Mizo, chago, cushpe, yuca de jalca
Mauka is a little-known Andean vegetable with sprawling stems and large edible roots. Although nowadays rarely cultivated, it appears to have been abundant in some highland communities of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia several generations ago. For centuries, mauka was unknown to outsiders, until its “discovery” in northern Bolivia in 1965. Since 1980 it has also been reported in Ecuador and Peru, and is gradually gaining recognition. However – compared to other Andean crops whose histories, distribution, and local significance are better understood – mauka remains something of an enigma and is acutely endangered.
“Mauka” is its local name in northern Bolivia and southern Peru. In Ecuador it is “miso” or “tazo”, and elsewhere in Peru it is known as “chago” (Cajamarca), “allja yuca” (Ancash) and “kuyacsa” (Huaìnuco), amongst other names.
The taste and texture of its roots are often likened to yuca (Manihot esculenta); a similarity reflected in local names such as ‘allja yuca’ and ‘yuca Inca’ – although mauka belongs to a different plant family (Nyctaginaceae). These are boiled and eaten with coffee for breakfast or lunch; served alongside dishes such as ‘caldo’ (soup), ‘estofado’ (stew) or ‘picante de cuy’ (spicy guinea pig stew); sometimes baked underground in a ‘pachamanka’ (earth oven); can be made into sweet pancakes or ‘mazamorra’, or ground into flour. Its leaves are occasionally eaten as salad, and all parts of the plant are eaten by livestock.
Mauka is cultivated between around 2,500 and 3,500 meters above sea level, in mixed farming systems. Adapted to highland regions where it tolerates periods of drought and temperature extremes, it is appreciated as hardy and low maintenance. It grows well without fertiliser and is remarkably resistant to pests and diseases. It is usually planted through vegetative propagation using stem cuttings, although it is sometimes grown from seed. It is often planted in August or September and harvested roughly a year later, but this varies. As a perennial it allows for piecemeal harvesting, acting as a living larder which supports nutrition in times of scarcity. In Peru, some farmers recount that it was a common staple crop in their community during their grandparents’ generation.
Local farmers have described it as nourishing and filling, providing the energy needed to sustain hard physical work. Indeed, it is particularly rich in calcium, phosphorus and protein; and contains secondary metabolites with nutraceutical properties. Oxalate crystals are found in its roots which can irritate the mouth, but the post-harvest practice of leaving them in the sun for several days – much like oca tubers (Oxalis tuberosa) – reduces this effect whilst enhancing their sweetness.
Scientists have warned that mauka could become extinct if migration away from rural areas continues. Much of its diversity has probably already been lost, with just a handful of varieties scientifically described. While some are maintained in genebanks, more should be done to promote their on-farm conservation. Currently production is largely for subsistence, yet mauka shows promise for varied applications which could provide incentives for ongoing cultivation. Root extracts have been shown to mitigate the effects of osteoporosis, as well as demonstrating anti-microbial action against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Meanwhile, its gastronomic potential is only just beginning to be explored. Mauka could well be an important crop for the future, yet there is still much to learn about it and action needed to secure its conservation.