At first glance, it looks like a really long, dirty twig. Not especially appealing, and probably not the kind of thing that you’d ever think of eating. Even if you were starving in the forest, you’d probably start with berries and leaves, right? However, you may be missing out on a unique taste sensation!
Growing about one metre long and a slender two centimetres wide, this is a root vegetable sadly underappreciated in the West, sometimes known as “beggar’s buttons” or “love leaves”. It’s crisp and delicious, with an interesting texture. Originally used for medicinal purposes, it has plenty of fiber and all kinds of alleged health benefits. You’ll find it adding crunch to Japanese dishes kinpira and tempura. Can you guess its real name?
This is burdock root (gobō), introduced to Japan from China as a medicinal plant probably in the Heian Period, a thousand or so years ago. In the Edo Period it became more popular in cuisine, and cultivation improved. Often written in katakana, the first Chinese character in the word gobō (牛蒡) literally means “cow”, although this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with cows whatsoever—back in the day in China, this “cow” character just referred to a large plant. It’s said that there was another plant which looked pretty much the same, except that gobō was bigger, so the “cow” in gobō was added to distinguish between the two. Similarly, it’s known as “greater burdock” in English to distinguish it from its punier cousins.
▼Well peeled and cooked, gobō looks a lot more appetizing.
The various ways of eating it include kinpira gobō (sauteed slices of burdock and carrot), tataki gobō (the burdock is pounded until it splits, then combined with toasted sesame seeds), yawata-maki (little rolls of beef or eel wrapped around gobo and other vegetables), tori gobō meshi (chicken and burdock rice), and deep-fried (tempura).
It’s an ingredient used in several osechi recipes, the traditional food prepared for the Japanese New Year. The long roots are quite fiddly to prepare properly from scratch and tend to change colour quickly if you don’t plunge them in water with a teaspoon of vinegar immediately after cutting. Not to worry, you can also get them in pre-cut frozen packages, but the end result will turn out a bit soggier.
▼Fried up in tempura batter, gobō looks even more divine. Nom!
If you happened to spot them in a Japanese supermarket, you might wonder if they were being sold for eating, or some other mysterious purpose. They look a lot like long straight tree roots.
▼Fancy a root? I like mine to be at least one metre long…
It is said that POWs held by the Japanese were given gobō to eat, which they mistook for tree roots and interpreted as an act of cruelty. Urban legend has it that the innocent chef who prepared the gobō for the POWs was later tried for his “war crime” and sentenced to death on the basis of this cultural misunderstanding.
However, this story is explained in a book on the war crimes trials (Hiroku Tokyo Saiban) by Ichiro Kiyose. Apparently, the prisoners couldn’t understand what the unfamiliar gobō was. Given a literal translation of the two characters, they thought that the guards were trying to mess with them by telling them it was “ox tail” when it was actually tree roots. So while this issue did come up in the war crime trials (along with the infamous nattō or “rotten beans”) it was found to be a misunderstanding rather than a crime.
These metre-long roots are painstakingly extracted from the ground intact by digging a deep trench across the field to get them out. No one wants a broken burdock root! To me, the plant looks a lot like a thistle. This is also the plant which stuck to the fur of George de Mestral’s dog and inspired him to create Velcro, changing the lives of astronauts, scuba divers, skiers and shoe-wearers forever.
▼The inspirational Arctium lappa.
In France, greater burdock is numbered among the “forgotten vegetables” (legumes oublies) which are no longer commonly eaten.
As a mouthful of crunchy goodness, I recommend a taste of gobō to anyone who likes Japanese food, Velcro or new experiences. Some food for thought?