By Matt Gibson
Native to Mexico, Central, and South America, Jicama is a root vegetable and a staple of several latin cuisines for centuries. Jicama is also called Mexican potato, Mexican yam bean, ahipa, saa got, Chinese turnip, lo bok, kuzuimo, dolique tubereaux, pais patate, Chinese potato, Mexican water chestnut, sweet turnip, Seng Kwang, yacon, hecama, and shank aloo (or shankalu).
A distant relative of the potato, jicama is actually a climbing legume plant. After the Spanish invaded and colonized large chunks of Central America, Spanish traders introduced the plant to the Philippines, and then to Europe and other parts of the world. Jicama has since become a staple in Southeast asian cuisines and has recently become a common sight in produce departments in America.
Jicama can be enjoyed raw in salads or as a standalone snack, or cooked in a variety of ways, including roasting, stir-frying, or simply tossing it into soups or stews. Adding a subtle sweetness and crispiness to recipes, Jicama’s flavor is described as a cross between a potato and a pear, or a water chestnut and an apple. Either way, this versatile tuber can be used in both savory and sweet dishes alike. The large roots can grow to weigh a few ounces up to six pounds.
Jicama is cultivated for its gigantic taproot. After harvesting, the inedible outer-layer or skin of the Jicama root must be removed to get to the only edible part of the plant, the flesh of the taproot. The above-ground parts of the plant, including the 15 to 20 foot long vine, the leaves, the flowers, pods, and seeds, as well as the outer peel of the root, are all highly toxic, and should be discarded and kept away from pets and small children. All parts of the plant aside from the delicious root contain rotenone, which is highly poisonous.
Though you are quite likely to find jicama at your local grocery store, you are much less likely to find it available at your local gardening center. This is probably due to the fact that jicama typically requires nine months of hot weather to produce a decent harvest. This requirement can be significantly shortened by starting your plants indoors or in the greenhouse long before moving them outdoors. If you are having trouble locating the seeds at a nursery near you, you can always order them online and get started growing jicama in your garden. The nutritional facts of this oddly appealing legume root provide plenty of reasons to start growing jicama immediately.
The crispy, white, starchy flesh of the tuberous root is high in antioxidants, dietary fiber, and vitamin C, and a half-cup serving is only 25 calories. The root also contains significant amounts of B vitamins such as folates, riboflavin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid and thiamine, as well as essential minerals such as copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese. Jicama is considered one of the best natural sources of dietary fiber, and it is also a good source of oligofructose inulin, an important fiber which is technically a zero-calorie, sweet, inert carbohydrate. Inulin does not metabolize inside the body, which makes Jicama an excellent sweet snack for dieters and those with diabetes.
Varieties of Jicama
There are only five known varieties of the Pachyrhizus species, and only three of those are popular Jicama cultivars which are commonly cultivated around the world. The three common cultivars are Pachyrhizus erosus, known as the Mexican yam bean (this is the cultivar that is popularly cultivated in Asia and the US), Pachyrhizus ahipa, known as the Andean yam bean, and Pachyrhizus tuberosus, or the Amazonian yam bean, jíquima. Pachyrhizus palmatilobus, a less popular and less tasty variety, also known as jícama de leche, has a milky sap and deeply lobed leaflets. P. erosus, the most popular variety is also known as jícama de agua, for it’s clear sap, to differentiate it from jícama de leche, which has a milky sap.
Growing Conditions for Jicama
Jicama enjoys long days of full sunlight exposure and requires a trellis for support, as its vines grow up to 15 to 20 feet long with adequate support. Long vines and lots of leaves equals a large taproot to harvest. Jicama prefers a well-draining soil that is full of nutrients and rich in organic matter. Mix in several inches of well-rotted compost prior to planting to improve native soil. Keep soil moist at all times throughout the growing season.
How to Plant Jicama
Start jicama seeds by soaking them in water overnight. Then, sow at least two seeds into each four inch pot using a seed starting potting mix. Using a grow light, a greenhouse, or a warm windowsill, place the tray in a full light source about eight to ten weeks before the last frost or even earlier if you have a short growing season in your region. Thin the seedlings to the strongest one per pot after germination is complete.
Move into larger pots as soon as plants begin to outgrow their containers. This should be done regularly, and may need to be done several times before moving outdoors, unless you move them into considerably large planters early. Offer support to young plants if necessary and be prepared to support them with a trellis once you move them outside. Once the threat of frost has long passed, harden off your jicama plants and move them outside.
Care for Jicama
Amend native soil by mixing in several inches of well-rotted compost prior to planting. Provide plenty of water, keeping the soil moist at all times throughout the growing season. Feed your jicama plants regularly with a continuous release fertilizer or plant food several times during the growing season. Remove flowers as they appear so that the plant will focus on root growth instead of flower production.
