What better occasion than the Vernal Equinox to unofficially kick-start our foraging season of 2012! As the temperatures begin to rise in the upcoming weeks, we will put away our coal bucket and wander around the city enjoying the spring sunshine and watching the slowly emerging young plants. Although Berlin has already started to regreen itself with plant life, the plentiful dead stalks of countless annuals and biannuals are a reminder of the relative foraging dearth of winter. However, there is one plant, a member of what the French call “legumes oubliés” (forgotten vegetables), which can provide plentiful nutrition for the knowledgeable forager throughout the late winter months.
Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), or topinambur, is a common wild plant in Berlin. Many people find it hard to identify the withered stalk in March, but, during the summer, this tall growing plant is quite easy to identify as it is quite clearly related to the sunflower. The hairy stem and lack of seeds, however, are a distinguishing feature of the Jerusalem artichoke. Once you find a nice patch of plants in the summer, come back to it in the late winter and its delicious tubular goodies will be yours for the taking. Dig around as the tubers are spread out, but make sure to leave some for the next crop!
Also known as earth apples, Jerusalem artichokes have quite an interesting history. As American natives, they were quickly accepted as a root vegetable in Europe and Germany well before potatoes become commonplace. Today, topinambur is considered a standard German vegetable, although most of the national crop is used for the production of a spirit called “Rossler” or simply “Topi”. Topinambur has medicinal properties as it contains insulin and is therefore a suitable dietary supplement for diabetics. When boiled, the tubers have a mild and somewhat sweet taste that truly reminds one of steamed artichokes! We added them to a Lao dish of peanut coconut chicken and sticky rice and it turned out to be a delicious combination.