Wolfberry (aka goji) is a sweet ingredient in traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine. As a medicinal ingredient, it dates to 200 AD, and in recent years its derivatives have been marketed as superfoods in the USA. However, many claims about its health benefits are greatly exaggerated; one legend has it that one goji fanatic named Li Qing Yuen lived to the age of 256.
Spirulina was a daily source of food in the Aztec Empire. Known as tecuitlatl, it was harvested from Lake Texcoco and compacted into cakes. A similar product, dihe, harvested and consumed in the regions surrounding Lake Chad. Spirulina is so packed with nutrients and produced with such ease, that scientists think it may be a solution to future food security issues.
An early food additive, castoreum is a yellowy substance produced by the castor sacs of adult beavers, who combine it with their own urine to mark their territory. Humans, meanwhile, combine beaver castoreum with food to keep it viable for longer. It’s a traditional ingredient in Sweden, where it is used to flavour a type of schnapps drink called ‘Bäverhojt’ (‘beaver shout’).
Natto is a traditional Japanese ingredient made by fermenting soybeans with a specific bacteria. The result is a salty, cheesy-tasting breakfast food, served with rice, mustard and soy sauce. It’s an acquired taste; only 70% of Japanese people say they actually like it. Legend has it that natto was invented by accident by the troops of samurai Minamoto no Yoshiie in the late 1000s.
Garem was a widely-consumed condiment in the past, from Ancient Greece and Rome to medieval Byzantium and Arabia. It is a fermented fish sauce rich in umami, strikingly similar to early versions of the sauce we call ketchup. Sauces similar to garum are used widely in Southeast Asia, and one chef in Cadiz, Spain, has attempted to revive garum with a new fish salad recipe.
The Acacia tree is something of a wonder plant. Its hardened sap forms gum arabic, which is used in painting, ceramics, photography and pyrotechnics, as well as having culinary uses. In the African deserts where it is cultivated, gum arabic is a nutritious foodstuff consumed by nomadic people. It is exported as a key ingredient in many processed foods including cola, candies and chewing gum.
Cardoon plants sport beautiful purple flowers which are, along with the stems and stalks, edible and delicious. Wild cardoons are gathered in Italy and Sicily as a traditional ingredient for soups and broths. In Spain and Portugal, Cardoon buds are turned into rennet, an enzyme blend used to make sheep’s milk cheeses like Torta de la Serena.
Filé powder is produced by drying and grinding up the leaves of the sassafras tree, native to North America. This herb has a spicy flavour, and it is very common in Louisiana Creole cuisine, in which it seasons gumbo soup. It helps to thicken sauces and is typically added at the very last moment, after the food has been removed from the cooking element.
The root of maca plants (Lepidium meyenii) can be cooked and eaten, but it’s more commonly ground into a baking flour. Grown in the Andes, maca comes in a wide range of colours and flavours, from sweet to bitter. Peruvian people make the flour into breads, cakes and pancakes, and it can also be fermented to make a beer called chicha de maca.
Kudzu is an invasive climbing plant with delicate white flowers. Its roots are a starchy ingredient used commonly in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, kudzu is combined with pomelo oil (a citrus flavour) to make a summery beverage, and in Korea, it is the main ingredient of arrowroot tea, a traditional medicinal drink. Japanese chefs use it to make a sweet jelly treat called kuzumochi.