Around Israel, agronomist Benny Gamliel is known as the potato king. That may not seem like much of an honor, but if you're a person struggling with weight who nevertheless loves a good potato, this is a king you'll admire.
Gamliel, 65, manager of the Lachish Agriculture Research and Development Center, south of Jerusalem, knows a thing or two about vegetables but can be choosy about the ones he works with. He admits he has to "fall in love with a specific vegetable" before he throws himself into research. He found the perfect candidate 30 years ago when he was visiting the jungle highlands of Guatemala and got his first taste of chayote a kind of rumpled, green pumpkin. Part of the squash family, chayote has the taste and texture of a potato but is "more exquisite," says Gamliel. It can be munched raw or baked crispy in the oven. And each chayote has only 23 calories, vs. 106 calories in your average Idaho spud. With a little tinkering, it could, he realized, become "the ultimate diet potato."
It wasn't until 1997, when a visiting scientist from Kathmandu reminded Gamliel of the pleasures and the potential of chayote, that he at last decided to set to work on his idea. His first challenge was to find a way to adapt the vegetable so that it could be grown outside the drizzly jungle habitats of Central America, Asia and Australia. "It would be like taking a person from Africa and throwing him into Sweden," he says.
Experimenting with different chayote seeds, Gamliel succeeded in developing a hardy, all-terrain variety that, he says, provides the potato's "feeling of fullness" without the high calories. That was the hard part. The easy part is simply rolling it out to market and getting people to try it. That should happen in about two years, when Gamliel's low-cal potato hits stores.
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