Learn how to cook with yacon, an exotic, healthy root vegetables from the Andes in South America.
I recently got to try yacon for the first time, and I couldn’t wait to get experimenting with this exotic vegetable. This vegetable traditionally comes from the Andes region of South America, where it has been cultivated more than a thousand years. While there are many varieties in South America—yellow, orange, red, pink, and purple flesh with unique flavors—in North America, we have white fleshed varieties. A tuberous root, yacon looks like a sweet potato, yet the vegetable beneath that rugged brown skin is sweet, moist, and crunchy—like jicama or water chestnuts.
Yacon is a close relative of the sunflower or sunchoke. Its name, a derivation of the Inca’s original language, means water root, referring to the high water content of this tuber. When crushed, yacon can make a subtly sweet juice, which is said to have quenched the thirst of ancient Incan travelers. High in fiber and low calorie, yacon also contains special natural sugars that act as prebiotics. These sugars, called inulin, aren’t easily broken down in the body, aiding digestion and promoting growth of good bacteria in the gut.
Relatively new to the global market, yacon is becoming more available and it is increasingly gaining status as a functional food due to its many powerful plant compounds in its leaves and root. These compounds are being studied for their anti-cancer, antioxidative, antidiabetic, anti-obesity, and weight management properties. In a 2019 review of studies published in the journal Nutrients, researchers report that yacon roots have been proven to have antidiabetic effects and have been shown to be effective in the reduction of body weight, fat, and waist circumference.
Growing in popularity, there are now yacon products, including herbal tea, powder, and syrup. It may not be easy to find yacon—or yacon products—in the U.S., but if you do, give it a try!
There are not a lot of recipes available for yacon, but that’s what makes it so interesting and fun! Although I have seen some uses for yacon in curry and stew type dishes, my research led me to note that the vegetable is most commonly enjoyed raw. It’s really easy to prepare yacon—just peel off the brown skin with a paring knife or vegetable peeler and shred it or chop it into dishes, such as salads and slaws. It’s also delicious in a crudité platter, like you would serve jicama. Yacon quickly discolors when exposed to air, so a squeeze of lemon or other citrus can slow the process.
I spent some time thinking about what flavors suited the mildly sweet, juicy yacon, as well as ingredients found in its native land, before settling upon my recipe creation, which is easy and healthy, too. Flavors of citrus, mint, fennel, pumpkin seeds, and cumin blend into this crunchy salad.