How to get a taste of the tropics in your garden

Oca tubers have the texture of green peppers and the flavour of lemony potatoes

You don’t have to go to a Latin American restaurant for Mexican, Peruvian or Brazilian cuisine, I show you how to grow a fiesta of flavour in your own backyard

Cassava chips, sweet potato picarones, tomatillo tostadas: our street eats and festival foods continue to bang the drum for lively Latin American flavours, and the good news is it’s perfectly possible to grow a little ‘Latinollotment’ in our colder climes this spring and summer. From sweet potatoes and colourful oca to tumbling tomatillos, fat baby achocha and even juicy cactus – you can grow your own carnival vibe without the food miles or air fares.

In fact, many of our more common crops – sweetcorn, chilli, tomatoes and potatoes – originated from the Andes, so it’s only a small step to experiment with other more exotic veg from this region. And increasingly, gardeners are having success.

Underground gems

Organic gardener Tanya Anderson from Lovely Greens has even had good harvests on her wet and windy allotment on the Isle of Man. With a climate very similar to the North of England and heavy clay soil: if she can grow them, then anyone can!

On her beautiful plot-and-a-half in Laxey, a village on the Isle’s east coast, one of these ‘exotics’ is oca – also known as the New Zealand yam. It’s a tuberous vegetable first grown in the Andes but now available in Europe thanks to breeding programmes that make it more tolerant of our cooler weather. While it has all the versatility of a potato, oca is actually related to wood sorrel, with a texture more like green peppers or carrot and the flavour of lemony potatoes.

It’s simply to start off. Plant in pots of compost in April in an unheated but frost-free greenhouse or windowsill, or plant out direct in late May. Buy tubers from Crocus or Real Seeds.

“When you order them, you’ll get these tiny looking things that you’ll won’t believe will grow into anything – but they do!” says Tanya. “Grow on like potatoes and don’t lift until the foliage has died down, even if you’re tempted to.

“I love them because they remind me of digging up potatoes, except instead of brown lumps you get these beautiful colours – yellow, purple and pink. Almost too good to eat!”

Another tuber to try is the sweet potato – a must-have ingredient in ‘camotes enmielados’ (candied sweet potatoes), quesadillas and curries. Try purple ‘Molokai’ from Marshalls-seeds.co.uk.

You can tie the sprawling stems of sweet potatoes up canes

Unlike normal potatoes, the sweet varieties are grown from ‘slips’ – essentially long shoots – and are not potatoes at all but rather a root veg. When they arrive through the post they can look like half dead weeds, but place them in a glass of water and they’ll soon revive. Once new roots appear you can plant up into small pots of compost, covering the whole length of the stem right up to the base of the leaves.

Grow on until all frost has passed and plant them in fertile soil indoors or out: they need high temperatures (around 21C) to develop a really good crop. Train the sprawling stem up canes or along the ground and in late summer, around 16 weeks after planting, the foliage will begin to turn yellow and you can start harvesting.

Salsa verdant

Salsa features heavily in Tanya’s diet in the summer thanks to her prolific harvests of tomatillos – the Mexican husk tomato. Like baby green versions of our common tomato, wrapped in a little cape (the Spanish name means ‘little tomatoes), they are sweeter with denser flesh.

Sow seeds (available from Real Seeds) indoors in April in tray of compost and transplant into small pots before hardening off. Plant outdoors in May and ensure you have at least two plants for effective pollination. Any more, and you will be overrun with fruit!

The plants tend to flop as they grow and can be encouraged to sprawl along the ground in larger veg plots, but Tanya has had success indoors in pots too.

Tropical adventures

If you really want to head off the beaten track, try achocha, the fat baby cousin of courgette. Originating form the high Andes it’s surprisingly easy to grow, producing bundles of spiny cucumber-like fruits. Sow seeds (available from Real Seeds) into pots on a windowsill in April/May and then harden off if growing outdoors, or grow in a humid greenhouse.

