Ramón: Breadnut, Ojite, Ojoche, Capomo, Jushte, Ash, and Ox… AKA the “Maya Nut”.
In 2014, when I travelled to Chiapas to see what I’d find there for Frutas y Verduras I was hosted by a young couple who were working in a community in the rainforest of Chiapas as part of an NGO. The project was to make use of the seed from a tree they called ramón.
The fruit and the seed from the tree were both edible, but the seed in particular was known to be highly nutritious, At times of famine it had been valued as a food source but once the desperation for food was relieved, the process of drying, roasting and grinding them was more, perhaps, than local people wanted to do with this food they associated with harder times. Instead, the trees were being felled for lumber, an unsustainable practice that was endangering an eco-system where a great many foraging animals depended still on this tree for their food. Even, still, some Maya locals were collecting not just the fruit, but the seeds themselves to eat with corn, either as a drinkable gruel (atole) or made into tortillas, Since the early 2000’s, NGOs in Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua)had been working with communities to make best use of this resource, and, as this couple told me, it was important for Mexico to follow suit.
Thanks to Google, I was able to conclude that they were talking about the ‘Breadnut’, or ‘Maya nut’ tree. (Brosimum alicastrum). Although interesting, it didn’t fit my criteria for Frutas y Verduras as it wasn’t a fruit /vegetable that the average traveller would likely stumble upon in a market setting and take home to cook or snack on, so I didn’t pursue it further.
The Bread from the Breadnut
Now 3+ years later, with a longing for some good bread, I wandered into Panaderia Rosetta*, a bakery-cafe in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, and a mecca for all good things bready. There on the shelves, I sighted a hearty-looking round “peasant” loaf. Nut brown, with a sprinkling of oats on the top. My kind of bread. I asked what it was.
“Pan de ramón – un nuez de Chiapas”.
“It’s ramón bread – a nut from Chiapas”
I hadn’t thought about it since my visit with that young couple, so I was delighted to buy a loaf and taste what ‘ramón’ had to offer.
The bread from Rosetta was dense and chewy. My first bite revealed a nutty and sweet earthiness that reminded me of the hot chocolate of Oaxaca. Although it was described as a ramon and avena(oat) bread, it was made on a base of wheat flour. However, ramon could be well used in an assembly of ingredients for a gluten-free bread.
Reading up on it, I learned that this ramon powder, in addition to being used as an alternative flour, is being added to teas and some coffee-alternative hot beverage mixes to add an earthy richness. Unlike coffee,however, it’s caffeine-free and is said to have a relaxing effect due to its content of the amino acid, tryptophan. According to the Maya Nut Institute, it’s even being used to add flavor (and nutrients) to beer.
Ramón’s Food Value
Ramón is not a ‘true’ nut, it’s a drupe, like a plum, cherry, or almond. This means it does not contain the alkaloids or allergens that people with nut allergies react to.
Fat-free, gluten-free, ramón is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants with 19 of 20 possible amino acids along with folic acid and proteins.
The seeds can be eaten fresh and, traditionally, when they are collected, they may be cooked until soft and mashed – but as a food product for distribution they are more often dried and roasted after which they can be kept for up to 5 years without loss of nutrients.
To incorporate the flour into your baking, Refer to this RECIPE PDF FROM THE MAYA NUT INSTITUTE
For the communities where the tree grows, harvesting ramón is accessible work for young and old – children can easily gather the fallen nuts which are easily split open to be processed into a usable food. With a supportive infrastructure for distribution, and a system to manage the forests to ensure that none are over-harvested, ramón, this “Maya nut” as you may see it called, is a sustainable food. If you consider it, the common acorn is a similarly viable food source, one that native people in the northern parts of North America utilized, though Europeans never took to it as a food; it was left to the squirrels.
As many of us look upon our consumer food supply with skepticism, this is inspiration to look in our back gardens. After all, foraging animals are one indication that a plant will be good to eat. Ramón is just one of many ingredients that are being “rediscovered”… naturally “organic” and an opportunity to sustain many.
