Got a tip on a burdock patch in Seattle the other day. Burdock (Arctium sp.) is a Eurasian weed now common across much of North America. It’s a biennial and can grow to immense size, with two-foot leaves and flower stalks up to nine feet tall. Like stinging nettles and poison ivy, many of us have memories of encountering burdock as kids—a sweater covered in burrs, say, or the chore of taking a wire brush to Fido after a romp in the patch. Rumor has it the inventor of Velcro™ had burdock stuck on his mind when he came up with his very lucrative invention.
But like so many things, when I actually wanted to find me some burdock…you know, to eat…it suddenly became elusive. Burdock is a weed of fields, margins, and waste areas; the city offers prime habitat for many of our tastiest weeds, but burdock? Not so much. Which is why I followed up on this tip right away. And it proved a good one. Just as the tipster had predicted, there was a tangle of burdock infesting a hillside adjacent to a soccer field in the heart of Seattle. The dead stalks from last year’s crop were easy to spot with their clusters of burrs waiting for the unsuspecting.
I located some fresh rosettes of leaves and went to work with my shovel. Burdock roots grow deep, often more than two or three feet beneath the surface, and need to be coaxed out of the ground so as not to break. First-year roots are the ones to target for food; once the plant forms a flower stalk in the second year the root turns woody, though these can be thinly sliced and dried to make tinctures. Today’s were mostly younguns and relatively easy to spade out of the ground, but longer roots in compacted soil can be quite an effort. In a matter of minutes I had a bunch of dirt-covered roots in my bag and walked back to the car.
In the parking lot I saw a city parks employee picking up trash with one of those mechanical arms. My shovel and roots were already safely tucked away in the car, but as he came closer he noticed me checking out a patch of bittercress where I was parked. I picked some and nibbled, earning a look of speechless shock from the gentleman that I will not soon forget.
The Japanese are great lovers of burdock and ascribe many medicinal values to the root. It’s reported to be beneficial for your skin and your liver. I’d say it’s beneficial for your taste buds too. It’s starchy like a potato and has the round, buttery flavor one associates with artichoke heart; there’s also a sweetness and even a faint citrusy edge. Kinpira Gobo is a traditional Japanese dish and easy to make. The addition of shichimi togarashi is recommended here and is a good call.
1/2 lb burdock root
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sake
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp soy
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
Shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice blend), to taste (optional)
1. Lightly peel the burdock root, then julienne and remove to a bowl of water for 10 minutes.
2. Julienne carrots.
3. Heat oil in a wok or frying pan and stir-fry burdock for a few minutes. Stir in carrots and cook another minute or two before adding the remaining ingredients.
4. Stir-fry until the liquid has evaporated, leaving a glaze on the vegetables.
5. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and shichimi togarashi.
You can also find commercially grown burdock in many Asian markets. The root will be longer, straighter, and prettier than wild burdock, but a chef I know checked out my recent batch and pronounced it more complex smelling than any of the commercial stuff she had used in the past. Plus, there’s the added incentive of freaking out your local groundskeeper.