Why potato's cousins remain neglected

Tubers come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and pack quite a punch
Since tubers grow underground, they are naturally resistant to pests and are chemical-free unlike most fruit and vegetables (Photo: Vikas Choudhary)
Since tubers grow underground, they are naturally resistant to pests and are chemical-free unlike most fruit and vegetables (Photo: Vikas Choudhary)

The humble potato, a tuberous crop, has come a long way, and in its triumphal march, has sidetracked all other foods to occupy the prime place on our dining tables. But its cousins are not so lucky. The fat and ungainly elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius) does not enjoy potato’s wide acceptance. The somewhat spindle-shaped tania (Xanthosoma) is lost amidst colourful veggies piled over it in markets.

“Other tubers like cassava (tapioca or Manihot esculenta), taro (Colocasia esculenta) and greater yam (jimikand or Dioscorea alata) share a similar fate,” rues Abdul Nabeel, a farmer from Kozhikode district of Kerala, who grows all these tubers.

There are others like him who share the passion of growing tubers. Shaji N M from Wayanad, Kerala, grows 200 tuber varieties on his 0.80 ha plot. He has earned the sobriquet “The Tuber Man of Kerala” for his enterprise. Shaji also conserves wild tuber varieties that tribals have been gathering from forests for centuries.

Tubers are packed with nutrition but majorly neglected in our diets. Realising their potential for a hunger-free world, the Food and Agriculture Organization has categorised tubers like the sweet potato, along with pulses and millets, as Future Smart Food (FSF) in a 2018 report of the same name.

K Ramachandra Naik, professor of horticulture and principal scientist at the All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Tuber crops (other than potato) in Dharwad, Karnataka, explains the reason. “Tubers are organically-grown food below the soil, naturally resistant to pests and diseases, and are chemical-free unlike most fruits and vegetables,” he says.

V Ravi, head of the crop production division at the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute, Thiruvananthapuram, told Down To Earth that the institute is conducting research on tropical tuber crops. “Our institute has released 63 varieties which we maintain. We are encouraging farmers to grow all these varieties so that they survive. Unlike other food, tubers survive for three-four months after being pulled out of the soil,” he says.

To spread awareness about their nutritional benefits, a two-day tuber mela was organised in Mysuru by Bengaluru-based non-profit Sahaja Samrudha in mid January where some 100 farmers displayed about 40 kinds of tubers. Nabeel was one of the participants. At the fair, he sold his tubers at Rs 50 per kg against the average market rate of Rs 35-40 per kg to offset the transportation cost. He sold about 250 kg of tubers at the fair.

The event was organised to expand the market for tubers both in India and globally, and make people aware that there is a world of natural food out there to explore, explains Naik. There are other enthusiasts trying to popularise tubers, too.

Asha Kumari, who works with Sahaja Samrudha and has formed a tribal women’s group—Kanana Krishika Mahila Sangha—deals with 20 women farmers, who grow tubers in Mysuru. One such woman farmer is Kempamma, who says that such fairs give her an opportunity to sharpen business skills and market the products.

If you don’t know how to deal with tubers in the kitchen, ask Ravi of Mysuru, who cooked delicious recipes at the fair. One of the mouth-watering dishes was payasam or kheer (porridge) using sweet potato, almonds, coconut milk and jaggery.

Srikumar Kathribail, an ayurvedic doctor based in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, is all for tuber papads, which are a healthy option to potato chips, he says. He owns over 4 ha on which he grows tubers and other medicinal plants. He uses tuber to treat piles and to promote muscle growth in patients who are weak.

Tubers are rich in minerals, vitamins and carbohydrates, says Naik, and have a range of health benefits. They are good for treating heart, skin and intestinal diseases, and even help fight cancer, he adds.

With the rise of potatoes, particularly in the cities, the consumption of tubers has got restricted to tribal communities. It is time we moved beyond the potato. Tubers are hardy and have a longer shelf-life. We need more tuber melas across India to make people aware of the benefits of tubers.

Jimikand kofta

Ingredients (FOR KOFTA)
  • Jimikand: 150 g
  • Gram flour: 2 tbsp
  • Garam masala: a pinch
  • Green chilli: 1 (chopped)
  • Red chilli powder: 1/4 tbsp
  • Salt: to taste
  • Oil for frying

Ingredients (FOR GRAVY)
  • Onion: 1 (diced)
  • Tomatoes: 2 (diced)
  • Cashewnut: 6 pieces
  • Saunf (fennel seeds): 1/2 tbsp
  • Khus khus (poppey seeds): 1/2 tbsp
  • Red chilli powder: 2 tbsp
  • Turmeric: 1/4 tbsp
  • Dhania (coriander powder): 2 tbsp
  • Salt: to taste


Peel and boil the jimikand. Mash it and add salt. Add all the kofta ingredients listed above and prepare small balls from the mixture. Fry them in oil. To prepare the gravy, boil half a cup of water, add onions, cashew, saunf, khus khus and the diced tomatoes to it and boil for 5-10 minutes. Let the mixture cool down and make puree out of it. In a frying pan, add half a spoon of oil, add red chilli powder, dhania and turmeric. Add the puree and salt to it. Stir it for a minute. Add the koftas to the gravy and serve with carrot paranthas or radish paranthas.

 (This article was first published in Down To Earth's 16-28 February, 2019 print edition)

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