The Mysterious Street Snack That Has Baffled Botanists for Decades

On his push-cart, a vendor was cutting off slices of what looked like the trunk from a tree. This happened in Bengaluru in South India, where I live. The skin was brownish-orange and the core was creamy white. He cut horizontally in circles with precision like a surgeon. I could see through the pieces.It is a root. He explained that it can grow to five feet in depth and weigh 300 kg. It is sourced from Kerala, which is a neighboring state. People who extract it from the trees are the ones he has seen. It's like a climber. It produces flowers. It is found near the ocean. It is called Bhoochakara gadde in South India and Ram Kand Mool in the north.Is it possible for a root to be so massive? Is it a vine or climber's root? My snack was ready before I could ask Google. The salt, chili powder and lime were added to the snack. My husbands used sugar and lime. It was crisp, refreshing, and juicy, but it had no flavor.I searched Bhoochakara gadde that night. It didn't have much. Wikipedia gave the scientific name as Maerua Oblongifolia but did not have any photos. Maerua.oblongifolia, a low-growing, woody undershrub, is found in India, Pakistan and parts of Africa. Its tubers can be used to stimulate the ancient Siddha medicine system. Its leaves and flowers were shown in research papers, but the root was not. So I decided to dig in.Many online sources incorrectly cite Maerua Oblongifolia (pictured here) as the source for the snack. Courtesy Dr. MS RathoreI reached out to a wood scientist, professor of food science and Siddha practitioner from my state. They had not seen the tree. I shifted my search to Andhra Pradesh, a state in the south. I reached out to its tribal department but was unsuccessful. My messages to the head biodiversity board were ignored. I spoke with a botany researcher, who had seen the tree but had not yet seen it in person.I would soon discover that my insatiable curiosity was actually a mystery that had puzzled and sometimes infuriated botanists for many decades. The snack has been sold all over the country, from Haridwar in north to Pune in west, and several other places in south. But, nobody seems to know what it actually is.A few months later, I was able to find a thesis paper written by Dr. MS Rathore. He had successfully propagated Maerua longifolia in his lab in 2011. He had seen it many times in Rajasthan, a desert state. The scientist said that he had never heard of anyone eating the root.His thesis advisor and retired botany professor, Dr. NS Shekhawat said that the roots of the plant are inedible and sparse. It will grow in dry areas, so where will it get enough water to make big roots and become juicy and fat? Maerua longifolia is not the right snack.I was sent photos by the duo of the tree. They did not match Wikipedia's description. The roots shown in the photos were not grown in a laboratory and are too small to be conclusive.Next to me was Dr. T Pullaiah who used to be the president of The Indian Botanical Society. He links the snack to Ipomoea digitata in his 2019 Encyclopaedia of World Medicinal Plants. This climber grows a large tubular root with a yellowish brown coat. I assumed he must have seen it. It was not. It was second-hand information. He explained that professors are often busy with administrative and teaching work. Therefore, we relied on the existing literature to reach conclusions.I continued to make more calls and send more emails. I was then contacted by a new person who nullified my research.1994 was the year. Dr. Koppula Hemadri, an ethnobotanist, was traveling around India looking for roots to confirm that this snack is Indian. His search ended with agave. These succulents look similar to aloe vera, but they can grow up 10 feet in width and twice the height. Some plants have a strong stem with spiny leaves that look like pineapples. Some seem to be stemless.I tried the base of agave that is attached to roots. Dr. Hemadri, who has now retired and resides in Andhra Pradesh, said that it tasted good. It tasted a little like a snack. However, I didn't pursue the lead after that.A few hours away from Bengaluru, where this snack is very popular, Agave can be found growing abundantly. Courtesy Barkha KumariBotanist Dr. Ali Moulali was also in the same year. I approached a vendor and said I would pay Rs1,000-2,000 ($13-13-27) more if the identity of the plant was revealed. The vendor hesitated, and then said that it was Kitta Nara's base. This is what the fiber made from agave locally calls. It wasn't a root as the vendor explained, but something that grew above