“The spines look wicked until you touch them, and you realise they’re velvety soft!” says Tanya. “I grew them up small wigwams but they soon got to the top and flopped down the other side, they need a lot of space.”

Caped crusader the ‘inca berry’ is aldo fun fruit to grow, especially with children. Ever had the amber fruits ‘physalis’ on a dessert? These are inca berries. However, the fruits are also known as ‘golden berries’, ‘cape gooseberries’ and (confusingly) ‘ras bharis’. In fact, there seems to be a different name for them in every country! The French call them ‘love in a cage’ due to the fact they are wrapped in a husk. The best results for these fruits come from indoor grown crops. Buy seeds from Suttons.

In Mexico ‘nopales’ or the prickly pear cactus is considered a delicacy too. Easy to grow and maintain, you’ll have to part with your entire plant to harvest it, however, and beware of the spines. Wash your Latin American feast down with a classic Peruvian Chicha Morada punch made from the juice of red sweetcorn (you can buy the glorious ‘Double Red’ sweetcorn from Real Seeds) and you’re good to go.

Where there’s a will…and a wallaby

Hopefully your growing adventures won’t include some of Tanya’s challenges, however. “We have roaming pheasants that like to peck at everything, and inquisitive cows. I’ve also heard stories of wallabies stealing allotment produce – they were naturalized here 50 years ago when they escaped from a wildlife park – but I’ve never seen one!” she says. “Needless to say, I grow a lot of my veg under hoops and nets.”

“It’s definitely worth the effort though – and where there’s a will there’s a way,” she adds. “Growing your own tropical veg not only connects you with the soil and your health but saves you a massive amount of money. You can’t buy these vegetables easily in the shops. This year…I’m planning on growing my own green tea!”


Carnival cuisine

How to cook up your tropical crops in the kitchen

Sweet potato quesadillas

Toss with paprika and roast and sandwich between tortillas with mashed avocado and a squeeze of lime.

Stuffed achocha

Eaten raw they taste like cucumbers; cooked, they taste like green pepper (and are an excellent substitute where these are harder to grow). It’s not called the ‘Stuffing Cucumber’ in South America for nothing – slice open, scrape out the black seeds and stuff with cream cheese or pack with herby rice, and bake.  

Roast oca

Described as a ‘lemony potato’, oca has a crisper texture (not unlike pepper) and is nuttier when cooked. If you find them too bitter, Tanya recommends leaving them in storage, or better yet in cool sunlight for a month to sweeten. Shake chilli flakes and salt together in a bowl and stir in the oca until coated. Roast in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes. Skewer gently: they are cooked when they’re soft all the way through. The mounds of young foliage also make lovely salad leaves and have the zestiness of sorrell.

Spicy tomatillo salsa

Cooking or roasting reduces the tomatillo’s acidity, so cook in a pan for a few minutes until the skins split then cool and blitz with herbs, chilli, garlic and lime to taste. Chop an avocado and mix well, adding a little salt and pepper.

Cactus salad

Rub or cut off the spines wearing gloves (or if you’re really worried, buy them ready-prepared from Mexican Grocer!), and add your ‘pads’ to a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes until al dente. As it cooks, cactus releases a gooey liquid that needs to be skimmed off. Rinse under running water and add to a bowl with chopped fresh tomatillos, herbs and Mexican cheese for an ‘ensalada de nopal’.

Inca crumble

Said to be a cross between a tomato and a peach in flavour, inca berries are fabulous in a salsa or a jam (they’re packed with natural pectin), and as an apple substitute in crumble. You can also dry them and use them as you would sultanas in a cous cous, with sweet potato and spices such as cumin, coriander and ground cinnamon.

Chicha Morada

This classic punch can be made by bubbling purple sweetcorn cobs or ‘maiz morado’, pineapple rings, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, lime and lemon juice, sugar and water in a pan and bringing to the boil. Simmer for an hour and chill in the fridge before straining over ice.

First published in Vegetarian Living magazine, April 2019.  If you liked this, how about growing your own curry garden?

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