If you can’t find ramón powder at your local health foods market, you can order it through Amazon
Teeccino is one company using ramón seed in its beverages.
READ MORE ABOUT IT:
http://mayanutinstitute.org/ ( you can donate to their initiatives here)
Agriculture starts with seeds and ends on the plate. The cook stands in the middle. By influencing our food habits to become more respectful of family farmers, cooks have the potential to be great “shakers”.
“Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food” by Janneke Brull
Article in full, here.
The Slow Food movement, the 100-mile Diet, Monsanto and other agriculture giants – awareness of the many issues we face as eaters have, for years now, influenced my choices any time I considered a recipe. Is it in season? (Living in Canada, the answer to that for 9 months of any year, would be no). How was it grown, what’s its carbon footprint… cooking is a responsibility.
As a cook in Mexico, it’s possible to go straight to the source, to cook and eat locally and responsibly. There’s almost always going to be a mercado or tianguis where you can go and buy your ingredients from people who are directly connected to where the food was grown or raised. It’s remarkably easy to stop supporting Big Agriculture.
As I write this, it’s a month after the earthquake. I’m in Mexico City, living in the Roma-Condesa neighborhood.
There was major destruction near my apartment, many lives lost, and while I was lucky to have been spared any damages – aside from lingering anxiety any time a truck passes, shaking the building – several friends who live nearby were displaced from their homes. Resources and assistance, by civilians and international aid, poured into this neighbourhood within hours of the disaster. To call it ‘heartening’ would be an understatement.
This was not true for a great many communities. In less wealthy, less tourist-oriented communities, assistance came too slowly, many said. No matter how you look at it, the poor don’t have insurance or emergency funds for repairs.
From Tlalpan and Xochimilco in the southern part of the city, to pueblos in Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca and Chiapas, millions of poor were affected.
In these areas, subsistence milpa farms are the foundation of the local economies. From small, densely productive sustainable agricultural plots, comes beautiful food – the ingredients of their heritage, the base crops being corn, beans, squash and chiles. The community shares what is needed and sell or barter the rest.
In most towns and villages, aside from the mercado(s), tianguis –roaming markets– set up each week at set locations under colorful tarps. These tianguis are typical throughout Mexico –in Mexico City, the sheer number of them is astounding. Amongst the more “commercial” vendors, there are the true regional entrepreneurial growers who have travelled for hours in some case with their baskets of freshly picked produce. In many cases, they are women, sometimes bent and wizened, sometimes with small children in tow.
Outside the Mercado San Juan in the historic centre of Mexico City.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t recall this vendor’s name, though I did ask him at the time. He told me they were from Puebla, and for more than 40 years he has set up outside the market, along the sidewalk. The stalls inside were too expensive, he said. He is now blind, and was accompanied by his grandson and six year old great-granddaughter. While we talked he was teaching her how to add and make change. She goes to school ‘on some days’, she told me.
It is October, now, post rainy season and high time for harvest of the corn, beans, chiles and the other milpa crops. However, those who farm, harvest, glean and sell, have other serious matters to attend to like building shelter, and repairing what homes can be salvaged. More hands will be needed and this will undoubtedly affect the children whose families are poor – they will be kept home to help.
Floods of donations were collected to assist earthquake victims. But what can we do in the long run? What if each of us made a greater effort to support their work as agricultural guardians?
Given the choice, the supermarkets and big-box stores where shiny apples and perfect peppers grown for the masses by big Agro, are not where I want to put my pesos. Frutas y Verduras – A Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico was my own small effort to make foods less known by us foreigners more approachable. I encourage you, now more than ever, to take the time to discover the beautiful foods grown lovingly by real people who work the land with their hands, who pray for rain and who trust in nature.
Until the end of this year, I will contribute 25% of all sales of Frutas y Verduras (both iOS and Kobo) to groups that I will personally be vetting, who are actively working on the re-building of pueblos especially in agricultural areas.
