It sits in plain view on supermarket produce stands, hardly hiding but often overlooked. Tucked among orange habaneros, polished tomatillos and voluptuous red bell peppers, the jicama looks like a dusty old stone.
It’s hard and dirty and feels like you might need an ax, or a chainsaw, to split it in half. But cart home a "Mexican potato," as it’s often called, and you’ll learn why it’s earned a special place in the kitchens of Hispanics and others who love to cook.
A cousin of the sweet potato and a member of the morning glory family, this fleshy underground tuber — pronounced "hee-ka-mah" — originated in Mexico and South America, where it grows on a plant that produces poisonous pea pods. Also called yam bean or Mexican turnip, jicamas can range in weight from a few ounces to 6 pounds. Their white flesh is hidden beneath rough brown skin, which must be removed before eating. Like potatoes, jicamas can be baked, mashed, steamed or fried. Unlike potatoes, they are also good raw.
And they are eaten raw, especially in Mexico, where jicamas have the street-food appeal of American pretzels or hot dogs.
"You can get long pieces of jicama with lime juice and chili powder on every street corner and in every little shop. It’s a favorite snack food," said Solomon Terrazos, an employee at Flor de Michoacan in Mesa, where, for $2.70, jicama is served with watermelon, pineapple, cucumber and plenty of lime and chili.
In the American Southwest, chefs love the crunchy texture it brings to recipes.
"As far as consistency goes, it’s a cross between an apple and a potato," said Laura Slama, chef and owner of Celebrated Cuisine in Ahwatukee Foothills. "It’s similar to daikon or water chestnuts, but it’s tastier. It’s not so dry or hard."
Its taste, when raw, is difficult to describe. It’s crisp yet juicy, plain yet mildly sweet. As soon as you season or cook it, it absorbs the flavors of other ingredients.
"I discovered it in the bars of Mexico," said Donna Nordin, chef and owner of Cafe Terra Cotta in Tucson. Nordin, who uses the vegetable in several of the restaurant’s dishes, just returned from a promotional Southwestern cooking trip to Hong Kong. "The question everyone was asking was ‘What is jicama?’ "
That’s a question Kristofer Warneke also asked himself, eyeing a jicama in the supermarket one day about two years ago.
"I’m from Canada, and I’d never heard of it before. I saw one at Safeway one day, and I bought it and took it home," said Warneke, chef de cuisine at Quiessence Restaurant and Wine Bar at The Farm at South Mountain. "I made a Waldorf salad with jicama instead of pears. I stir-fried it. I did deep-fried chips. I made a jicama and chorizo sautee, using the jicama like hash browns."
Not only is jicama versatile, it’s low in calories and high in fiber.
"I love salsa, but salsa comes with chips, and I don’t necessarily want to eat a thousand chips," Slama said. "So I’ll slice jicama into thin slices, and use the raw slices as chips. Anything you use a chip for, you can use jicama instead. It’s great for dips."
Warneke also recommends using it in soups, green salads and fruit salads.
Nordin notes that it works as a garnish and jazzes up traditional vegetable trays.
"And grilling makes it a little sweeter, gives it a subtle charred flavor and cuts down on the crunch a little bit," she said. "You can mix grilled jicama with a salad or serve it as a side dish."