Sunchokes – Rediscovering an Ancient Crop

Helianthus tuberosus is a perennial plant of the sunflower family, with common names such as sunchoke, Jerusalem artichoke, sunroot, topinambur and earth apple, in English, or in Spanish: pataca, alcachofa de Jerusalén, aguaturma, and castaña de tierra.  Sunchoke’s swollen tubers have a good amount of protein, and are considered healthy and diabetic-diet friendly, since they contain no oil, and little starch.  Most of their energy is stored as a type of inulin, a naturally occurring polysaccharide, which is a nutrient with low hypoglycaemic index; the only foible is that its digestion pattern might be different from person to person, causing variable degrees of bloating (and the invisible, yet odoriferous, consequences, LOL.)  Their texture is close to a firm potato when roasted, and crunchy apples or water chestnuts if eaten raw, which explains some of the common names.

These tubers were an important part of the native American diet; considered invasive in the wild, it is hard to pin-point their exact origin, but are believed to have been originally foraged in central regions of Canada and the USA, extending south to former Mexican land, such as Texas, later on also cultivated, and spreading both east and west.  Sunchokes were brought to France by explorer Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s, who found their flavour similar to artichokes (also part of the sunflower family), and many consider that the “Jerusalem” part of the name could be a corruption from the Italian “girasole” (sunflower).  The name “topinambur” is also used in Germany, and “topinambour” in France, again for a reason unrelated to the plant: at the same time when sunchokes were introduced, there was an exhibition in France featuring the Tupinambá, a Brazilian ethnic group, so the public put the two together, and the name stayed for good.  Sunchokes continued to be grown by settlers in North America and extensively in Europe, but they were eventually forgotten when potatoes and other New World vegetables were introduced.  There have been some efforts to bring sunchokes back to the table, served at gourmet restaurants, and there are many recipes around, such as in stews, particularly lamb, mashed, roasted, etc.   

It was about a year ago that I enjoyed my last restaurant sit-down dinner, before The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID19 a pandemic, on March 11, 2020.  This special meal was during a mini vacation in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, at the Mexican vegan restaurant “Rosalinda”.  My choice of meal was “Roasted Sunchoke in Manchamantel Sauce”, a type of mole that is traditionally served with pork or chicken, but which was cleverly modified featuring sunchokes.  Back at home, when I developed my version of Manchamanteles, I prepared a batch with chicken and another one vegetarian; since I was not able to find sunchokes anywhere back then, I used a combination of sweet potato, carrots and parsnips, commenting that “I might try to grow them [sunchokes] sometime.”  I ordered some sunchoke seed-tubers from a gardening company a while later, listed at $15 CAD (around $12 USD) for half a pound, but many postal and delivery services had been interrupted or disrupted by the now on-going pandemic, and my package never arrived.  Fast-forward a year later when, two weeks ago, I was not looking for them, but found sunchokes in the produce section of a local market; I promptly purchased one and a half pounds, as shown in the photo at the top of this post, which only cost around $6 CAD ($4.75USD)!  A few of them had funny shapes, almost resembling chicken drumsticks and wings, so I chose them for cooking, and there was even a heart-shaped piece, so I pick that one, as well:

I removed some bumpy spots from these and, along with the remaining four tubers, were placed in soil, in a pot indoors:

I covered the tubers with more potting soil, watered every day, and yesterday, I checked their progress.  Two of them had started sprouting (white narrow bumps), and grown several strands of roots, as seen on one of them, in the photo below:

I transplanted to individual pots with soil, and I am hoping they will continue to grow, in which case they will get transplanted to the ground in my backyard in a month or so.  I will post an update later in the season.

As for the chicken-look-a-like tubers, I scrubbed them, boiled in water for 10 minutes, and drained.  Then, I drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned with salt and freshly grated black pepper:

I arranged them on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, and roasted under the broiler for another 20 minutes, turning once halfway:

They were very tasty! Crispy skin, and fluffy, yet firm, inside … and so sweet.  They could have been a delicious meal as they were, but I decided to incorporate them as part of a Mexican dish.  Stay tuned to see the results in my next post.


For your convenience, click on the images below for products available on Amazon™.  There seems to be more sources of sunchoke seed-tubers this year, I hope you have better luck than me last year! DISCLAIMER: Any reviews included in this post are my own, for items I have purchased, not provided by any company; as an Amazon Associates Program affiliate, I might receive a commission for any purchases originated from the links below, at no extra cost to you (thank you to readers who have bought other products starting with a click from my links!):

23 thoughts on “Sunchokes – Rediscovering an Ancient Crop

  1. How interesting, explorer and survivor Bear Grylls found a wild sunchoke once and said its poisonous. Seems it makes a great dinner when prepared well. What an interesting post, thank you for sharing.

    Like

  2. They do fairly well in the garden here in Central Massachusetts. but you have to be careful where you place them; they will stray into other cultivated beds. Make sure to place them in a sunny location from which they can’t easily escape.

    Like

    1. Yeah, pretty invasive; I already have the spot for them, at the back of the backyard, against the North fence, so tons of light. Thank you for the tips, how do you cook them?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My wife likes them, and she baked them. BTW plan on using them soon after harvest. I am told that they are good for diabetics, but only if prepared soon after harvest. If left to sit too long they become starchy.

        Like

  3. I’d heard the name sunchoke before, but had no idea there was a sunflower involved. I checked and it appears that his been found in a few places around Colorado and considered native by the USDA. Sounds intriguing.

    Like

    1. Yeah, it is considered invasive and it is one of those plants that spread mainly through rhizomes and tubers, so any little piece remaining in the soil comes back with a vengeance; you really have to be sure you want them in your garden.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I used to grow Jerusalem Artichokes on my allotment and they are so easy to grow and have really pretty flowers, being in the sunflower family. I did find them a bit of a bind to prepare because I always scrubbed and peeled them. They also contain a type of starch that many people find hard to digest leading to really bad flatulence, which is why they are sometimes called fartichokes!!!

    Like

    1. I ate these with the skin on, it is thinner than potato skin, and got crispy in the oven. I have read that if you roast them the “invisible yet odoriferous” effect is not as bad, and yeah, many sources recommend to eat them in moderation. Wow, so cool you grew them, Kristian!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember reading about these many moons ago but that’s as far as it went. Good to know about the “gas factor” and how invasive they can be to grow. Will be watching to see how they do in your garden and how you use them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We call them Jerusalem artichokes in the UK but are more affectionately named fartichokes. I think they may be called sun holes as the flower looks a little like a sunflower and I think follows the sun.

    Like

    1. Yes, they are known to produce bloating, so it is recommended to eat in moderation, and indeed they are part of the sunflower family, with yellow blooms. Are they commonly found at stores in the UK? Here in Souther Ontario, Canada, they are not; this was the first and only time I have spotted them, at a local market.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s