SCIENTIFIC NAME: Xanthosoma brasiliensis
FAMILY: Araceae

BELEMBE, Xanthosoma brasiliensis, is a secret well kept from the majority of leafy vegetable lovers. Look for Belembe in the Pacific Islands where it is most popular. You will find it named 'Tahitian taro', but it is not native to Tahiti nor is it a taro.

After tasting it on the 'Big Island' of Hawaii, I was so impressed that I found plants to grow. I introduced it to Puerto Rico and later sent it to many friends all over the world.

You will see Belembe on the cover of my book, Edible Leaves of the Tropics, but you won't find plants easily.

Belembe has two defects. It contains calcium oxalate crystals, and when raw or inadequately cooked, it can irritate your lips, tongue and throat. It must be well-cooked and the cooking water discarded. Then, it is so soft in texture and delicate in flavor that no one can turn it down.

Second, it is not easy to grow. The plant suffers from a rot similar to one which destroys tannier, and it often grows exasperatingly slowly. Yet, if given good growing conditions, this succulent herb can be highly productive.

Belembe is an elephant ear to many, technically an aroid, with prominent lobes like an arrowhead. Each leaf is borne on a long petiole arising from an underground corm. But the corm is always small and never eaten, as are those from related species. New shoots arise profusely from the principle corm, and a single plant, under good conditions, can be propagated rapidly into rows.

When I shipped it to my Puerto Rico home, I was dismayed by its lack of growth under good greenhouse conditions in sterile soil. When I planted it in my home garden, I almost lost it. But in a semishady refuse pile, I found it growing luxuriantly, apparently from cormlets I had discarded.

I have grown Belembe continuously, and the often stubborn plant has reminded me that it always needs a rich culture. Florida sand is not enough, unless mixed with equal quantities of compost and organic materials. Minerals can help but only if the soil is right. Belembe can be grown along waterways, in poorly-drained areas or in wet places not suitable for other crops. Under very good conditions, plants can grow 4 feet high.

You can use any leaf of Belembe as food, but taking only tender young leaves slows growth. I use large older leaves, unless yellow or damaged. I cut away the petiole and principle vein, which can be chopped for vegetable soup, then cook leaves a little longer than normal, about 30 minutes. NEVER FORGET TO CHANGE THE WATER AFTER 20 MINUTES. By then Belembe is a puree. Season to taste for a really elegant spinach.

Dr. Franklin W. Martin,
Living Off the Land Subtropic Newsletter Vol.17 No.4 Sept/Oct '91

DATE: May 1992

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