ground.Dr. SR Yadav, a flowering-plant taxonomist, encouraged his students in Maharashtra's western state to examine Ram Kand, the local snack name. Dr. Mansingraj S. Nimbalkar, and Dr. VinodB Shimpale, both students of molecular biologyand taxonomy, went on to give the best scientific insight into the mystery.After a lengthy anatomical study, DNA barcoding was performed on a piece of the snack in 2010. It was found to be 89 percent compatible with agaves. Although there are many species of Agave, the lab test narrowed down Agave Sisalana to a plant that is sometimes used in a tequila-like beverage. Soon after, they did a field trip and pulled out a Sisalana. However, the roots were meshy and shallow. They then cut off the leaves of the Sisalana and found the fat, white, and watery trunk that is familiar to Indians who have bought food from street carts. It was bland and crispy, just like Ram Kand. The results were published in Current Science in the year that followed.It is only sold in thin slices. Courtesy Mahesh MSo, why is it still a mystery as to the identity of this snack. Dr. Shimpale explains that it is not Americana, Americana, or any other species of agave. The vendors will show us the plant, but we can't make a decision until they do. To create curiosity, they keep it a secret.There is a pattern to what vendors are saying: It's a root, it's medicinal; they get the root from a forest 200 km away or in Africa. According to them, the Hindu god Ram and his brother, the wife and brother, lived on Ram Kand in exile in the forests. They also claim that Bhoochakara Gadde, an underground sweet-something, is the source. They won't spare more than a few slices if you buy them in bulk. They'll take it away if you probe them. Dr. Nimbalkar recalls that forest officials in Maharashtra tried to spy on them but it was futile.On a hunch I called GS Yadav, a senior forest officer in Karnataka. He clearly stated that you need permission to remove any tree or plant from any forest. However, agave is not a forest species. It can be found growing on roadsides in India and along railway tracks as fencing. It may not be as healthy. There are many alkaloids in Agave. If consumed in large amounts, it can be toxic. Perhaps that is why thin slices are sold, retired Dr. Yadav warns.I was convinced that agave was the solution until Dr. Chenna Reddy Sangati, a Bengaluru assistant professor of nutrition and technology, declared it impossible. Bhoochakara Gadde is something I've tried. He says it has a smoother mouthfeel and is easier to bite. It is also less sweet. This agave, on the other hand, is very sweet, astringent and fibrous. It's also difficult to bite.Dr. Chenna Reddy Sangati shows insides of Agave Albomerginata's trunk. He claims that this snack cannot be related to Agave Albomerginata. Courtesy Dr. Chenna Kesava Reddy SangatiThe second round of coronavirus was in India in April. The street was quieter, the push-carts were less frequent, and the vendor who I first met was no longer there. I was told that he had gone to his village by a man selling watermelons. He did not give me the contact number of the vendor.The vendor fled to Jharkhand, fearing another lockdown. He was worried about his business being affected by the pandemic and wanted to know when normalcy would return. What could I possibly say?We switched the topic and he admitted that it was a stem that I sell year-round. He had only seen the plant in photos. I wanted to know the number of the source for Bhoochakara Gadde. He remained silent.Do not ask for anything else. Nobody will tell anything. He said that this is the way it is. He calmed down. This is what I have been eating for many years. It cools your body. It is said to be good for diabetes. It is not illegal, as far as I know.To preserve the white interior, the vendors spray red color on the sides. Courtesy Barkha KumariAfter I asked him why he called me, he said that a photo of the plants was available for me to see. He replied that there was none. I was devastated, but he called me back to say thank you. He said Photo number 3. That's the plant. Photo number 2 was also approved by him, Agave Americana. Photo No. 1, Maerua oblongifolia.He explained that they cut the leaves and rubbed red color on the trunk in order to keep its white color.Is this really an agave snack? I will wait to hear the last word. Dr. MS Shekhawat from Rajasthan is another botanist. He has promised me that he will take samples of each candidate into the field and uproot them.Gastro Obscura features the most extraordinary food and drink in the world.Get our email twice per week by signing up