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Burdock: Curse the Burrs, Love the Roots

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"What's for dinner?" my dad asks, as he walks in the door. I point to my prized find on the kitchen counter: a half-dozen brown, hairy roots from Berkeley's venerated Monterey Market.

"Sticks?!?" he asked incredulously. "I don't think I want sticks for dinner!"

There's no doubt burdock root is not the most appetizing looking vegetable. But it is surprisingly palatable. Peel away the dark brown, hairy skin and you will find coconut white flesh, crisp and crunchy like jicama.

Burdock is a weed. A tenacious, invasive weed. A weed with detestable little brown burrs that stick infuriatingly to socks, pant legs, and your dog's fur. Burdock is a nasty, nasty plant, cursed by all. Except George de Mestral. Burdock's stick-tight burrs inspired de Mestral to create a very popular fastener: Velcro.

Like many plants regarded as weeds, burdock is edible. More still, it is quite tasty. While young leaves, petioles, and even stalks of burdock can be blanched and eaten, it is the long slender taproot that gives this weed its culinary appeal.

The Japanese have long recognized the agreeable taste of burdock root. Known as gobō in Japan, you might have seen a common appetizer on the menu of Japanese restaurants: kinpira gobō, which consists of sautéed burdock root and carrot, sometimes with daikon. Or you may have seen burdock root in the vitamin and supplement section of your local grocery store. That is because burdock root is purported to invigorate the body, while cleansing the blood of toxins.

When selecting burdock root, choose slender roots, about 3/4" in diameter. As roots get large, they develop a tough, fibrous core...not unlike some carrot varieties. Small roots are young roots; young tender roots. Much better for eating.

The flavor of burdock is quite mild. When eaten raw, it tastes akin to a turnip, or maybe a really mild radish. It sweetens with cooking, tasting more like parsnip. But it retains its crunchy texture, even after cooking. Which makes it excellent for stir fries, giving the dish a satisfying texture.

Try this take on the popular Japanese dish kinpira gobō. With the addition of chicken and garlic, this dish is elevated from appetizer to main course.

Kinpira gobō (Stir-Fried Burdock Root) with Chicken and Carrots

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Matchsticks of burdock shown in the foreground,
dotted with black sesame seeds

INGREDIENTS (for one large serving or two smaller ones)

4 burdock roots, 3/4-inches in diameter, about 10-12 inches long
1 carrot, medium
1 (really 1/2 of a whole) boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced into large pieces
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp Chinese Five Spice
1 tsp sriracha
Black sesame seeds for garnish

PREPARATION
Peel burdock root and julienne into match stick pieces. Immediately plunge julienned burdock into an ice water bath with a splash of vinegar (burdock root oxidizes real fast, turning the white root into greenish-brown. The vinegar-ice bath helps preserve the color of the burdock).

Peel and julienne the carrot the same as the burdock root.

Heat sesame and peanut oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Remove burdock from ice water bath and dry with paper towels. Add burdock and carrot and sauté for 8 minutes or so. Now add chicken and continue to sauté until chicken is almost done.

Add brown sugar, sriracha, garlic, and Chinese Five Spice. Toss well to coat and sauté for another minute. Add soy sauce and toss again. Sauté until liquid is almost completely reduced. Generously sprinkle black sesame seeds into skillet / wok, toss well and serve.

Darrin writes the new-food-a-day blog 365Wholefoods. He is an author and frequent speaker on food, urban agriculture, health and nutrition.