TASTE

Here's What Chicory Is, And Why It's In Your Coffee

If you've ever had the experience of drinking chicory coffee (and chances are, you were in New Orleans when you drank it), you might've had to wonder just exactly what chicory even is. For the record, chicory is this pretty flowering plant.

06/30/2015 07:43 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2015

If you've ever had the experience of drinking chicory coffee (and chances are, you were in New Orleans when you drank it), you might've had to wonder just exactly what chicory even is. For the record, chicory is this pretty flowering plant.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES** This undated photo shows chicory growing in the wild in Va. For many diners, perennial vegetables are an acquired taste. The leaves of this wild chicory plant, for example, are frequently considered strong if eaten uncooked. Some of that bitterness can be neutralized by mixing a few of the uncommon edibles with more traditional salad fixings like iceberg lettuce, an annual. Chicory is probably better known for its roots which can be roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

But underneath the plant is its root, and that's the stuff that we're going to talk about today. The root is what gets roasted and ground to be brewed with coffee in some parts of the world. This is what that root looks like: 

AFP/Getty Images
An employee holds chicory roots at the 'Leroux chicoree' chicory processing factory, on April 5, 2013 in Orchies. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

But how and why does this stuff end up in our coffee? It's all rooted (pun not intended) in world history, a little bit of tradition and a whole lot of politics and economic hardships. For most of our coffee-drinking past, the addictive caffeinated beverage has been expensive. There weren't always Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts competing on every street corner. Sometimes coffee was scarce -- especially if a major port was blocked for political reasons. 

No one is sure exactly when people began mixing chicory with coffee, but according to Antony Wild (author of 'Coffee: A Dark History'), the use of chicory became popular in France during Napoleon's 'Continental Blockade' Of 1808, which resulted in a major coffee shortage. Chicory is native to France, where it has long been loved for culinary reasons so it's only natural that's where the story began. 

AFP/Getty Images
Chicory roots are stored at the 'Leroux chicoree' chicory processing factory, on April 5, 2013 in Orchies. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

During the blockade, the French mixed chicory with limited supplies of coffee to make their coffee stretch -- and even used it in place of coffee altogether. While chicory does't have any caffeine, it does share a similar flavor to coffee, which makes it a decent substitute in times of need. 

When the blockade lifted and economic prosperity returned to France, the use of chicory in coffee subsided. But it did not disappear. Actually, the practice made its way over to the French colonies, like Louisiana. In 1860 alone, France exported 16 million pounds of chicory, and as a result, it's now grown in other parts of the world, namely North America and Australia. But it wasn't until the Civil War when Union naval blockades cut off the port of New Orleans, one of the largest coffee imports at the time, that coffee chicory became a big thing stateside. 

 Staying true to their roots, New Orleans locals turned to chicory to make their limited coffee supply stretch. The practice stuck, even when coffee became readily available again, because according to locals it's all about tradition. The world famous Cafe Du Monde still makes its cafe au lait with chicory, and it's especially good with a side of hot beignets.

Cafe Du Monde Beignets

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