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Enset is a type of plant that grows in Africa and Asia, and it is especially important in the Ethiopian highlands, where it has been cultivated for food for thousands of years. The plant often is called a false banana, because the outward appearance of the tree resembles that of a banana tree, although the two actually are very different. The fruit of the enset tree is not edible, so the plant is largely grown for the meat inside its trunk and the root, which is a large corm. The edible portion of an enset tree is the pulp inside the corm and the stalk of the tree, which tends to look and taste similar to the meat of a potato and can be used to make stews, pudding or a bread-like fermented food. Although the tree has long been a staple food in Ethiopia, several factors — including disease, overharvesting, drought and a lack of crop rotation — have caused a dramatic decline in the availability of enset root.
There are two edible parts of the enset tree. The first is the corm, or root, of the tree, which has a large amount of white potato-like meat inside. This substance can be eaten raw, cooked in stew or mashed into a nutritious porridge. The tree itself can sometimes grow in excess of 32 feet (10 meters) in height, so the size of the corm can be incredibly large and provide a good amount of food from just one tree. The meat of the corm tends to taste like a potato, largely because of the starches it contains.
The second edible portion of the enset tree is the interior of the stalk and stem. The meat of the stem tends to be white, like the corm, but also contains a little more water and often is specially prepared when harvested. The meat is cut from the tree, kneaded into a dough-like mass and wrapped in large green leaves. The wrapped enset dough is then buried in the ground, where the pulp will ferment over time to create a bread-like food that can be cooked, dried into powder, made into porridge or fried into cakes. The fermented pulp has a sour, bread-like taste.
Even though the enset tree was cultivated as a food source for thousands of years, several problems have converged to destroy a large portion of the trees. A disease quickly spread and killed many of the plants, followed by drought that further reduced the harvest. This eventually led several communities to begin to harvest the trees before maturity so they did not produce seeds, which led to the inability to grow more trees, because it can take almost five years for a single tree to mature. The tree remains an important staple food in Ethiopia, but it is not as plentiful in 2012 as it once was.
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