Your jicama plants will require a trellis or some other kind of support to keep them off the ground. You can train jicama vines on a net, a wire fence, or a bamboo tripod, though raising the plants off the ground makes them much harder to protect from frosts. Like potatoes, all parts of the plant which grows above soil level are toxic. If you notice any parts of the tubers becoming exposed to the sun, manually pack in soil around them to cover them completely.
Jicama will not produce tubers until the days towards the end of the growing season are fewer than nine hours long, as it is a day-length sensitive plant. Typically, the shorter days it needs will coincide with the first fall frosts, so you might have to provide frost protection to get your Jicama tubers to grow to a respectable size. Greenhouses are optimal, but cold frames and cloches can provide enough protection to extend the season as well. You may also choose to use cloches at the beginning of the season as well, to help speed up the process of early growth and to help harden off the plants when moving them outdoors a little bit early.
Alternatively, you could opt to grow your jicama indoors under grow lights. Though you will likely only be able to grow a couple of plants due to space, growing jicama indoors will certainly ease the workload.
How to Propagate Jicama
Jicama is propagated by seed only. Because of its long taproot, transplanting after plants have become established is not recommended. Jicama can be planted each year.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Jicama
Because the majority of the Jicama plant is toxic, insect pests don’t usually trouble the plant at all. However, sometimes weevils can pose a problem. Set out a shallow pan of water at night, which will attract the weevils and drown them. Alternatively, weevils can be treated with pesticides.
How to Harvest Jicama
You may have to provide frost protection to get your jicama tubers to grow to a usable size. If cold frames or cloches are not an option, you can even cover your plants with an old blanket to protect them from mild frosts.
Similar to potatoes, you will know that your jicama plants are ready for harvesting when the above-ground parts of the plant begin to die off. Wait as long as possible before harvesting so that tubers will reach optimal sizes. Ideal tuber size is three to six inches in diameter, however, though smaller tubers have a milder flavor, they are usually sweeter than full-sized tubers, and some people prefer them when they are slightly smaller.
To harvest your jicama tubers, use a garden fork to gently loosen the soil around the plants. Feel around the soil with your hands for the tubers. Pull them out and lightly brush off all the soil on the surface of the plant. Don’t wash your tubers until you are ready to use them, as water will encourage mold formation and can easily cause your tubers to spoil before you get a chance to use them.
How to Store Jicama
There are several options for storing jicama tubers. No matter what method you choose, the most important factor is to keep them dry. You can store jicama at room temperature until you decide to cut it or peel it. Once it has been cut, it can be stored in the fridge for short term usage or in the freezer for long term storage. You can freeze whole jicama or you can chop it up first and freeze the pieces.
Jicama can also be canned for extended storage. Jicama is also great pickled. You will have to do some research and figure out how to can it or find a pickling recipe on your own, but we will walk you through all of the standard storage methods for jicama so that you can easily extend the shelflife of this versatile vegetable.
Freshly harvested jicama can be stored at room temperature. Keep it in a cool dry place, ideally in temperatures between 53 and 59 degrees F, but no colder. Make sure they are in a place where they will not accumulate moisture, as this will lead to rot or mold. Jicama stored at room temperature should last for two to three weeks. Treat your jicamas with care while in storage. If they get banged around, the protective skin could bruise or blemish, which can greatly affect their shelf life.
Once you cut into the jicama, it can no longer be stored at room temperature. If left out too long after cutting and peeling it, it will start to discolor. After cutting, you will want to keep it in the fridge for extended storage. Pat dry with a clean towel or paper towel and wrap tightly in plastic wrap to prevent them from collecting moisture.
Store wrapped jicama in the vegetable crisper drawer in the fridge. Keep it out of the coldest spots in the refrigerator. Jicama should keep in the fridge for about two weeks. If you don’t have plastic wrap, you can keep it in ziploc bags, but make sure to push out excess air before sealing and seal the bags well.
If you aren’t going to use all of your jicama in a timely manner, and you only use small amounts at a time, it is probably best to store your jicama in the freezer for extended periods. You can freeze and store the whole jicama or cut jicama in the freezer. Just make sure that it is dry before placing in the freezer.
For whole jicama, wrap it tightly and completely in foil and store it in the freezer for up to one year. For jicama that has been peeled and sliced, pat slices dry and stored in a sealable freezer bag or an airtight plastic container. Either option works, as long as it is sealed and airtight. Cut jicama will store in the freezer for up to 9 months.
When you are ready to use your frozen jicama, just set it out at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour and put it to use immediately or move it to the fridge to thaw overnight. Once you have removed frozen jicama from the freezer, you will want to use it within one or two days, as it will not keep for long after thawing.
Younger jicama tubers are sweeter and milder, whereas larger tubers are more robust and flavorful, but slightly less sweet. Cut raw jicama into sticks and use it as a raw vegetable snack to eat by itself, or to dip into hummus. Raw jicama can also be chopped or shredded onto a salad, and is especially good raw when combined with citrus elements, such as marinated in lime juice. Jicama is also excellent when cooked, and can be tossed into soups, stews, or stir-fries.