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I recently wrote about Colombian supermarkets and some of the unknown produce I faced the first time I walked into one.
Though I was bewildered by much of what I saw, for the most part I could more or less guess what family of fruit/vegetable I was looking at-- that is until I passed some small pink-purple somethings that looked straight out of a Dr. Suess book. The sign said “ullucos,” which was of zero help to me, and when I asked around about them, everyone said something along the lines of “my mom makes them but I have no idea how to,” followed by one of two reactions: “Ullucos are great!” Or, “Ullucos, gross” As intrigued as I was by their appearance, I never saw them at restaurants or at anyone’s house, so I sort of forgot about them.
Until, of course, I happened to be at someone’s house for lunch when their mom made them. And I liked them quite a lot actually, though their flavor is a bit hard to pin down. Not only that: I learned that when you cut into them, they look even more Seuss-like. I mean, they look like weird, overgrown radishes (or imitation crab, even?), except that they aren’t crisp or juicy in any way. Mystery tubers all the way.
Ullucos aren’t the only mystery tubers you’ll find around here—there is also ñame, yuca, arracacha, and they are all quite nice once you figure out what to do with them (hint: mashed, boiled then fried, mashed), but none of them are nearly as entertaining looking, and they are all familiarly starchy in a way that ullucos aren’t.
Meanwhile, one day my boyfriend’s mother showed me how she makes ullucos. They’re considered a side dish, an extra vegetable of sorts, never the main event. The ullocos are thinly sliced, then boiled until tender and drained, turning a uniform light pink-purple. She makes a bunch of hogao, the tomato-onion mother sauce of Colombian cuisine-- this time she used leeks instead of onions, and as always lots of oil. Right before serving, a couple of eggs are beaten and then scrambled up in a pan with the ullucos, hogao, and a big pinch of salt. Not so hard, right? Mystery solved.
Now, riddle me this: are there any Colombian mothers who don’t have glass-topped, dark wood tables? I didn’t think so.