Students of Ethnobotany: Heart of the Chontaduro

Chontaduro_(Bactris_gasipaes)_at_Cali

The noble Chontaduro. Photo by http://www.cropsofthefuture.org from Wikimedia Commons.

This installment of the second round of Students of Ethnobotany gets to the heart of the peach palm, thanks to Marizulu.

Picture this: A man climbs avidly up a bare palm trunk strapped to a triangular wooden formation.  He skilfully avoids the spines that threaten to injure him 20 meters above the ground and cautiously stretches to the neighbouring plant to reach the chontaduro raceme. (See this in the video below or here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yyr3q0qFzU at the 3 min mark.)

Tons of these bright orange, almost neon colored, fruits that this man and many others stretch to reach, are sold raw or are taken in and boiled overnight for 3 to 5 hours in salty water. Sometimes animal fat from leftover bones are added to this concoction.  Bright and early the next morning wooden carts are filled and rolled, overflowing, to the market. They are marketed as treats in every street in Colombia. This savoury dry fruit can be served with honey, milk, lemon drops, or simply dipped in salt.

Chontaduro, as it is usually called in Colombia, is scientifically known as Bactris gasipaes. It has over 200 vernacular names ranging from pejibaje (Costa Rica, Peru), cachipay, pew (Trinidad), chonta (Bolivia), or popunha (Brazil). This fruit belongs to the palm family Arecaceae (or Palmae). It is originally from the Amazonian basin in South America, but it is grown extensively all over Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and all the way south to Bolivia. There is some debate that the fruit may have originated in Central America instead, especially in Guatemala and all along the South American pacific coast since it is also grown there.

An exotic tropical fruit for many, Chontaduro is a staple diet for many Latin families, and currently provides economic stability for over 70, 000 of them in Colombia. Such importance has been given to this so-called ‘miniature coconut’ that an entire port has been named after it. Puerto Chontaduro takes its name after this sweet, starchy, and dry fruit. “El Chontaduro” has also been associated with the vibrant culture and tropical atmosphere experienced in Cali, Colombia. Also, chontaduro usually has a front line in festivals like “Festival Folclórico del Pacífico” (Pacific Folkloric Festival) where the colors and tastes of tropical fruits are overwhelming as lively salsa music plays loudly through the streets. There are even songs made in the honour of Chontaduro (click to listen here!). Over 10,000 people pass through Puerto Chontaduro each month. Here you can buy chontaduros by the bunch at the market or sit down and enjoy them as a treat. You can even order them “to go” from your car while passing through the area.

Chontaduro has become a cultural icon of Colombia. It makes up the everyday scenery, both growing in back yards and in every corner filling up the carts of street vendors. It has generated employment for over 10 thousand women of Afro-American descent who are the primary workers of this fruit. This is why it is usually associated with the darker skin population prominent along the pacific coast. This is represented with “La negra del Chontaduro” a local sculpture in its name. It has also provided the basis for nutrition in the country, as it is often called the “vegetable egg” but is cheaper than the animal product.

Although ignored by research in the past, especially by prominent researchers outside of south America, Chontaduro has recently sparked an interest due to its completeness as nutritive crop and a its possible medical uses.  Chontaduro created the basis for the diet and lifestyle of many of the indigenous cultures present in south America in the pre-Columbian era, and rightly so as it has a very complete protein content with all but one of the essential amino acids. It is rich in fibre and starch as well as beta-carotene  (vitamin A), vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. Its mesocarp also has rich mineral contents of calcium, magnesium and phosphorous and especially iron. This makes it a great product for those with anemia or anorexia, an is used to increase their iron levels. Chontaduro also provides cooking oils, as it contains all the essential oils, and unsaturated fatty acids such as omega 3 and omega 6. It is also good since it contains no cholesterol, a common cause for cardiovascular complications later on in life, and very prevalent in South American countries.

Interestingly, the people that have grown alongside this plant know how to make the best out of it. They also understand how to avoid certain complications that might not be too obvious for an avid tourist exploring the region. Calcium oxalate crystals and trypsin inhibitor have been found in uncooked fruits of Chontaduro. These could make protein digestion complicated and create small cuts in the tongue when eating it. In Colombia this is avoided by boiling the fruit before eating it. This also facilitates the peeling of the skin from the flesh. The locals have described this fruit as an excellent energy source due to its high carbohydrate content.  It can also be fermented and made into an alcoholic drink known as “chicha de chontaduro” or dried and grated into starch to make marmalade or pastries. It is this versatility that makes Chontaduro a key ingredient in the lives of people in Colombia.

Taking a step back and looking at this plant with a more critical eye, it is important to highlight its recent worldwide popularity. Chontaduro palm is now gaining international recognition, as it is the producer of palmetto or palm heart. Palm hearts have become an increasingly popular international delicacy, with Costa Rica leading as the main producer in this industry. You might have had the pleasure to enjoy them in salads, sautéed, or even with Parmesan cheese. These palm hearts are actually immature leaves that are still encased in the bark of the palm, and these are cut and then debarked to obtain the tender insides. Lastly, chontaduro is not only exported as canned palmetto, as it is now exported to France, Germany and Japan for use in cosmetics.

The next time you are traveling to Central and South America, keep an eye out for that brightly orange coloured fruit and give it a try and don’t forget to bite through the “coco” or seed in the middle to obtain the whole experience!

References:

Fog, L. (2013). El Chontaduro, una mina de oro. El Expectador. Retrieved from: http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/cultura/vivir/articulo-403388-el-chontaduro-una-mina-de-oro

(2013) El chontaduro, componente esencial de nuestra cultura del pacífico colombiano. http://caliescribe.com/gastronomia/2013/08/10/4825-chontaduro-componente-esencial-nuestra-cultura-del-pacifico-colombiano

Urpí, J. M., Weber, J. C., & Clement, C. R. (1997). Peach palm: Bactris gasipaes Kunth (Vol. 20). Bioversity International.

Salazar, D. (2011)EL CHONTADURO . Kienyke.com. Retreived from: http://www.kienyke.com/kien-bloguea/el-chontaduro/

Guzman, A.  CHONTADURO AAA. APETITOSO ALIMENTO MEDICINA . Mis herejias (blog) retrieved from: http://aldemarguzman.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/alimentos-medicina.pdf

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2 thoughts on “Students of Ethnobotany: Heart of the Chontaduro

  1. Buenas tardes,

    ¿Cómo va todo? Estuve mirando vuestra página web y me encontré con una fotografía de chontaduro que quisiera utilizar. Estoy trabajando en la elaboración de un recetario digital que va a recopilar todas las recetas tradicionales y contemporáneas de Popayán (Ciudad Creativa de la Gastronomía de la UNESCO), como uno de los proyectos que Popayán va a presentar en el siguiente Foro de la Red de Ciudades Creativas de la UNESCO que se celebrará el próximo mayo. Necesitamos ilustrar dicho recetario digital y en mi búsqueda de imágenes chulas llegué a vuestra página. Me gustó mucho la imagen del chontaduro y os agradecería muchísimo si me pudierais conceder vuestro permiso para poder incluirla en el recetario digital. Espero que os parezca bien, la verdad es que gracias a imágenes así nos va a quedar un proyecto muy chulo!

    Os agradezco en avanzado y os envío un fuerte abrazo. 😉

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