"Tiger nuts" -- currently trending in the paleo and raw diet communities -- are unlike anything you've tasted before, because they're not closely related to any other food in our standard diet.
Despite the name, tiger nuts are not nuts. Instead they are the tubers (underground root-like bulbs) of yellow nutsedge, a weedy groundcover that looks like crabgrass.
Tiger nut aficionados sing the tubers' praises; they have the perfect nutritional balance, are raw and organic, and (if you believe the hype) are just about the healthiest thing you can eat.
But they take some getting used to, because they're not some new variant of a pre-existing food category; they stand alone as a unique type of foodstuff. They have a distinct texture: slightly crisp on the outside, then soft in the middle, giving way to a pleasant chewiness that can last as long as half-a-minute or more for each individual garbanzo-sized "nut." They're the perfect snack because there's no way to eat them fast, and you therefore have no choice but to slowly savor their smoky, creamy, nutty, earthy flavor.
Oh, and they have nothing to do with tigers. They earned that nickname simply because they have faint stripes.
The only place where they remained popular was the Valencia region of Spain, where sedge tubers are called "chufas" and are generally not eaten whole as a snack food but rather ground up and soaked in water to make horchata, a sweet milky drink that has since become popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world. (Even so, true Valencian horchata made from chufas is hard to find in the Americas, where we instead make a mock-horchata usually out of rice or almonds.)
Tiger nuts are still a niche product, but are rapidly growing in popularity, so I set out to determine which of the currently available brands are the easiest on the palate and would be the best choice for anyone thinking of giving them a try.
I researched every type of tiger nut or chufa available in the U.S., purchased samples of each anonymously, and arranged a blind tasting panel of four "typical" potential tiger nut customers, all vegetarians interested in raw food or paleo diets. They were asked to taste each type blindfolded, and rate them on a 1 to 10 scale based on flavor and texture alone -- not on price nor brand reputation. Their scores were then averaged, and their comments for each sample compiled to determine the winner.
Here are the results, from lowest to highest:
Supreme Peeled Tiger Nuts
by Tiger Nuts USA, Inc.
Price: $5.99 for 5 oz. bag = $19.17/lb.
Unique among all the entries, these tiger nuts have been "peeled" -- that is, somehow had their outer skins removed. This makes them much easier to chew, and also sweeter overall. But apparently the process of peeling them produces an unexpected (and unwelcome) surprise.
All the panelists agreed that the first bite of peeled tiger nuts produced a rush of sweetness -- quickly replaced by a vaguely unpleasant aftertaste.
"Soft, candy-like...wait, there's a medicinal aftertaste. Ugh. The aftertaste lingers, too."
"Slightly different flavor than all the others. More like a hazelnut at the beginning, but now there's a tangy, sour aftertaste that kind of reminds me of buttermilk that's past its expiration date."
When I later finished the bag of peeled tiger nuts after the test, I began to get accustomed to their aftertaste and not mind it as much. But I also didn't like the fact that they were too easy to chew, and thus got eaten too quickly. All in all, the process of peeling tiger nuts (however it is done -- mechanically or chemically) seems to ruin the two aspects people want in this snack: flavor and chewability.
Avoid, unless you have dentures and need something soft.
by Société Djama Djigui (Mali)
Price: $12.99 for 10 oz. bag = $20.78/lb.
Imported from the African nation of Mali and labeled "N'Tiokon," these chufas are small and irregularly shaped, compared to other tiger nut brands. As a result, there is very little flesh in each tuber, making it difficult to get much flavor from them.
"Kind of skin-y and gritty."
"Just something to chew on. Can't really taste the flesh."
The day after the blind taste test was over, when I got a craving for a snack, I unexpectedly found myself reaching for the N'Tiokons instead of any of the higher-rated brands. Why? I suspect I was drawn to their unpretentiousness; because they're so bland, I didn't feel any pressure to appreciate the nuanced flavor of each bite. As one panelist noted, they're "just something to chew on." But healthy.
(Available through Amazon under the name "Organic Raw Tiger Nuts From Mali," but currently sold out.)
Chufas Oro de Alboraya
by Greses, S.A.
Price: $18.95 for 1 kilo (2.2 lb) bag = $8.60/lb ($13.14/lb with $9.95 shipping)
Of all the entries in the panel, I had the highest hopes for these authentic Spanish chufas. Their massive burlap sack is stamped with the "Denominación de Origen" guaranteeing that they're grown using traditional methods in Valencia, Spain, where chufas are considered a native product. They're also much less expensive than any other brand, costing half as much per pound as tiger nuts packaged for the American market. And they look attractive too, with few wrinkles and an appealing dark brown color.
