Saturday, April 13, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Burdock

     Burdock, for the most part, is kind of a nasty, somewhat dangerous plant.  Its leaves and stems can cause a skin rash (contact dermatitis) in humans, for example.  But the plant is best known for its seed dispersal system.  Some plants spread ‘em by enveloping them in delicious fruits that will be eaten, some equip them with tiny quasi-parachutes or gliders to travel on the wind, and some, like the burdock, have devices to latch on passersby, and are only released after a struggle.  The “burrs” or seeds of the burdock are particularly tenacious, as hikers and those with pets probably already know.  For the most part, this is more of an annoyance, but sometimes it can cause harm.  The seeds, if eaten, can cause irritating fur balls in the digestive systems of some animals.  And birds which get entangled enough may be unable to fly, and may even die.
     However, the plant’s taproot is edible, and is used by various cultures.  Europeans used to use it as a bittering agent for beer before hops became prevalent (which relates back to my post on gruit beer).  A current type of dandelion and burdock flavored soft drink is still enjoyed in the U.K.  Still, though, it’s most commonly consumed in Asian countries.
     I had burdock in a Japanese restaurant in Schenectady, New York, as a type of sushi.  It was a makizushi roll called “gobo.”  I learned later it was burdock which was then pickled and colored orange to resemble a carrot.  (To digress, there are few things I despise, DESPISE worse than carrots—so this ruse wasn’t a selling point to me.)  Thankfully, burdock doesn’t taste anything like a carrot.  It had a pleasantly mild sweetish flavor, and a satisfying crisp texture to it.  Very good, a definite recommend.  Alas, it doesn’t seem to be very popular in the U.S., as I’ve never seen it on a menu again, in the dozens of Japanese restaurants I’ve tried since.  (And I haven’t been very close to Schenectady in a long while.)
     Nutritionally, burdock is low in calories, and high in potassium, calcium, amino acids, and fiber.  It’s also become more popular in the past fifty years or so among proponents of macrobiotic diets.  Furthermore, it’s believed to have various positive effects in folk medicines.  Some even think it’s good for increasing lactation in nursing mothers, but this hasn’t been medically proven.  (Additionally, doctors tend to discourage pregnant women from eating burdock because of possible negative side effects, such as uterine stimulation.)
     Burdock is also involved in an important non-food issue.  It was the inspiration for an invention that probably every person reading this frequently uses—Velcro.  In 1941 Swiss electrical engineer and inventor George de Mestral was motivated to closely observe the seed burrs after he had problems removing them from his dog and his clothing.  The microscope revealed the hundreds of tiny hooks that the burrs use to attach themselves securely.  George came up with the hook and loop halves of Velcro, and shoelace, button, and zipper companies have been cursing his name ever since.  Recently, the military even devised a type of Velcro that is nearly noiseless, and so better suited for stealth battlefield conditions.  Finally, George was evidently quite the prodigy, as he patented a toy airplane when he was only twelve years old.


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