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ATLANTA - In the Southeast, you’ll find kudzu draping the scenery off the side of the interstate. You’ll find kudzu climbing that abandoned barn in your neighbor’s backyard. And if you sit long enough in one place, you may even find kudzu growing up your leg — the picturesque, prolific creeper vine can grow up to 12 inches in a day.
But one place you’re unlikely to find kudzu is on your plate. Why is that?
After all, in today’s culinary climate of favoring locally grown produce, shouldn’t we eat an edible leaf that grows seemingly everywhere?
“I’ve never cooked with or used kudzu, because none of the farmers I source from have ever had it on their lists,” said Jarrett Stieber, an Atlanta chef with a reputation for using local, seasonal ingredients. “But I’m open to cooking with it. I’ve used similar things like sweet potato and pumpkin leaf, which are popular in Southeast Asian and some African cuisines, but never kudzu.”
Regardless of a willingness to try, is eating kudzu even possible? Yes, say experts, as long as you know what you’re doing.
“Kudzu seeds and seed pods aren’t edible, but the leaves, roots, flowers and vine tips are,” said Raleigh Saperstein, senior horticulturist at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. She pointed out that, despite its reputation as an omnipresent nuisance, U.S. Forest Service research has shown that kudzu, whose scientific name is Pueraria montana, only occupies one-tenth of 1 percent of the South’s 200 million acres of forest. Asian privet, by comparison, takes up 14 times the amount of space that kudzu does. Making kudzu edible may be a way to demythologize and destigmatize the plant.
Darryl Wilson is a North Carolina forager and entrepreneur whose business, Carolina Kudzu Crazy, focuses on edible applications of the vine. He started by feeding the leaves to pigs and rabbits before moving on to us humans, avoiding the larger leaves, which can be too tough.
“We use the small leaves in recipes that call for spinach bacon quiche,” said Wilson. Kudzu has a mild spinach-like flavor, and Wilson said that it absorbs other flavors well.
Kudzu flowers may hold the most uses for those looking to get something tasty out of the vine. Yes, kudzu has flowers. They’re small and purple and blossom beneath the leaves, which is why they’re not easily noticed. The vine generally flowers in late July through early September, and hanging vines are more likely to have flowers than those growing along the ground.
Carolina Kudzu Crazy has also developed grilling glazes, stir-fry glazes, both sweet and spicy jellies and a pancake syrup, all using kudzu blossoms that impart a flavor that tastes like a grape-apple combination to some, and a strawberry-apple to others, according to Wilson.
Thinking of testing out your own kudzu recipes? Saperstein cautions against just pulling off the highway with a pair of shears. “Like any foraged food, avoid plants that might have been sprayed with herbicides or are growing alongside major roadways where they could be contaminated with vehicle exhaust,” she said.
Kudzu originates in East Asia. It was first imported to the United States from Japan in 1876, brought over for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It made its way to the Southeast within a decade. But it wasn’t until farmer, radio personality and Atlanta Constitution columnist Channing Cope exhorted its benefits in the mid-1900s that it began to spread across the region.
So although kudzu has become iconically Southern, perhaps to find an edible application for it, it’s best to look to the culinary traditions from where kudzu is rooted.
“I have cooked with powder of kudzu root when I was in Asia,” said Jason Liang, the sushi chef behind Brush Sushi Izakaya in Decatur, Georgia, and the newly opened Japanese fast-casual spot Momonoki in Midtown Atlanta. “The powder is mixed with water then added to thicken the sauce or soup. It doesn’t have color or taste of its own.”
In addition to kudzu starch’s use as a cooking thickener, Liang noted that dehydrated kudzu root is commonly used in Chinese medicine to relieve hangovers, upset stomachs, headaches and flu symptoms.
And while kudzu is unlikely to be the next locavore craze, Atlanta diners may see some dishes incorporating the vine creep onto menus around town.
“I’m sure it would go well with other veggies and summer fruits, too, like peach, blueberry and fig,” speculated chef Jarrett Stieber of the pop-up concept Eat Me Speak Me.
And Matt Marcus, the new chef-owner of Watershed, is currently testing culinary applications for kudzu.
“We are making powders, oils, papers, jams and more while trying to figure out the sweet spot between flavor and color,” said Marcus, who’s also playing around with okra-esque kudzu “slime” in his kitchen. “I think most people don’t use kudzu in town because of the stigma it has gotten as an invasive vine. It’s also not easy to manipulate, and the yield is very low for usable raw product without refinement.”
But perhaps the vine just doesn’t have enough going for it to make it worth the trouble. After all, said Jason Liang, “It doesn’t have much taste, and no one seems to care about it. Maybe we all have enough things to eat already.”
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