But my high expectations turned to disappointment when they proved to be somewhat desiccated and flavorless, an opinion shared by the other tasters as well.
"You might think they were OK if you had nothing to compare them to, but not nearly as flavorful as some of these others here."
"Feels like I'm eating the ground."
In their defense, these chufa nuts -- labeled with a confusing array of names, including "Chufas Oro de Alboraya," "Chufa de Valencia," "Dried Chufa Nuts," "Spanish Tiger Nuts," and "Chufa Nuts" -- are sold solely for the purpose of making horchata, and are not intended to be eaten as a snack. (And in subsequent experiments, these did indeed make the best horchata of all the entries.) The producer, a Spanish company called Greses, also makes a higher-grade chufa for eating, but as far as I can tell those are not sold in the US. They might be worth seeking out to see if they're more palatable then the horchata grade sold here.
(Imported and sold by La Tienda under the name "Chufa Nuts (for Spanish Horchata)."
TigerNut Raw Snack
by Organic Gemini
Price: $5.99 for 5 oz. bag = $19.17/lb.
The top two vote-getters in the blind taste test turned out to be the two American brands most widely available in health food stores and online. There was essentially a tie for first, but Tiger Nuts USA edged out Omega Gemini by the slimmest of margins; on another day, the result could have been reversed. The consensus about them was essentially identical for both: Chewy, sweet, flavorful, almost milky.
Three of the panelists in fact could not tell the two top entries apart, either by taste or even after the blindfolds came off. One panelist found Omega Gemini had a slightly better texture, while Tiger Nuts USA was slightly tastier.
"Takes more chewing than the other brand -- but that's actually what I prefer."
"Milky, soft, sweet...this is what I'm looking for."
A close inspection of each type after the test revealed that Organic Gemini's tiger nuts were slightly more varied in size, while Tiger Nuts USA brand was more uniform and consistent; otherwise the two appeared essentially identical.
Premium Organic Tiger Nuts
by Tiger Nuts USA, Inc.
Price: $5.99 for 5 oz. bag = $19.17/lb.
And the winner is...the same company that also came in last place.
This company's straight-up au naturel tiger nuts won the highest praise for flavor -- whereas their "peeled" tiger nuts (in 5th place) earned unamimous condemnation for their unpalatable aftertaste. Perhaps there is a fan base for the peeled variety, but you couldn't find any in our focus group.
Their non-peeled variety, on the other hand, was noted for being nice and soft at first bite, but then having long-lasting chewability that really allows you to extract the nutty, milky favor. They were also very consistent as regards to size and firmness, an important factor for an American public accustomed to predictability in our packaged food.
"Large, and the flavor really lasts a long time. Each one is like a meal unto itself. Almost creamy once you get used to them."
"They are all unrelentingly the exact same size. How do they do it? I was almost growing fond of how the other brands are all different sizes and shapes!"
Tiger Nuts USA, Inc. says on their label that they source their tiger nuts from the top chufa farmers in Valencia, Spain, but these are noticeably different (and tastier) than the bulk packaged horchata chufas that came in at #3.
Tiger nuts are still hard to find outside of health food and specialty shops, but are easily purchased online either directly from the manufacturers or from retailers like Amazon. Be aware that some farming supply and fishing supply outlets also sell tiger nuts at much cheaper prices, but you should avoid the ones sold for planting or as carp bait and never buy them to eat: not only are they are a lower grade and not always thoroughly cleaned, but they are often sprayed with fungicide or other preservatives and are thereby not fit to consume. Stick to tiger nuts processed and marketed for the human diet.
The two winning American brands were so similar in quality that some of the panelists suspected that they were the same chufas from the same farms in Valencia, just put into different packages by the importers. But Omega Gemini does not reveal where they get their chufas, and Tiger Nuts USA claims to have an exclusive deal, so it remains unclear whether they're same product or not.
Either way, both brands would be a good place to start on your nutritional journey back to the paleolithic. Buy a small package at first to see if you even like the concept; and if you do, both companies offer larger packages that cost much less per pound if you plan to make tiger nuts part of your daily diet.
(All photos Copyright © 2015 by Kristan Lawson.)
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more