/ 13 July 2001

The mighty madumbe

The tubers of the elephant ear plant might not look good, but don’t let that stop you from trying them,

Andrea Burgener

The appearance of the tropical-looking elephant ear plant is familiar to most of us, but less known are the truly wondrous edibles it offers.

The populations of South America, West Africa, India and the Caribbean are huge fans of the plant for its varied gastronomic uses, but it’s an under-explored food in most other countries, including our own (bar many KwaZulu-Natal cooks, who have it growing almost on their doorstep). In all fairness, though, there are certain reasons for the plant’s absence from the world’s gastronomic top 10 chart.

The leaves and underground tubers known most commonly as taro, and in Zulu amadumbe or madumbe are eminently edible, but both contain toxins when raw that make handling and cooking somewhat troublesome. The slight hassle of dealing with the (not lethal) toxins is really minimal considering the reward, but doubtless goes some way to accounting for the plant’s marginal popularity on dinner tables. In addition, the rather medieval, dark and hairy carbuncular appearance of the tubers does little to aid the plant on the public relations front.

But don’t let me put you off. Once prepared, these rustic nuggets are really sublime somewhere between an artichoke heart and potato in taste, and fantastic with a little butter and coarse salt. Simply scrub clean, wearing gloves to avoid possible skin reactions, boil until soft, then peel and serve. (They’re also good baked or fried). Once the madumbe has been cooked, the toxins are inert and the tubers are, in fact, known to be exceptionally digestible, so alay your fears and don’t be imagining that you’re in for a vegetarian equivalent of the fugu fish.

If you’re hunting down madumbes, Indian and Chinese greengrocers are your best bet, but your veg guy around the corner may have them, too.

The Chinese (true to form, finding great culinary uses for everything the rest of humanity overlooks) use madumbes in Yum Cha that famous Cantonese breakfast-brunch meal of dim sum (literally translated, “dot hearts”). The dim sum steamed, fried, boiled and braised dumplings with goods such as radish cake and chicken feet, are eaten in tiny portions from little side plates and bamboo steamers. Here the tubers appear, seasonally, mainly in the simple form of “matombie cakes”, as the menu usually refers to them. These pan-fried squares of mashed potato-like consistency are uninspiring to behold, but hugely flavourful and truly awesome dipped in soy and a spot of chilli. Order without hesitation if you see them on the Yum Cha menu.

The leaves, too, make wondrous snacks. Most famously they appear in the soupy concoction, callaloo, a Caribbean staple. And locally we see them in the puri pata of Indian cuisine. After copious boiling, the large leaves are laid out and spread with a masala and vegetable or fruit mix, then coiled up Swiss-roll style, cut into slices and fried. They develop a slightly burned and very distinctive taste, which is absolutely addictive. This is the pata and, as the name indicates, it’s traditionally served on puri (small, fried, flat breads), but there are a number of other ways to enjoy it for example with guacamole and salsa or simply drizzled with a little lemon.

Unfortunately, as pata is labour intensive and an acquired taste, it’s not widely available the best comes from the landmark Anjan’s eatery on Durban’s Queen Street (the site of my first gleeful meeting with the snack) and from Shalimar Delights in Main Road, Fordsburg, Johannesburg. Supplies are erratic, but it’s well worth the hunt.