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Topi Tambo: The Water Chestnut of the Caribbean and South America

Beverley is a published writer with a degree in Science and certifications in nutrition and aromatherapy. She grew up in the Caribbean.

Topi tambo in the market

Topi tambo in the market

What Is Topi Tambo?

As a child growing up in the Caribbean, I loved feasting on the little cream-colored, egg-shaped root vegetables we called tipi tambo (more commonly known as topi tambo). With a similar texture to the water chestnut, the topi tambo tastes slightly like sweet corn, and it retains a wonderful crunch after cooking.

Other Names

In Trinidad and Tobago, where I was raised, we called this root vegetable the tipi tambo. It goes by other names in other places—including topi tambu, topeetambo, topi-tamboo, leren, guinea arrowroot, sweet corn root, and more. However, it should not be confused with topinambour, commonly known as Jerusalem artichoke.

Botanical Name

Botanically, it is called Calathea allouia. It is a member of the Marantaceae family, which is the same family that arrowroot belongs to.

Association With Carnival Season

The season for topi tambo coincides with our carnival season, a celebration of dance, music, parties, libations, costumes, and street parades right before the Christian Lenten season.

Topi tambo flowers

Topi tambo flowers

Topi Tambo History and Harvest

The Caribs, who were one of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, first grew topi tambo more than a thousand years ago. It was also one of the earliest plants domesticated by native South Americans.

The Caribs called this plant allouia, which then became the second half of the root vegetable's botanical name (Calathea allouia). The perennial plant is cultivated in groups termed “patches,” which take about 10 months to mature. The quantity of the harvest is determined by the size of the patches, the quality of the soil, which should be well-drained and not too compact, and the quantity of sun. The plants seem to favor shade.

How to Prepare and Cook Topi Tambo

Before cooking these tuberous lovelies, dirt must be washed away from their hard outer skins. Typically, they are then boiled in salted water for 20 to 30 minutes. The salt seems to enhance their flavor. After boiling, the non-edible skin is removed to reveal their sweet, crunchy goodness.

Once cooked, it can be eaten as a snack, appetizer, or side dish; or it could be added to salads, soups, meat dishes, or seafood dishes. It can also be dried and ground into flour. The latter was the early South Americans' preferred method of preparation. My family’s way of preparing and consuming it was to boil it (as described above) and then snack to our hearts' content.

Flower and Leaves

Some communities and countries eat the plant’s flowers as well. Other communities use the leaves as wrapping to hold foods while cooking and/or as a folk medicine for issues such as urinary tract infections.

Plate of topi tambo

Plate of topi tambo

Health Benefits, Availability, and Shelf Life

  • Health benefits: Topi tambo contains carbohydrates, protein, and amino acids (except cysteine). According to a horticultural article from Purdue University on "guinea arrowroot," it contains the minerals calcium, iron, and phosphorus, and trace amounts of the B-vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.
  • Availability: It’s easy to find and grow topi tambo in the Caribbean and South America. In North America, however, it may be harder to find. You may be able to find the plant (and perhaps the vegetable) in ethnic stores in places like Florida, or you can order it online.
  • Shelf life: This depends on whether it’s stored raw or cooked and whether it's stored at room temperature or refrigerated. Storing raw at room temperature gives it the longest shelf life—as much as three months. Refrigeration, on the other hand, rapidly diminishes the root vegetable's taste.
Water chestnut

Water chestnut

Topi Tambo vs. Water Chestnuts

Like topi tambo, water chestnuts have a crunchy texture and a slightly sweet flavor. They are not, however, the same thing.

The first thing to know about water chestnuts is that they are not nuts (although they do have a somewhat nutty flavor).

Water Chestnuts

  • What kind of vegetable? Aquatic rhizomatous vegetable
  • Botanical name: Eleocharis dulcis
  • Family: Cyperaceae or sedge family
  • Other common names: Waternut, horse’s hoof, hon matai, matai
  • Where does it grow? Underwater in ponds, mainly in China.
  • Texture: Crunchy
  • Flavor: Slightly sweet and nutty
  • Is it a nut? No

Canned water chestnuts have a bland flavor. If you’ve eaten a variety of Chinese dishes, chances are you’ve eaten water chestnuts.

Water chestnut plant

Water chestnut plant

Planting and Harvesting Water Chestnuts

The perennial water chestnut plant is native to Asia. It grows in shallow paddy fields like rice plants. In fact, the water chestnut plants are usually rotated with the rice plants. Consistent water levels and hot weather yield a healthy crop in about six months. Harvest occurs in the fall. The paddies or ponds are drained for 30 days prior to harvest to make that process easier. American states like Florida, California, and Hawaii are also ideal regions for growing water chestnuts.

There is another aquatic species, Trapa natans, whose edible fruits also bear the common water chestnut name. But it is not the one thought of when comparing water chestnuts to topi tambo. This Eurasian perennial is considered invasive to North America, where it was introduced in the 19th century. The plant quickly covers freshwater ponds, lakes, and other watery bodies, creating havoc for aquatic animals, boaters, and swimmers. The fruits with their nut-like, sharp-spine skins are also harmful. Other common names for these chestnuts are Jesuit nuts and water caltrops.

Preparing and Cooking Water Chestnuts

Once the edible tubers or corms are collected, the mud is washed away to reveal deep brownish-purple or shiny black skins. Inside is the creamy white edible portion, another similarity to topi tambo. The water chestnuts can be eaten raw at this point or cooked and added as an ingredient to salads, soups, stir-fries, fried rice dishes, etc. They can even be incorporated into sweets like ice cream and cookies. They can also be ground and turned into flour, again like topi tambo. In their native lands, water chestnuts are used to make traditional medicines, as well.

Health Benefits, Availability, and Shelf Life

  • Health benefits: According to Livestrong, water chestnuts offer a healthy supply of protein, carbohydrates, minerals chromium, copper, manganese, and potassium, B-vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and dietary fiber. Compared to topi tambo, water chestnuts are a bit more nutritious.
  • Availability: The fresh version of this aquatic vegetable offers the best taste. But whereas freshwater chestnuts are readily available in Asia, it is shipped mainly in cans and other types of packaging to the rest of the world. You might find the fresh kind in Asian markets. Canned or packaged water chestnuts are available in regular supermarkets.
  • Shelf life: Fresh water chestnuts can survive unpeeled, in tightly sealed plastic, in the refrigerator for about two weeks. An opened can that is refrigerated in the same manner can last about three days. Freshly peeled water chestnuts do not last very long.

I'll Always Love Topi Tambo

Asian water chestnuts might be more readily available stateside, at least in cans and other types of packaging—but at the risk of sounding biased, I much prefer snacking on the little, tasty, egg-shaped tubers we on my island in the Caribbean call tipi tambo.