Imagine, for a second. Imagine you've left the house you grew up in, the soil, the land. Imagine you've left tias and tios, a language, a country, the garden out back. You've left behind plates of feijoada, a burning sun, kitchen spoons and mixing bowls, the memory of okra and maxixi and a hundred other tropical plants not found under the waning New England sun. Imagine you have left Brazil—Maranhao maybe, or Minas Gerais—for Martha's Vineyard, imagine you have exhanged the equator for this tiny wind-tattered arc in the midst of the North Atlantic.
Imagine remembering each time you sit down to eat that though the island is beautiful and busy and the work is steady, there is no place like home, no taste like home on a dinner plate.
That's what Frank Mangan, a professor at UMass Amherst, imagined when he started working with ethinic crops. He went to give a talk on agriculture to a group of Puerto Ricans living in Holyoke fifteen years ago, and he's been imagining that same feeling ever since. He's worked with people from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nigeria, Honduras. He's started researching food plants that are culturally important to people from these countries, asking farmers here to try growing them, and then connecting the crops with the immigrants. Just imagine heading downtown to the farmers' market one day, expecting English peas and tennis ball lettuce and finding a table of this:
That taioba plant would be a sight for sore eyes, indeed.
It's not that there aren't substitutes for taioba—there are, spinach for one—but just like Swiss chard is no kale, they aren't quite the same. Taioba is a staple in many parts of Brazil, the kind of leafy green you chop and cook up alongside a bowl of rice or maybe a hunk of bread. It has broad, sloping leaves that sprout out like sun umbrellas, a patch of shade for the spiders and the ants and the cabbage worms of the world. Some people call it malanga, or yautia, or even cocoyam, just as they do its cousin taro, but taioba's the most common name.
It got to the Vineyard through Island Grown Initiative, a non-profit that Ali Berlow started. (Ali, in case you don't know her, is the brilliance behind A Cook's Notebook and, along with her husband Sam, the new Edible Vineyard.) IGI works to connect local people to local food, so connecting the roughly 4,000 Brazilians on the island with familiar crops was a big no brainer once they heard about Mangan's work.
Beyond taioba, the collaboration is bringing other Brazilian crops to the island, too. There's also maxixi, a lemony, cucumber-like fruit, jilo, a member of the Solanaceae family that has fruit sort of like a green eggplant, and okra, with its long, spindly lady finger fruits. The hope is that not only will Brazilians be excited to see a taste of home, but that other islanders will catch on, too. We could all do with a new salad or two.
The taioba plant I brought home is still pretty small—only a foot or so high—but to tide us over, one of Mangan's students, Zorraia Barros, offered up a recipe for Taioba Sauté. Once the crops start coming in, taioba should be available at the West Tisbury farmers' market on the Vineyard, and a few markets in the Hyannis area, too.
So keep your eye out, and don't be afraid to step outside the lines. Taioba might not taste like home, but I'm betting once you take a bit, that won't matter much.
Many thanks to Zorraia Barros of the University of Massachusetts Amherst for this recipe. Zorraia works with Mangan on his program and specializes in nursing and marketing little taioba plants. She developed this recipe in both English and Portuguese, which seems very appropriate to me, so I'm going to offer both versions here. The English one is a bit edited, but the Portuguese—well, let's just say I thought it best not to mess with that. So without further ado, meet taioba—in print now, and one of these days, at a farmers' market near you.
1/8 cup onion, washed, peeled, and chopped
2 cups taioba, washed and chopped
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, crushed
a pinch of salt
In a large black-bottomed skillet, heat up the olive oil. Add the onions when the pan is hot, and sauté for about five minutes, or until they begin to get translucent and soft. Turn down the heat and add the garlic, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds or until it is just on the cusp of getting too brown and burning, and then throw in the taioba. (The green, Zorraia says, is very delicate and will cook down to about a quarter of its original heft.) Stir it around for about five minutes, until the leaves are wilted and soft, sprinkle with salt, and serve.
1/8 xícara de cebola, lavada, descascada, e picada
2 xícaras de taioba lavada
1/2 colher de azeite de oliva
1 colher de alho amassado
1 pitada de sal
Lavar e perparar os vegetais. Numa frigideira grande aquecer o azeite de oliva. Adicionar o alho e a cebola, refogar por 1 minuto. Adicionar a taioba e refogar por 5 minutos ou ate ficar macio (a Taioba é muito delicada para cozinhar, no inicio temos 2 xícaras de folhas frescas e termina com 1/2 xícara de taioba refogada). Adicionar o sal e servir.