Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Season: Store Bought or Winter Harvest
Urban, Rural or Both: To harvest: Rural mainly, otherwise Asian food stores
Kudzu (Pueraria lobata), is also called Kuzu in macrobiotic literature, and also called Japanese Arrowroot. There seems to be a little confusion over exactly which Pueraria is Kudzu, or if more than one, so if you are interested, follow this Pueraria link. It's academic to me, as I can't harvest it myself - it doesn't grow where I live, so I buy it in health food stores in the macrobiotic section as a powder. I include it here because it is such a good thickener in foods with no flavor of its own, and gives strength and energy without nervousness.
Native to Japan and used as a food starch. The starch is called Kuzuko or "Got Fan". The plant is an invasive vine above ground and can be a giant root below the ground. Now growing wild in the South Eastern USA. It was brought to North America by the rail companies during the heyday of the steam trains in the 1800's to plant along new rail lines that were on the sides of slopes or on built up land that was in danger of washing away during floods or very heavy rain. They chose this plant because it grows so fast it boggles the mind. The root is ground or mashed in water and the water is filtered off and the starch left over is used as a thickener in sauces and soups. It doesn't add a cloudiness to the food like some other starch thickeners.
If you do harvest it yourself, be aware that not all the roots are good for harvesting. Since the only experience I have with it is buying it and using it, as it doesn't grow where I live, you will have to do local research if it is in your area. Keep in mind, the roots are woody like tree roots, so you can't just go dig a root, chop it up like a carrot and cook and eat - you have to process it for the starch.
Kudzu is known for numerous health benefits, but mainly as an overall body strengthener and conditioner and for stomach problems.
This plant is legendary for its incredible rate of growth. In the sandy loam of the Southern USA, it can grow three feet per day. I have read that the root can be over 10 feet long and a foot in diameter.
For such a wild plant, the taste is so mild. Use as a substitute for corn starch or any other thickener. It comes in a package of white powder. Add a little (1 tsp to start) to a little room temperature water, mix well, and gently add and stir into simmering liquid.
Traditionally in Japan it is used with Umeboshi paste and ginger to help with stomach upsets. Basically, you simmer fresh ginger slices for an hour or so, filter out the ginger, ad a little Umeboshi paste, and mix in the Kudzu (mix a teaspoon of Kudzu with 2 or 3 tablespoons of water before adding) to the simmering mix and stir until thickened. Sip until gone. I've done it, and it works great - better than just ginger, which works pretty well too.
See the recipes section for a Sauce made with Kudzu that is great on many foods, especially stir-fry's.
One more thing that Kudzu is great for is making spaghetti sauce thick with. It works better than anything else in my opinion. You can make the sauce still thin enough that it flows, but with the Kudzu in it, it sticks to the pasta. See the section on pasta sauces for the recipe.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
If you live where it grows, you could grow it, but if it gets out of control, don't blame me. The seeds are not always viable, and from seed is when you get the best roots, so find some of the seed pods in the fall where you live, and plant them. Expect most will not germinate. Make sure it is not near woods (will kill trees by cutting off their light) or something you don't want covered in green in about, oh, two days! If you don't live where the soil is sand or very soft loam, don't bother, as it won't be worth the effort to harvest the roots. Just to be clear - I'm not recommending you grow this plant, as it can easily get way out of control very fast.
- Plant Size: Very large, long trailing or climbing vine that can reach the top of large trees.
- Duration: Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Compound with three leaflets. Leaflets variable in shape: oval to almost heart shaped, can be lobed.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch:
- Leaf Size: Leaflets 7-10 cm (3 to 4 inches) long
- Leaf Margin: Entire (smooth edged)
- Leaf Notes: Veins are obvious, as they are a lighter green than the leaf.
- Flowers: In clusters, purple to mauve to maroon, strong grape like smell, look like Pea flowers
- Fruit: Very hairy seed pods, that look like furry pea pods (It is a member of the Pea family).
- Bark: On established vines, can grow up to 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter, brown & smooth, sometimes finely scaly. Young stems are fuzzy.
- Habitat: In North America: the Southeastern USA, though it has been spotted officially in Southwestern Ontario on the shore of Lake Erie. Likes rich, moist, well drained sandy loam soils. Won't tolerate the very cold winters in more Northern areas.
- Kudzu recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Kuzu recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Kuzuko recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
An example of a package of Kudzu powder. In macrobiotics it is called Kuzu, in North America the plant is referred to as Kudzu - same thing. Notice how it is labeled as a wild food.
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