“Most of the victims were poor children in India’s main lychee-producing region who ate (lychee) fruit that had fallen on to the ground in orchards”
Several months ago, when I had decided I was going to commit to this project, I reached out to a few online groups where expats get their information. There is a big Yahoo Group in Michoacan and another in San Miguel de Allende. (Both, incidentally, are resources worth plugging into if you are exploring the possibility of moving to either of those areas. I’ll include the links at the bottom of this post.)
My post described that I was working on decoding the mysteries of the fruits and vegetables here in Mexico that are most foreign to most of us expats– that with this information, I would build a practical field guide and make it publicly available.
I immediately got an email from Linda, who was living outside Pátzcuaro at the time. She had come across a tuber that she said was the root of the chayote. It was no surprise that if the chayote yielded a tuber, or that if it was edible, then it was eaten. However, here in San Miguel, I had never come across it.
She sent me photos and described how she and her husband had prepared it. I was so thrilled, not just to know about this new vegetable, but that it affirmed for me that when we share information – as I wanted to do on a larger scale– it could lead others to feel safer to experiment with foods they were curious about.
Trouble was, I hadn’t been able to get my own hands on this raiz de chayote. The second hand information was great, but of course I wanted to be able to try it myself!
Recently, I was talking to a friend who lives in La Manzanilla, on the west coast of Mexico, but spends some time in San Miguel. Eileen teaches cooking in La Manzanilla, so, as a kindred foodie-spirit, when she mentioned she was going to Patzcuaro, I told her the story of Linda and the Raiz de Chayote. (AKA Chayocamote, chinchayote, chayotestle and probably other names).
So when Eileen was in Patzcuaro, she tracked it down and brought me back a whopping big tuber. Finally, a chance to try it out (that post coming soon), but what was most rewarding was Eileen thanking ME for sending her out on this mission… I know for myself what fun it is to search and discover!
SO LET’S SHARE!
How I’d love to see this work: You’re at the Tianguis, or in the Mercado and a vendor presents something– you don’t know what the heck it is, or what to do with it…
Buy it, and try it, or just take a photo of it with your phone, and share it with me here :
I’ll write a post here and will also be able to add this to the content for my upcoming eBook…because you are not the only one who’d come across that very same food and had the same conundrum– the more we share, the better it is for the community, and for the indigenous farmers from whose culture we are gaining so much… When we explore more those foods that are ancient and unmodified, we help preserve them for generations to come.
Take that, Monsanto!
The Michoacan Net – Yahoo Group: (also has a page on Facebook under same name)
also: cuitlacoche or xuitlacoche
When the milpas become ready for harvest… the corn (maiz), the vines of beans that have wound around the corn stalks, the squashes that weave through the fields at the base, and the volunteer greens like verdolagas and quelites, that help keep the soil moist under the hot sun… so does the bastard child of the corn come ready for harvest too. Those cobs plagued with disease, a pathogenic fungus that invades the corn, replacing the normal kernels of the cobs with large bloated silvery silvery-grey tumors: call it Corn smut, or ‘Devil’s Corn’… either way, in the North, it’s not been looked upon fondly.
Nothing short of a blight for corn farmers, in fact, often rendering 10% of a US harvest useless. But in Mexico, the Aztecs had long been enjoying this as a food. They call it huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche). Etymologically, there’s several possible meanings for this Nahuatl word, and the one that has had the most ‘hook’ is ‘raven’s excrement’, which may explain its dark mystique.
It’s amazing what a little re-branding can do; in the past 5 years or so, huitlacoche has been introduced to the gourmet market in the US, as the ‘Mexican Truffle’ – it’s a fungus, so that’s appropriate enough.. and it sure sounds better than ‘smut’ or ‘excrement’. But now that the vocabulary around Mexican cuisine is improving North of the Border, ‘huitlacoche’ is claiming its right to be named as such in the food-lovers’ syntax.
