The Kunbi Community's Roots With Tubers Run Deep

SIXTY EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Rajendra B Vete, a Kunbi elder and manager of a homestay, sits in a service apartment in Bengaluru swiping through photos of the piles and piles of produce traditionally grown in his village: indigenous tubers. He proudly zooms into the pictures to highlight the winners from the recently-concluded ‘Tuber Mela’ conducted in December at Joida, a town in Uttara Kannada District, Karnataka. “There were 48 varieties of tubers grown by the Kunbi community in and around this region — that is five more varieties than the year before,” he tells us. This was the ninth edition of an annual mela started by Jayanand Derekar, president of the Kunbi Samaj, along with Narasimha Bhat, a homestay owner and Balachandra Hegde Sayimane, a farmer and forestry researcher who works as a coordinator with SWIFT (Sahyadri Wildlife and Forest Conservation Trust), to draw the world’s attention to the existence of these indigenous tuber varieties, their benefits to people and the planet, whilst also aiding the farmers financially. 

Vete along with Yogesh Derekar, Namrita, Nagveni, Reshma Kamath and Indira were visiting Bengaluru as part of the Spudnik Farm’s Rooted in Community Grand Luncheon. It was a culmination of the Spudnik Farm’s Chef Residency programme which brought together city chefs and forest farmers to exchange ideas on this indigenous ingredient and its endless culinary possibilities. The mela and now, the luncheon, are slowly bringing these tubers into mainstream conversation, collaborations with farmer-centric enterprises, and curated into our organic vegetable subscription boxes. But the Kunbi community is a gentle reminder of the longer history of this lead crop. “Over four hundred years ago, our ancestors moved deep into the forests of Western Ghats escaping from the religious persecution of the Portuguese colonists,” explains Yogesh Derekar, a farmer and expert forager. “And they brought along these tubers for their collective sustenance. For generations, we have been growing and storing these tubers in pretty much the same traditional ways.”

UNLIKE other forest-dwelling communities who collect wild tubers from the forest, the Kunbis have always cultivated theirs. This community effort has recently been recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare with the Kunbi community of Joida Taluk being conferred the “Plant Genome Saviour Award” for the Kunbi Mudali or Big Taro (Collocacia esculenta). The Kunbi Mudali can grow as tall as an adult male and weigh as much as one too. Plans for a Geographical Indications tag for these tubers are presently afoot. “I remember one mudali feeding entire villages during the hard times,” Vete tells us. “When I was growing up in this region, there were no tomatoes, onions and such vegetables available in our markets. We would traditionally sour our dishes with kokum or use particular varieties of tubers and cook them down into pastes for our curry bases and sweet dishes,” he recalls. 

The continued importance of these tubers to this culture and survival of this community can’t be underplayed. “It is a complete crop for us,” Yogesh explains, speaking to the vital role of these tubers as a source of food, nutrition and income for the Kunbi community. Agricultural scientists, especially from organisations like the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute (CTCRI) in Thiruvananthapuram, have confirmed something the Kunbi community has always known: tubers are easy to grow; resilient and thrive in a variety of soil conditions and are relatively pest-free. They can resist changing climatic conditions to a greater extent and still provide sustainable yields; and are being projected as food security crops. The motivation behind the annual Tuber Mela and the participatory involvement of Spudnik Farm is “to fully realise the potential of these crops” through providing marketing avenues and narrowing down the more commercially viable varieties to benefit the Kunbi community. “Many of our youth work in Goa as daily wage labourers, but this addition of new markets for our tuber crops has many of them returning to the land,” he says, proudly.


Kunbi Mudali (Collocacia esculenta)

These indigenous tubers are highly nutritious, rich in proteins, carbohydrates, fibre, flavonoids, Vitamin K, Calcium, Zinc and Iron. When cooked, mudali has the taste of a spongy potato or paneer. They do not need refrigeration, and can be stored upright in a cool, dry spot in your kitchen.

Kaate Kanaga (Dioscorea esculenta)

Commonly known as the lesser yam or potato yam, this tuber significant carbohydrates including fibre, starch and sugar and also provides other nutritional benefits such as proteins, lipids, vitamins and minerals. In Konkani it is called Kaate Kanaga, while in Malayalam it is known as Nana Kizhangu or Cheruvally Kizhangu or Cheru Kizhangu. Kaate Kanaga has a sweetish taste, with a flavour and texture that can be best described as a combination of potatoes, sweet potato and chestnuts. 

Dhave Kon (Dioscorea rotundata)

White yam is a good source of energy, dietary fibre and B-complex group of vitamins. It provides adequate daily requirements of pyridoxine, thiamin, riboflavin, folates, pantothenic acid, and niacin. The root contains good amounts of vitamin-C vitamin-A, and β-carotene levels. The tuber is also a good source of minerals such as copper, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.

Jhaad Kanaga (Plectranthus rotundifolius)

The starchy, non-slimy texture of jhaad kanaga combined with its earthy flavour makes it a great ingredient in a variety of savoury dishes in the area.


Larger than an arbi, smaller than a mudali, the kasaralu has a unique place in the tuberous diaspora of Joida. Kasaralu is a storehouse of nutrients: Vitamins C and E, Zinc and Magnesium, aside from being an energy source during the lean winter months. The leaves are edible too. Kasaralu bonda is a specialty of Joida, that uses a spiced mix of these delicious tubers, batter-fried and served piping hot.

Suvarnagedde (Amorphophallus paeonifolius)

The Giant Elephant Foot yam is a major food source in the region during the leaner months, and is a storehouse of minerals, nutrients and carbs. This yam can be prepared in a variety of ways — curried, steamed, boiled, sauteed, and even ground into dosa batter.