the rural parts of Goa, I had never seen its flower before. It blooms just for a few days before the arrival of monsoon.

The velvety funnel-shaped flower, which grows up to 45-50 cm and is encased in a spathe, has earned a bad reputation due to its rotten flesh-like odour. It mainly attracts carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies that help in pollination. However, a few days before the flower blooms fully, it is plucked by the people to make a special seasonal delicacy. At this stage, the flower does not smell foul.

Goa-based farming expert Miguel Braganza says the dish prepared from the flower of elephant foot yam is known as sunnachi bhaji. After it is cooked, it has a chewy and meaty texture. Ideally, the dried peels of kokum (Garcinia indica) are added to it. As the flower has alkaline properties, souring agents are added to control throat and tongue irritation. The rural populace eagerly waits for the flower to savour this special dish.

Braganza explains that anthocyanin present in the flower lends it its beautiful purplish or pinkish colour. It is rich in antioxidants and can treat piles. But the flower is most sought after for sunnachi bhaji, which has emerged as one of the rare dishes of Goa. It truly represents the Goan food diversity.

GOA’S ASSOCIATION with elephant foot yam does not end with the flower. The corm or tuber, which grows underground and can weigh up to 8 to 10 kg or even more, is used to prepare khatkhate, another traditional vegetarian dish cherished in the state.

The yam, locally also known as suran or sunn, is considered nutritious and offers the best substitute for meat. But it contains calcium oxalate in fine crystals which causes “itching of fingers and pricking sensation of the throat and tongue” says a paper, Oxalate content in elephant foot yam, published in 2018.

Thus, it is necessary to boil the tuber before using it. It is a good source of carbohydrates, and is rich in vitamins B6, B1 and riboflavin, folic acid and niacin. It also contains beta-carotene.

A tropical climate is suitable for growing elephant foot yam. Thus, in India, it is mainly found in warmer states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Often, the yam comes in two varieties—the wild and the cultivated. The wild variety is non-edible and is known as luti in Goa.

One can distinguish between the two based on the colour of the stem. The stem of the edible variety, which grows up to a height of two metres, is green in colour, whereas the stem of the wild species is darker green. The tuber is also found in many parts of Asia, Africa and Australia.

The yam offers a range of health benefits and is sought after by Ayurvedic doctors. It treats abdominal pain, dysentery and spleen enlargement. Perhaps due to its numerous benefits, it has a rich cultural association in India.

Elephant foot yam is mainly cooked during Diwali, as it is widely believed that Goddess Lakshmi resides in it. Even in some African countries, rituals are associated with this yam. In some tribes, the biggest yam is offered to the tribal chieftain.

The tuber harvested from November to February is easy to grow. After harvest, the corm can be stored for many months after application of dry cow dung or mud. Because of this reason, it is also referred to as famine food. For those, who wish to cultivate, propagation is easy.

One has to cut a part of the corm and bury it in the soil. Though delicious and nutritious, tubers are not a popular food choice. Perhaps, it is time to give the yam a wider acceptance.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Goa)

  • 1 or 2 flowers of elephant foot yam (not fully bloomed as they smell foul)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 tomato
  • 4-5 dried peels of kokum
  • A pinch of turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tbsp of vegetable oil
  • ½ cup of water

Heat a pan and pour vegetable oil. Add chopped onions and tomatoes, and sauté well. After that, put diced elephant foot yam flower and cook till it becomes soft. Add dried kokum peels and water. Cover the pan with a lid and bring it to a boil. When it is ready, serve with hot rotis or rice.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated June 16-30, 2019)

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