How good can sticky black goo taste?
You’re asking me? I love it. The flavor is earthy, a little smoky (if you add a dash or two of mescal while it’s cooking, that brings out the smokiness). … at the same time, there are smooth undertones of vanilla and a bright fruitiness a bit like cherries. And there’s no denying its visual appearance, so dark and wicked. Texturally it’s interesting because where the galls have separated from the cob, you’ll get that chewy nuttiness like a kernel of corn has. Under heat, when the silvery membrane breaks open, the black spores start to soften, break down, almost liquify into a slick, smooth, almost oily mass of black goo.
Even though it’s delicious, it’s oddly difficult to describe it in a way that is conventionally appetizing. Perhaps that’s best… we wouldn’t want Chipotle’s to get too excited about it!
It’s not difficult to cook, and it doesn’t need much in the way of seasoning; like mushrooms, the flavor is best left to stand on its own.
Sautéed finely chopped onion until translucent, then add the huitlacoche. Be sure to pick the threads of corn silk out first! The key is to cook it long and slow on a low simmer adding as little liquid as possible as it cooks and allowing the spores to break down fully and unify into a nice, lumpy black puddle…perhaps dry white wine or mescal to deglaze the pan if you want to get fancy.
How to serve it without scaring anyone…
Yes, some people are funny about what they eat. Fussy. Let them miss out on this delicious experience… leaves more for you and me.
Traditionally, it’s at home in a taco. For heat, strips of roasted poblano chiles (rajas) , chipotle or another smokey cooked salsa. As a quesadilla or filling in any other corn masa based snack: sope, tlacoyo, huarache…
But there’s no reason to be restricted to tradition!
Try using the huitlacoche as you might use mushrooms….
… over pasta, even in lasagna
…stuffing for chicken breasts
…as a sauce to accompany a steak (adding some smokey chile and pureeing it to a smooth creamy texture)
My most recent effort, here, takes a hollowed out calabacita (you can use regular zucchini) which I baked til it was tender, then filled it with the cooked huitlacoche I topped it with a creamy avocado guacamole which I seasoned with hoja santa) and that’s a pasilla salsa finishing it off. It was nice, and used up some of those calabacitas that ramble through the same milpas.
But where can I find it outside of Mexico?
First of all, I recommend you come to Mexico. Let a señora serve it to you atop a handmade tortilla that’s been cooked over a big metal barrel-cum-griddle…
Failing that, canned huitlacoche is really not a bad substitute for the fresh stuff and most authentic Latin markets will sell it. It’s not cheap, but it is intense, and goes a long way.
Or, you can see what happens if you grow your own corn… maybe you’ll get lucky and wind up with some smut instead, like my friend Steev did… read about that here, along with a recipe for his Squash blossom fritters stuffed with huitlacoche.
The quince is not native to Mexico, nor is it widely cultivated here. Its native origin is in Central to Southwest Asia: Turkey, Iran and into Morocco where it is a popular ingredient in tajines. From there, it would have entered Spain, which is likely how its seed was transported to Mexico. It grows on woody hillsides and orchards, so wherever you might find an apple tree there might also be a quince growing wild. The fruit comes into season in mid-late August into October, and here in Mexico it’s more likely you will find it through the local vendors who bring in produce from small orchards or the countryside, rather than from the larger vendors who bring in cultivated fruits and vegetables.
Generally, the fresh fruit is not eaten. The pulp is hard, somewhat woody. Its tartness mellows with cooking and floral aroma is released. Canning in syrup is a popular way to prepare and preserve it as well as jams, jellies, candies and liqueurs. It’s a nice addition to apple or pear compotes with its rosy-pink colour and firm texture. Having a high pectin content helps in gelling.
