Eat your kudzu. October 25, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Blythewood Kudzu Festival, eating kudzu, Japanese Foods That Heal, kudzu, Kudzu Kabin Designs, kuzu, Utne Reader
Silence Dogood here. I get a free daily Utne Reader online installment, and one of last week’s featured headlines was ”If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em.”* Sure enough, the article was about an idea I’ve long espoused: eating invasive species before they eat our landscapes and gardens. In this case, it was about how Chicago chefs were attempting to turn the Asian carp, which is threatening to invade the Great Lakes, into a delicacy.
Being a gardener and a vegetarian, this of course brought to mind that other Asian invader: kudzu. Kudzu is native to Japan, where it did no harm to anybody until some American idiot decided that the stuff was fast-growing, indestructible, and no-maintenance, so it would be the perfect food for cows. Unfortunately, he failed to test kudzu for cow palatability before importing and unleashing the stuff.
Turns out, cows won’t touch it. But its other sterling qualities are true in spades: It’s indestructible, requires no irrigation or fertilizer, and spreads like wildfire. It’s been covering and killing huge swaths of native Southern trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals ever since. If you took a nap out of doors in kudzu country, it would cover you. Our friend Ben and I live in terror of global warming’s bringing kudzu up here to Pennsylvania. We already have our hands full with poison ivy, thank you.
Cows might not eat kudzu, but I had to wonder about the Japanese themselves. Like all island people, they’ve found uses for pretty much everything that grows on their land and in the seas that surrounded them. Surely there’s a Japanese dish or two that features kudzu?
Heading to my cookbook collection, I pulled down Japanese Foods That Heal by John and Jan Belleme (Tuttle Publishing, 2007). The chapters are organized by ingredient, so I figured if kudzu was there, I’d find it right away. Kudzu… kudzu… hmmm. No kudzu, but there was a chapter called “Kuzu: The Wonder Root.”
Sure enough: Kuzu in Japan is kudzu down in Dixie. And my hunch was correct. I quote: “In its native land, kuzu has always enjoyed an excellent reputation. Asians seem to have no problem using kuzu as fast as it grows. Since ancient times, the leaves and roots have been used for food. The strong fibrous stems have been used as thread to weave fabrics and baskets. But it is kuzu cuisine that has become a fine art in Japan. The purest white kuzu root powder is sought out by high-quality confection manufacturers and chefs of fine restaurants.”
Here in the States, according to the authors, kuzu root and root powder has gained a following among people who eat a macrobiotic diet. There’s even a whole book devoted to it, The Book of Kudzu: A Culinary and Healing Guide (William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, Avery, 1985).
What does kuzu/kudzu root heal, you ask? Damage from alcoholism, alcoholism itself, colds and flu, muscle stiffness. poor circulation, intestinal problems, stomach cramps, heart disease, osteoporosis, sudden deafness… the list appears to be endless. But don’t assume you can just head to the back forty and dig up a few kudzu roots for dinner. Here’s a hint as to why kudzu is unstoppable over here, now covering 7 million acres: Each root can weigh more than 200 pounds! And it takes three months for factories in Japan to convert them into edible starch through a complex process.
As a result, aficionados in the U.S. have to head for the local health-food store or Asian market to buy imported kuzu-root starch, and pay through the nose for it, to boot. But it’s worth it, and not just for the health benefits, according to the Bellemes: “Kuzu is unsurpassed as a thickening agent. It produces sparkling, translucent sauces, adds a shiny gloss to soups, and provides a smooth texture with no starchy or interfering taste. Vegetables and fish that have been dusted with kuzu powder and then deep-fried have a light, crisp coating… it is ideal in desserts like kantens and puddings, and it is the perfect ingredient in icings, shortcake toppings and pie fillings.”
So there you have it. Maybe somebody will take the hint and set up a kuzu factory down South. But meanwhile, I wondered, what about all those leaves? Could they be a palate-pleasing spinach substitute? That’s something anyone could harvest and prepare themselves, wildcrafting at its finest, since there’s certainly no danger of overharvesting! The Bellemes had no advice to offer, so I headed to my good friend Google, which was fortunately much more forthcoming.
Want to try a little kudzu tonight? Check out the recipes at Angela Gillaspie’s SouthernAngel.com (www.southernangel.com). She has recipes for Rolled Kudzu Leaves (rather like stuffed cabbage leaves), Kudzu Quiche, Deep-Fried Kudzu Leaves, Kudzu Tea, and even Kudzu Blossom Jelly. The quiche looked especially good. Angela says that only the young leaves (about 2 inches long) are edible—the older leaves are too tough and fibrous—and that they taste like green beans.
Kudzu Kabin Designs (www.nancybasket.com) of Walhalla, South Carolina has an even more delicious recipe for Kudzu Quiche, as well as recipes for Kudzu Candy, Kudzu Flower Jelly, and Fruit Juice Jelled Desserts, from a source cited as 101 Uses of Kudzu. You can also buy kudzu paper, kudzu art cards, kudzu-stem baskets, even kudzu soap on this site! As a bonus, Nancy notes, your kudzu purchases are “guaranteed never to grow again.”
Then there’s the Blythewood Kudzu Festival site (www.kudzufest.net).** Their motto is “It’s here and it’s free—why not put it to good use?” My feeling exactly. In addition to jelly, candy, etc., this site provides recipes for Pork Tenderloin with Kudzu Salsa (the salsa uses the stems) and Kudzu-Rice Quiche, and tells you how to dry and store the leaves (use the dried leaves in breads and pasta sauces, as well as candy), and make and store ”juice” from the blossoms for future jellymaking. It even provides nutritional info for the recipes!
The festival itself—now in its 35th year—includes a kudzu leaf-eating contest (one winner consumed 10 pounds, 6 ounces of what appeared to be raw kudzu leaves) and a Kudzu Sandwich Tent (selling kudzu salad, a kudzu sandwich, potatoe [sic]-flavored kudzu chips, and French-fried kudzu stems. The tent lists its hours of operation, but adds this word to the wise: “(or until kudzu is gone).” There’s even an alternative kudzu-themed food stand, the Kudzu Food VineLine, featuring a BBQ kudzu sandwich, kudzu burger, hot kudzu dog, kudzu salad (small), boiled kudzu stems, more potatoe-flavored kudzu chips, baked kudzu leaf tips, and iced kudzu tea. Sadly, no recipes were given for the kudzu salads or sandwiches, but there was a recipe provided for the boiled kudzu stems that has to be read to be believed. (In fact, the whole site has to be seen to be believed, or not believed, as the case might be. But it sure is fun!)
So, if you live down in kudzu country, make yourself a quiche, weave a few baskets, or try your hand at paper- or soap-making. If I had kudzu here, I’d try sauteeing the tender leaves with garlic and olive oil. If you can’t beat it, eat it!
‘Til next time,
* Utne Reader, October 20, 2010.
** No location for Blythewood was given on the website.