Cooking with Kudzu
The surprising nutritional value of the
vine that devoured the South
Story & Photos by Tonya Thompson
There’s an old legend that the story of Jack and the Beanstalk was really just a tale of a boy who planted kudzu, and jokes abound of Southern famers offering kudzu planting advice for the prolific vine – “drop it and run!”
Although better known as “the vine that ate the South,” kudzu (or Japanese Arrowroot) has centuries of cultural use beneath its shady, nuisance exterior. As early as 1578, records show the use of kudzu in Chinese medicine, and by 1665, the Chinese were making cloth and paper from the strong fibers of kudzu stems.
James H. Miller, Research Ecologist (Emeritus) for the United States Department of Agriculture, has conducted extensive research on the plant’s history in the U.S. “In the late nineteenth century,” he writes, “kudzu was used as an ornamental vine to shade porches and courtyards of Southern homes. It was also appreciated for the grape-like fragrance of its flowers and because of its vigorous growth.”
It wasn’t until 1933, however, that kudzu was broadly introduced to Mississippi, as well as the rest of the South. According to Miller, to correct the extensive erosion caused by improper agricultural practices and cotton production in the Delta, the U.S. Government supplied 85 million kudzu seedlings to Southern landowners for land revitalization efforts. Southern farmers were given $8 per acre to plant it, resulting in about 3 million acres of kudzu planted on farms across the South by 1946.
By the 1940s, numerous kudzu clubs were formed throughout the South. Kudzu festivals were popular, including the crowing of kudzu queens and queens. However, with vines that grow up to 60 feet in a single season and as much as 1 foot per day in early summer, kudzu quickly overtook the Southern landscape.
“By the early 1950s,” Miller writes, “kudzu had largely become a nuisance. It had spread rapidly throughout the South because of the long growingseason, warm climate, plentiful rainfall, and lack of disease and insect enemies. Abandonment of farmland during this time frame contributed to the uncontrolled and unmonitored spread of kudzu. In 1953, the United States Department of Agriculture removed kudzu from the list of cover plants permissible under the Agricultural Conservation Program.”
Nuisance or Something More?
While many still consider the plant to be a nuisance, studies show the potentialfor kudzu for everything from treatment for alcoholism to biofuels. One study recently published in the international academic journal Drug andAlcohol Dependence found that a single dose of kudzu extract quickly reducesalcohol consumption during a binge drinking scenario. Another peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Psychopharmacology, published a study showing how a standardized kudzu extract (NPI-031) reduces alcohol consumption in nontreatment-seeking male heavy drinkers. Beyond its medicinal potential, almost every part of the kudzu plant is edible and highly nutritious.
“I’d encourage anyone interested in giving kudzu a try to experiment by using your favorite recipes that involve cooked greens,” says Carol Penn-Romine, award-winning culinary writer, Seattleresident, and self-described farm girl from the South. “If you’re worried that they’ll be disagreeable, try easing into them by mixing them with other greens, like beet, chard and mustard — whatever greens you already like.”
In addition to its nutrition-packed leaves, the blossoms on a kudzu vine can be used for making jelly, syrup and wine — all with a distinct grape flavor.Being a legume, kudzu’s roots are chocked full of protein, iron and fiber. When dried and ground to a powder, the roots also produce a flour that can be used for frying batters or to thicken sauces, and have been used for that purpose for centuries in China and Japan. The entire plant — including its roots, flowers and leaves — shows antioxidant activity.
Nutritional content of the plant varies depending on the age of the vine and its leaves, but most kudzu carries a crude protein content of 15-18%. In addition to being highly nutritious for human consumption, local farmers have often turned to kudzu as a foraging source for their livestock, which seem to preferthe taste. When nearby bee colonies forage kudzu, the result is honey that tastes like grape jelly.
So what does kudzu taste like? “It tastes like chicken,” says Penn-Romaine. “No, sorry, I’ve been waiting to say that for a long time! Kudzu may be a leaf, but it tastes more bean-like than leaf-like. It has a distinctive protein flavor and density to it. I wouldn’t eat a big salad of it, but as a side or a component in a larger dish, it works just fine.”
According to Penn-Romine, the best spots for gathering the plant are those off the main road, since roadside harvests are likely polluted by nearby traffic. “The more mature leaves are leathery and difficult to chew,” says Penn-Romine, “so select the smaller, newer, more delicate leaves. Those usually won’t need as much cleaning, since they haven’t been around long enough to collect a deep layer of grime. The main thing is, know your source.”
Recipe by Carol Penn-Romine
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
½ cup half and half
1 cup grated gruyère
¼ cup freshly-grated Parmesan
3 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
¼ cup red bell pepper, small dice
2 Tbsp. shallots, minced
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup loosely packed fresh kudzu (tiny leaves),
cleaned well and roughly chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Tabasco sauce, to taste (optional)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly roll puff pastry to an 11-inch square and transfer to a 9-inch diameter glass pie plate. Trim excess, crimp edges and set aside. Lightly sauté shallots and red bell peppers in canola oil, just long enough to soften them, and set them aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and Tabasco. Blend in gruyère and parmesan,then the sautéed shallots and peppers. Work in the softened cream cheese (small lumps are okay). Stir in kudzu leaves. Pour mixture into puff pastry crust, pushing in any leaves that may stick out, so they do not burn. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is set, about 25 to 30 minutes. Allow quiche to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Recipe originally published in Edible Memphis, Spring 2007.
Illustration by Jordan Nikki Watson