In Mexico, as well as other parts of South and Central America the membrillo is cooked, using plenty of sugar, into a pin block of firm jelly, called ate (AH-tay), or a darkish pink paste known as dulce de membrillo. The pectin level in the fruit along with the sugar, ensure that it holds up firmly. It’s delicious served with cheese, especially nutty Manchego, or soft curds spread on toasted bread or crackers and is classic Spanish tapas… A handful of almonds along with this, and a glass of sherry, or Jeréz, of course in Mexico, is exactly how I want to spend the rest of my evening…
When I lived on a rural property in Ontario, I battled purslane in my perennial garden every summer. There was no end to the determined fleshy stems that put down root wherever it came in contact with earth.
Little did I know I was sitting on an Omega-3 empire.
In the cracked, dry earth of summer, purslane pops up in the most inhospitable of spots, making itself at home in gardens beds and gravel and between rocks and cracks in driveways and sidewalks. Most of us just yank it out and throw it on onto the compost pile.
Unaware of its virtues as a nutritious food, North American gardeners and homeowners know this plant best as an annoying weed. Bright jade in colour, with the plump character of a succulent, it’s easy to identify. Fleshy paddle-shaped leaves cluster, petal-like, around a rubbery magenta-tinted stem. It spreads eagerly, shoots reaching out in every direction from a central taproot to create a thick mat.
Its origin is Eurasia, but thanks to its hardy nature and limited needs – a minimum of 20˙Celsius for germination and hardy seeds – it has easily become naturalized over land. Long-established in North America, fossilized pollen in Crawford Lake in Southwestern Ontario confirms pre-Columbian presence; the seeds, viable even after digestion, arrived ahead of the explorers, likely in the stomachs of birds. When Samuel Champlain arrived in what is now Massachusetts, he noted that this plant, pourpier in France, was covering the ground surrounding the Indigenous peoples’ crops of squashes and corn.
In Mexico, this same plan is called verdolagas. It’s long been a volunteer companion to the milpas – indigenous agricultural systems of corn, squash and beans. Along with the other wild greens such as amaranth and lamb’s quarters(quelites) that self-sow at the bases of the crops, it’s harvested and eaten. Verdolagas are readily available in Mexico’s markets most of the year; they feature in traditional dishes and are prized by influential modern chefs, like Ricardo Muñoz Zurita (chef and culinary researcher of Larousse Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana), who regularly feature verdolagas on their restaurants’ menus.
“Leafy Purslane appeases the plot’s thirst” wrote Columella, the most important writer on agriculture of the Roman Empire. How true this is. Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed purslane as part of their diet: a simple salad of olives, tomatoes, feta and purslane is very Mediterranean. It’s considered a culinary gem in the Middle East, Turkey, and India where it is cooked with other greens. From time-to-time in history it has appeared in North American cookbooks, often pickled or as a salad green, but otherwise, it’s been considered a weed, unworthy of a place on the table.
Yet, as a food, it’s versatile: its young, tender shoots are succulent and crispy; the flavour, tangy, like salty lemon-water on the tongue, makes it a bright addition to herbal salads. The entire plant, aside from the roots, is edible. As the plant matures and the stems get thicker, it benefits from cooking and integrates well into stews – its mucilaginous quality, like okra, will thicken a sauce slightly. As a side to proteins, it is complementary to pork, lamb, fish and poultry. When cooked with other greens, purslane adds a zip of citric acidity, just as a squeeze of lemon juice would.
It has been called the “vegetable for long life” in Chinese folklore and compared to spinach, there’s just no contest. It’s high in Vitamins A, C, E and B-complex; rich in calcium and magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium. But most remarkable are its levels of alpha-lineolic acid (ALA), an important Omega-3 fatty acid, which are higher than in any other land-based plant. In the magenta-tinged stems a bioflavonoid One caution however: like spinach and rhubarb, it is high in oxalates, meaning people with predisposition for kidney stones, or with gut-sensitivities may want to curb their consumption.
Come June, purslane will, once again, begin making its enthusiastic appearance. As history has shown, resistance is futile while the benefits at the table are many.
Paula Wolfert’s Anatolian Purslane, Lamb and Lentil Stew