Topi Tambo, the Water Chestnut of the Caribbean and South America
As a child growing up in the Caribbean, one of my gastronomical pleasures was feasting on the little cream-colored, egg-shaped, root vegetable we called Tipi Tambo. Others call it Topi Tambo (as in the article’s title), Topi Tambu, Topeetambo, Topi-tamboo, Leren, Guinea arrowroot, sweet corn root, and more. Botanically it is called Calathea allouia. The plant is a member of the Marantaceae family, same as arrowroot. It should not be confused with Topinambour, commonly known as Jerusalem artichoke.
The season for Topi Tambo coincides with our carnival season, which for those unfamiliar, is a celebration of dance, music, parties, libations, costumes, and street parades right before the Christian Lenten season. Topi Tambo’s water chestnut reference is due to its texture. The rhizome retains a wonderful crunchiness after cooking and the flavor of slightly sweet kernels of corn. Hence the name sweet corn root.
Topi Tambo Plant and Harvest
The Caribs, who were one of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, first grew Topi Tambo about a thousand plus years ago. It was also one of the earliest plants domesticated by native South Americans. By the way, allouia, the second half of Topi Tambo’s botanical name, is what the Caribs called it. The perennial plant is cultivated in groups termed “patches,” which take about ten months to mature. The quantity of the harvest is determined by the size of the “patches,” the quality of the soil, which should be well-drained and not too compact, and the quantity of sun. Topi Tambo plants seem to favor shade.
Harvesting Topi Tambo
Preparing and Cooking Topi Tambo
Before cooking these tuberous lovelies, dirt must be washed away from their hard, outer skins. Typically, they are then boiled in salted water for twenty to thirty minutes. The salt seems to enhance their flavor. After boiling, the non-edible skin is removed to reveal their sweet, crunchy goodness.
Tipi Tambo once cooked can be eaten as a snack, appetizer, side dish, added to salads, soups, meat and fish dishes, or dried and grounded into flour. The latter was the early South Americans preferred method of preparation. My family’s way of preparing and consuming Tipi Tambo was boiling then snacking.
Some communities and countries eat the plant’s flowers as well. Others communities use the leaves as wrapping to hold foods while cooking and/ or as folk medicine for issues such as urinary tract infections (UTI).
Cooking Topi Tambo or Tipi Tambo
Nutritional Value of Topi Tambo
Topi Tambo has some nutritional value. Components include carbohydrates, protein, amino acids except cystine, according to a horticultural article from Purdue University on “Guinea arrowroot,” minerals calcium, iron, and phosphorus, and trace amounts of the B-vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.
Availability of Topi Tambo
It’s easy to find and grow Topi Tambo in the Caribbean and South America. In North America, not so much. You might be able to find the plant (and perhaps the vegetable) in ethnic stores, in places like Florida, or you can order it online.
Shelf Life of Topi Tambo
The shelf life of Topi Tambo depends on whether it’s stored raw or cooked, at room temperature or refrigerated. Storing raw at room temperature gives it the longest shelf life, as much as three months. Refrigeration on the other hand, rapidly diminishes Topi Tambo’s taste.
How Does Topi Tambo Compare to Real Water Chestnuts?
First of all, water chestnuts have a nutty flavor, but they are not nuts. They are water or aquatic rhizomatous vegetables. The water chestnut’s botanical name is Eleocharis dulcis and it’s a member of the Cyperaceae or sedge family. Other common names include waternut, horse’s hoof, hon matai, and matai. It is found in ponds mainly in China. The small, edible, bulb-like corms grow under water instead of under soil. Like Topi Tambo, however, its texture is crunchy and its flavor, besides nutty, is sweet like fresh corn. Canned water chestnuts have a bland flavor. If you’ve eaten a variety of Chinese dishes, chances are you’ve eaten water chestnuts.
Water Chestnut Plant and Harvest
The perennial water chestnut plant is native to Asia. It grows in shallow paddy fields like rice plants. In fact, the water chestnut plants are usually rotated with the rice plants. Consistent water levels and hot weather yield a healthy crop in about six months. Harvest occurs in the fall. The paddies or ponds are drained for 30 days prior to harvest to make that process easier. American states like Florida, California, and Hawaii are also ideal regions for growing water chestnuts.
There is another aquatic species, Trapa natans, whose edible fruits also bear the common water chestnut name. But it is not the one thought of when comparing water chestnuts to Topi Tambo. This Eurasian perennial is considered invasive to North America, where it was introduced in the 19th century. The plant quickly covers fresh water ponds, lakes and other watery bodies, creating havoc for aquatic animals, boaters, and swimmers. The fruits with their nut-like, sharp-spine skins are also harmful. Other common names for these chestnuts are Jesuit Nuts and Water Caltrops.
Removing the Water CHestnut Skin
Preparing and Cooking Water Chestnuts
Once the edible tubers or corms are collected, the mud is washed away to reveal deep brownish-purple or black shiny skins. Inside is the creamy white edible portion, another similarity to Topi Tambo. The water chestnuts can be eaten raw at this point or cooked and added as an ingredient to salads, soups, stir-fry, fried rice, and other Asian and non-Asian cuisines. They’re even made into foods like ice cream and cookies. They can also be grounded and turned into flour again like Topi Tambo. In their native lands, water chestnuts are used to make traditional medicines as well.
Water Chestnut Recipe
Nutritional Value of Water Chestnut
Water chestnuts offer a healthy supply of protein, carbohydrates, minerals chromium, copper, manganese, and potassium, B-vitamins thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, and dietary fiber, according to a Livestrong.com article on the health benefits of water chestnuts. Some would say these corms offer a bit more nutrition than Topi Tambo.
Availability of Water Chestnut
The fresh version of this aquatic vegetable offers the best taste. But whereas, fresh water chestnuts are readily available in Asia, it is shipped mainly in cans and other packaging throughout the rest of the world. You might find the fresh kind in Asian markets. Canned or packaged water chestnuts are available in regular supermarkets.
Shelf Life of Water Chestnut
Fresh water chestnuts can survive unpeeled, in tightly sealed plastic, in the refrigerator for about two weeks. An opened can refrigerated in the same manner can last about three days. Fresh, peeled water chestnuts do not last very long.
Final Word on the Caribbean/ South American Water Chestnut
Asian water chestnuts might be more readily available statewide, at least in cans and other packaging, but at the risk of sounding biased, I much prefer snacking on the little, tasty, egg-shaped tubers we on my island in the Caribbean call Tipi Tambo.