Jicama (Pachyrrhizus erosus, meaning ‘thick root’ in Greek), is a legume and taproot, and a member of the Fabaceae or pea family (which includes beans, peanuts, and licorice). It is also commonly referred to as yam bean root, sweet turnip, Mexican potato, or Mexican turnip.
Jicama has many names around the world, from kuzuimo in Japan and dolique tubereaux or pais patate in France to sankalu in India. It should not be confused with the similarly named African yam bean, a perennial bush bean plant in which both the seeds and roots can be consumed.
Though its origin is not entirely clear, jicama has long been grown in Mexico, as well as countries in both Central and South America. It is also cultivated in the West Indies and was taken by Spaniards to the Philippines centuries ago, where it became a popular part of Asian diets, often as a substitute for bamboo shoots or water chestnuts.
Like potatoes, jicama is a tuber with brown skin and white flesh. Unlike its root relative, jicama is a juicy, sweet, nutty-flavored treat and can be eaten raw (after removing the skin) or cooked.
Similar in texture and flavor to a water chestnut, jicama will retain its crispness even after boiling. It is a popular addition to many dishes or as a crunchy apple-like raw snack. Some liken its flavoring to watermelon.
Although growers in parts of Hawaii, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico have achieved success in some smaller scale jicama production, most commercial shipments to the United States or Canada come from Mexico. Though the late fall months are considered peak season, jicama is available all year via imports from Mexico and Central America.
Types & Varieties
There are two principle varieties, jicama de agua (water) and jicama de leche (milk), so named to differentiate the internal juice. Most jicama cultivated for U.S. consumption is the water variety, with a large round root, similar in shape to a turnip.
The other, less common milk variety has an elongated, knobby root with white juice.
Pests & Diseases
Like other root vegetables, jicama is susceptible to bacterial spot and various fungal diseases, especially if soil is too moist.
Few pests are interested in jicama plants due to the natural toxicity of its above-ground parts (vines, stems, flowers, and pods), which are infused with the toxin rotenone. Weevils and borers, however, have been known to attack developing roots.
Jicama grows best in sunny, temperate climates and is sensitive to frost. Seeds, which resemble those of beans, should be planted in well-drained loamy soil, in wide rows with plenty of space (at least several feet) for jicama’s sprawling vines (up to 20 feet) to thrive.
Once planted, jicama grows as a sturdy, fast-spreading vine above ground, with a slowly developing taproot in the soil. Highest quality, fleshy roots will grow better with ample sunshine and warmer temperatures.
As the root fills out underground, plentiful white or blue-purple flowers will bloom and bean-type pods will become visible above ground.
Flowers should be culled early for better root development. Growth, however, is very slow and takes months, though this is dependent on day-length (short-day varieties are most prevalent) and temperature range.
Blossoms and pods are sometimes targeted by pests, but rotenone keeps most predators at bay (though immature pods are said to be far less toxic than mature pods). Care should be taken to consume only the white flesh of the tuber, after cutting away the rough, fibrous skin.
Jicama is harvested from 3 to 6 months after planting, sometimes longer, with the rounded root weighing from 3 to 6 pounds. If left in the ground, jicama will continue to grow in both size and weight (upwards of 20 to 40 pounds), though it will lack the plant’s characteristic sweetness and become more starchy.
Tubers should be firm, free of cuts or abrasions, cracks, or discoloration. Jicama should be stored in a cool, dry space with humidity of 65 to 70% to prevent moisture and flavor loss.
Storage & Packaging
Roots can last for several weeks under cool, dry conditions with temperatures ranging from 54 to 65°F and 65 to 70% humidity. Too much moisture encourages the growth of mold; if temperatures are too cool, chilling injury will result in both external and internal damage including decay and discoloration (the colder the temperature, the more severe the damage).
After peeling and slicing, jicama will not turn brown from oxidation. It can be stored in the refrigerator for a week if wrapped in plastic.
References: Cornell University, Texas A&M AgriLlife Extension, University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, University of California Cooperative Extension, University of Hawaii at Manoa, USDA.
GRADES & GOOD ARRIVAL
Currently, there is no grade information or good arrival guidelines specific to jicama for the United States or Canada.