That which we call Helianthus tuberosus, Jerusalem artichoke, by any other name still tastes sweet.
Whether called Jerusalem artichoke (no relation to Jerusalem or artichokes), sunroot, sunchoke, earth apple, French or Canadian topinambour, or lambchoke – it’s all one and the same.
Although it’s uncertain, “Jerusalem” may be a corruption of “girasole” (Italian for sunflower), as called by Italian settlers in the US. Or possibly the name originated from the Puritans, after the “New Jerusalem” they were creating in the new world wilderness.
The artichoke part of the name may come from the Arabic al-khurshuf (thistle), and likely refers to how its foliage appears above-ground.
Helianthus tuberosus’ most widely used name today is “sunchoke.” This name was invented in the 1960s by Frieda Caplan, who was trying to revive the plant’s appeal. This delicious perennial tuber, a member of the Asteraceae family, is native to central North America. It can readily expand its range, and is now considered an introduced species in eastern and western North America.
Sunchokes were first cultivated by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived. They were encountered by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585 in what’s now the state of Virginia. In the 1600s, Samuel de Champlain brought to France tubers cultivated by the indigenous people of Nauset Harbor, MA. A Dutch botanist, Petrus Hondius, found that the tubers grew so well that they easily naturalized in European climates. Their popularity peaked in the early 1800s when they were regularly consumed by humans and livestock. They were listed “best soup vegetable” at the 2002 Nice Festival for the Heritage of French Cuisine.
Although early Native Americans cultivated sunchokes, they never became popular with European settlers. Perhaps tales that they caused leprosy due to shapes resembling disfigured fingers, or their extensive use during WWII , associated them with difficult times and led to their unpopularity.
Sunchokes store their carbohydrates as inulin (not to be confused with insulin). This dietary fiber is used commercially in food manufacturing. Sunchokes are also high in potassium, iron, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper. They’re recommended as potato substitutes for diabetics. The tubers can be fermented and distilled into a variety of alcoholic spirits.
With over 200 varieties currently available, you can certainly dine upon them with delight. Their slightly sweet-nutty flavor is similar to the taste of water chestnuts and jicima.
They’re crisply crunchy when consumed raw – whether sliced, shredded or chopped for salads. They brown easily when cut, so should be put in water with a small amount of lemon or lime juice, or vinegar until serving or cooking. Cooked, they’re best steamed, roasted or baked alone or in casseroles and alongside meats. If boiled, they become gooey. They can also be pickled or made into wine.
Although preferring alkaline conditions (pH 6.5), tubers grow in most soils as long as they’re well drained. Amend with compost before planting.
Plant tubers, (you’ll need only a few as each one can make 20 more) 4-6” deep and 12-18” apart. Keep well-watered and earth up around the stalks.
Pruning stalks back to 4’ (untended they can reach 10’) encourages more compact growth and discourages flowering so plants concentrate energy to growing bigger tubers.
Once plants start dying back in autumn, you can dig and dine or leave the tubers in the ground and remove as needed.
No need to purchase new,
If you leave a tuber or two,
You’ll have plenty next year to chew.
Whatever its name, this tuber deserves a place in your garden, and your menu, to stake its claim.
The Spruce Eats
You can also purchase tubers at farmers markets or from the organic section of markets and plant them.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Cover large low-sided baking pan with heavy duty foil and grease with olive oil.
1½ pounds sunchokes, scrubbed and cut in 1” chunks
3 cloves organic garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
8 Kalamata olives, chopped
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/8th teaspoon sea salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Put everything in a large zip type bag. Close bag and turn over enough times to coat all ingredients. Pour sunchoke mixture onto prepared baking sheet and put in oven. Roast for about 20 minutes until tubers are tender and lightly browned. Serve hot.
Serves about 4 as a side dish.