Even though it is fashionable now to eat locally grown and produced foods, exotic vegetables can spice up your diet and give you the opportunity to make your festive menu even more delicious.
There are many exotic vegetables that are worth trying and that give food lovers the opportunity to experiment and surprise their guests. Nowadays, it is not difficult to find recipes for these delicacies. Many exotic vegetables are rich in valuable nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, so their health benefits are undeniable. Here we suggest some of our favourites.
Banana flowers are used mainly in South Asian and Indian cuisine. They are tear-shaped male flowers that weigh about a kilogram and hang at the end of a banana tree. The purple petals are tightly packed very much like the leaves of cruciferous vegetables. Inside the flower are matchstick-like stems that smell of bananas. The inner petals are the edible parts but because of their bitterness have to be cooked before eating.
When the tough outer leaves are peeled off, the heart can also be eaten, like an artichoke and with a similar taste. Cut into fine strips and cooked, banana flowers are added to Asian dishes such as fried noodles or rice and give them a banana flavour twist. If the cooked inner petals are used, the flavour is even more delicate. The largest producers of the banana flower are Thailand and Vietnam where it is a common and very popular vegetable.
What to try?
Banana flower with red lentil and Indian spices
Salad of steamed banana flowers, chicken and shrimps with dressing made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, chilli and coconut milk, sprinkled with cashew nuts
Salad of banana flowers, spicy beef noodle stir-fry, covered with some fried onion and sprinkled with fresh coriander
Banana flower soup with shrimps, coconut milk, chillies and lemongrass
This tropical vegetable has a distinctive bumpy skin with slight ridges, belongs to the same gourd family as pumpkin, patty pan squash and courgettes and is similar to them in taste and texture. Most of all, however, the pleasant taste is like that of cucumber and kohlrabi. The taste is fairly bland, so it is rarely eaten raw without any seasoning. Chayote fruits differ in size, shape, colour and firmness. The fruit should be light green and firm without any brown spots and shoots – such chayotes can be stored in a cool place for a long time.
The nutty-flavoured seeds can also be consumed, and the root and leaves are eaten in Asia. The fruit is eaten whole without peeling and should be cooked only for a short time so that it remains firm. Small chayote fruits are tastier than large ones. Chayote may be used to prepare Mexican, Asian and Arabic dishes. Marinated with lemon or lime juice, raw chayote is added to salads or salsas to provide juiciness. In Australia chayote is commonly served with salt, pepper and butter. When cooked, it can be eaten and served like summer squash; it may be steamed, roasted, baked, fried and stuffed and is rich in amino acids and vitamin C. Nowadays, the leading grower of chayote is Costa Rica.
What to try?
Chayote sautéed in butter (with chilli, chives, coriander and cream)
Chayote baked with cooked ham, whipped cream and cheese
Chayote and onion quiche with eggs and cheese
Chayote and baby carrots sautéed in butter (in a light cream sauce)
The stalk of this interesting plant indigenous to the Mediterranean has a sweet flavour that is vaguely similar to that of celery. The beauty of fennel is that it is versatile and can be found in almost any grocery store or supermarket. Fennel seeds are used as a spice and also to make tea. The leaves, which are similar to dill leaves, may be used to make vegetable pickles and to flavour various dishes and salads.
If you want to prepare the white bulbs, you should choose the lightest ones. It is necessary to remove the outer leaves and cut off the hard green part. Fennel is delicious when roasted and served with meat while grilled fennel with Parmesan and lemon juice is especially tasty. Fennel is also delicious as a part of vegetable and even fruit salads. It is generally used to prepare French and Italian dishes and may be added to liqueurs and other alcoholic beverages.
This unusual and incredibly versatile vegetable is native to South America. It is the second most wildly cultivated crop with high starch content after the potato. The edible tuberous root may contain a little amount of poisonous cyanide, but cooking removes the poison. Cassava has a pleasant, slightly sweet taste.
