By Chef Lynn M. Miller
If you are a fan of Asian cuisine, you may have eaten something called burdock root and not even realized it. If you’re not a fan of Asian cuisine, you might want to discover this interesting and tasty vegetable. Although it used to be standard fare in western cuisines, burdock is now regularly available only in Asian grocery stores.
Called “Gobo” in Japanese and “u-eong” in Korean, this unattractive stalk is covered with a tough looking brown skin. Actually the tap root of the burdock plant, it can grow up to 3-1/2 feet in length and usually has a diameter of about two inches. Touching the skin, however, reveals that it is amazingly thin and can easily be peeled with a standard potato peeler – and that’s exactly what you should do with it. Peel it and cut it into strips or chop it into ¼” circles. If you are chopping a lot of it, get the pieces into cold water as soon as you can. Like other white root vegetables (the potato for example), it will discolor as it oxidizes. It looks most interesting when it’s cut into circles because the way the fiber is arranged makes it appear like slices of banana.
The best way to cook burdock root is to braise it. Put the pieces in an appropriately sized sauce pan. Make sure you have a lot of surface area and add beef broth just to cover. Then turn the heat on low to medium and simmer it until the pieces are tender. Don’t cover the pan because you want the broth to almost cook away. (Keep an eye on it so that the liquid doesn’t entirely cook away and burn. This will take about 30 minutes.) Then sprinkle it with salt and pepper and it’s ready to eat. The broth will have become a moisturizing sauce so you don’t need to add any butter or oil. In fact, the dish is better without either of them because the natural taste of the root is not disguised. The taste is similar to a sweet carrot, although al dente burdock pieces will also remind you of water chestnuts or artichoke, which is actually a relative. It is absolutely delicious with a beef steak or roast. In Asian restaurants, it is often braised, pickled or shredded and served with Asian sauces.
What to do with leftovers? Add the cooked burdock to a stir fry or re-fried rice. Chop it and use it as a steak topping or mix it into a meat salad. It will fit anywhere you might think about adding cooked carrot or celery and will give an interesting twist to your meal.
Burdock is also nutritious. It contains starch, fiber, calcium, amino acids and protein – all packaged together without a ton of calories. In some circles, it is also thought to have great medicinal attributes. It’s possible to find all kinds of scalp treatments and burn creams made using it in health food stores. As well, some people think it is useful for combating toxins in the body and that it has diuretic properties.
The burdock plant can be found growing in the woods. It grows huge leaves that can be very irritating to human skin and it blooms generally in the summer and early Fall. Its purpose in nature? Primarily food for a variety of moths, as well as humans who are adventurous enough to try it.
The burdock bloom is in the form of a purple thistle or burr that spreads its seeds by grabbing on to passers-by for a quick ride to a new place. This, in fact, is exactly what happened to a Swiss man whose name was George de Mestral. In the 1940’s, George was walking in the woods and got a number of burrs on his pants. George was an inventor and curious about everything, so he examined the burr to see what caused it to lock so beautifully onto other surfaces. He saw that the burr was a collection of little hooks and he was actually imitating this quality of the burdock plant when he invented the hook and loop system that changed our lives and became known as Velcro!
Like many mushrooms and other plants that grow in the woods, take care if you decide to pick burdock yourself. A plant called Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna) looks almost exactly like it and is extremely poisonous. You should know what you are doing or you should buy it from someone you trust.
You will always find it in Asian stores. If you’re bored with common vegetables… give it a try!