Five little-known vegetables that could help end hunger

Native vegetables such as guar, Dogon shallot, and celosia could play an important role in feeding Africa.

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    Girl with a cart of fresh produce in Kenya. Less well-known vegetables could play an important role in feeding the planet.
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No single food can put an end to hunger. But worldwide there are many different fruits and vegetables that are helping to improve nutrition and diets, while increasing incomes and improving livelihoods.

Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces a new series featuring the four vegetables – and one fruit that acts like a vegetable – that you have likely never heard of that are helping to alleviate hunger and poverty:

1. Guar: Like other legumes, guar’s (Cyamopsis tetragonoloba) roots have nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which improve the quality of the soil and increase the yield of subsequent crops. In addition to being an organic green manure, the guar seed is a valuable source of vegetable protein for humans and cattle. The seeds contain a thickening agent that can be used to strengthen paper, as well as improve the texture of foods such as ice cream and salad dressing.

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Best way to eat it: Guar can be cooked in water until tender and sautéed with mustard oil and other seasonings, garnished with coriander and served hot as a flavorful entre or side.

Guar in Action: The organization Practical Action is encouraging farmers in the semi-arid Zambezi valley of northern Zimbabwe to grow guar to improve nutrition and livelihoods. The project has provided small-scale farmers with some of the inputs they need to cultivate the crop, as well as helping them develop a sound market system to reap benefits from the harvest.

2. The Dogon Shallot: The dogon shallot is found in Dogon, the land in the Bandiagarà escarpment between Mopti and Timbuktu in Mali. Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum), a relative of the onion, have long been appreciated for their unique sweet and rich flavor and are a staple ingredient for many popular dishes. The nutritional and savory part of this vegetable is the bulb which grows underground and produces leaves, flowers, and fruits above ground.

Best way to eat it: Dogon Somè is a condiment commonly used in Dogon cooking. It consists of the shallot and other local ingredients such as, gangadjou, oroupounnà, and pourkamà. The leaves, flowers, and fruit of each plant are included in a sauce that is served to flavor most meals.

The Dogon Shallot in Action: In 2009 USAID/Mali’s Integrated Initiatives for Economic Growth program (IICEM) with funds from the Global Food Security Response (GFSR) sent women from the village to a conference in Burkina Faso in order to share their experience and their shallots. The attendees at the conference enjoyed the shallots so much that the women won a first place prize of $1,700 and one woman received an order for 25 tons of her delicious shallots.

3. Spider Plant: Spider plant (Cleome gynandra) – also known as African cabbage, spider wisp, and cat’s whiskers – is a wild green leafy vegetable that grows all over tropical Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is not formally cultivated, but among poor rural communities – especially in the Kalahari and Namib regions of southern Africa – young leaves are collected, cooked, and eaten like spinach. Spider plant is generally considered a weed, plaguing maize and bean fields in Kenya and other countries. But called mwangani in Swahili, spider plant is highly nutritious and is well adapted to many African ecosystems.

Best Way to Eat It: The leaves, stems, pods, and flowers taste best when boiled in water or milk or fried in a pan with oil. The addition of milk reduces the natural bitterness of the leaves.

The Spider Plant in Action: In southern and eastern Africa, spider plant is sold in both rural and urban markets when the plant is in abundance, proving that the crop can be a profitable product. Further economic benefit could come from the development of medicinal products and insecticides, and seed oils could be used in soaps, biofuels, or other commercial products.

4. Celosia: Because of its flavor and nutritional value, Celosia is widely consumed in several parts of Africa. It is an especially important food in Nigeria, Benin, and Congo because of its affinity for hot and humid climates. It is also commonly eaten in Indonesia and India. Celosias grow easily, require little care, and often reseed themselves making them high yielding, cheap, and simple to grow. Having proven widely tolerant to both tropical and dry conditions and usually unaffected by pests, diseases, or soil type, this crop is among the most flexible greens for harsh growing conditions.

Best Way to Eat It: The leaves, young stems, and flowers a can be made into soups and stews, served as a nutty-flavored side dish with meat or fish or with a cereal-based main course such as maize porridge.

Celosia in Action: In addition to their nutritional and aesthetic value, Celosia may also help repress striga, a parasitic weed which devastates other crops including sorghum, millet, and maize. Although the research on this trait is still far from clear, farmers call it “striga chaser.”

5. African Eggplant: The African Eggplant is technically a fruit, but it is usually picked when it is green and eaten as a vegetable. The plant itself can grow in “agricultural wastelands,” is somewhat drought resistant, and has the ability to grow in humid areas. The garden eggs have even proven to be resistant to molds, mildews, and certain soil-borne plant pathogens. They can also be grown alongside other crops or in small pots providing a high yield of fruit from a small area.

Best Way to Eat It: The fruit is usually picked when it is green and eaten like a vegetable in stews and sauces, or even consumed raw. If picked after it is ripe, it can be enjoyed as a fruit – though some varieties are more sour than others.

African Eggplant in Action: Even though the fruit is not well known for its nutritional content – it is 92 percent water – it also provides vitamin B, beta-carotene, and vitamin C in addition to calcium, iron, and potassium.

To read more about the vegetables that are helping to alleviate hunger, see: Guar: Food, Fodder, Fertilizer & More, The Dogon Shallot: An Underground Favorite, Spider Plant: A Hardy Nutritious African Native, Celosia: Nature’s Prettiest Vegetable, and African Eggplant: The Fruit that Is Enjoyed As a Vegetable.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

The original version of this story appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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