The root has a brown skin and white flesh and is most commonly prepared like potatoes. Grated cassava roots are used to make pancakes or to thicken dishes, soups and sauces. In some countries the leaves prepared like spinach are eaten. Though cassava is naturally gluten-free and low in fat, it contains twice as many calories as potatoes. Cassava is rich in vitamins, minerals and many other health-giving nutrients.
Native to Vietnam, the gac fruit has an orange, spiky skin. Inside the fruit there are big seeds coated with a bright red sticky substance. The red pulp is used to make delicious thick sauces. The seeds are removed and may be steamed along with meat. Once the dish is ready, the seeds must be removed. The gac pulp is delicious when cooked with rice and other vegetables just like risotto. This way it can be an interesting side dish.
This delicacy for food lovers who enjoy the unusual grows on shorelines. Samphire is a succulent with an interesting delicate salty taste that is a little reminiscent of spinach. The vegetable may be eaten raw but also used as a salad ingredient or to decorate a plate. Steamed and served with butter, it makes a delicious accompaniment to any meat dish and combines well with fish and seafood.
Little-known in this country, this vegetable is native to Central America. Although it is widely cultivated and eaten in many countries in the world, it thrives in tropical regions. Similar to a turnip in texture, its taste is a cross between an apple and a roasted chestnut. The edible tuberous root should be peeled and can be consumed raw in salads — it may be used to make delicious coleslaw — or roasted and stir-fried with meat and other vegetables.
Okra is related to such species as cotton and cocoa and its botanical name is Hibiscus esculentus. The pods are pentagonal capsules up to 18 cm in length and taper into beaks that contain a lot of edible small white seeds. The fruit is dark green and resembles a courgette in flavour. The pods are harvested when they are still unripe. These are delicious and also quite decorative. Okra seeds can be roasted but are usually eaten along with the green pod.
Fresh okra should be flexible, firm, fragile and blemish-free and can be stored for a long time in a cool place. The seed pods have a sticky slime that oozes out when they are sliced and cooked, so they are used as a thickener for soups and sauces. They may be eaten whole or sliced (usually crosswise), with or without the seeds. They may be added to meat dishes, mixed vegetable dishes, sauces, or soups. When sautéed in butter, okra pods can be used as a delicious side dish.
Caribbean-style Cassava with Black Beans
If you are looking for an interesting vegan recipe that is sure to fill you up, you can try this unique way to prepare cassava. The dish may be eaten without accompaniments but also goes very well with garlic bread. It can also be served as a side dish to meat dishes.
Cassava thickens the dish, so you may add vegetable stock or water if you prefer a thinner consistency. To make the dish even more delicious, you may season it with lime juice and fresh coriander before serving.
1kg cassava, 1 large carrot, 1 large onion (80g), 3 cloves of garlic, 2cm ginger, minced, 2 jalapeno peppers, 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 sprig thyme, 2 tsp turmeric powder, 1tsp cumin powder, ½ tsp allspice, 1 tsp dried coriander, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 800ml vegetable stock or water, 400g tins cooked black beans, 1 red pepper, 150ml coconut milk, 1 or 2 limes, salt, black pepper, fresh parsley or coriander
- Peel the cassava, cut into large chunks and rinse thoroughly. Place in a large pot, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot and cook for about 30 minutes until tender but not overcooked. Drain the cassava.
- While the cassava is boiling, chop the carrot and the onion. Finely chop the garlic cloves and ginger. Remove the seeds from the red pepper and jalapeno peppers and then chop.
- In a large pot, heat the olive oil on a medium high heat and then add the chopped carrot, onion and garlic. Stir these for the next 3 minutes until the onion becomes translucent. Add the ginger, jalapeno pepper and thyme and stir for another minute.
- Reduce the heat and add the tomato puree. Add the pureed vegetables and remaining spices and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and add the cassava and black beans. Cook for a while and then add the chopped red pepper. Cook until the pepper is soft.
- Add the coconut milk. If you prefer a thinner consistency, add vegetable stock or water. Season with lime juice, black pepper and salt then serve with fresh parsley or coriander leaves.
Text: Daniel Košťál, sources and pictures: author, Titbit, chain stores