• Añada's Maria Kabal isn't the only person making good use of the ingredient. (Añada)
Also referred to as tiger nuts, this tuber has a reputation for being a noxious weed. So what's the story?
By
Lucy Rennick

9 Oct 2018 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 9 Oct 2018 - 12:00 PM

Chufa, an edible tuber found growing on grass-like plants in Valencia, Spain, is small but mighty.

It's easily passed over by the untrained eye or uprooted and tossed aside as a weed, but the cyperus esculentus plant is actually more along the lines of a superfood – the little bulbs growing on the roots (known as tiger nuts in English) are chock-full of antioxidants and fatty acids, and allegedly aid digestion and boost the immune system. Chufa, clearly, is not to be underestimated.

If you’ve ever had Spanish horchata (not to be confused with the Mexican version, made from rice and almond milk, cinnamon and vanilla), an ice-cold, milk-like antidote to sweltering mid-summer Valencian heat, you may have consumed chufa without even realising.

The little bulbs growing on the roots (known as tiger nuts in English) are chock-full of antioxidants and fatty acids, and allegedly aid digestion and boost the immune system. Chufa, clearly, is not to be underestimated.

The chufa ‘nuts’ are harvested, ground up and mixed with water, sugar and lemon juice before being filtered out as horchata.

In Australia, though, chufa is a relatively under-recognised ingredient. Known here as yellow nutgrass, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has it listed as a weed thriving in low-lying or irrigated land. While the Internet lists a multitude of ways to use these tubers (add them to your cereal for a fibre boost or even enjoy them in beer form), we’re still figuring out what they look like.

Maria Kabal, the chef behind the Spanish restaurant Añada in Melbourne, is ahead of the curve: she’s experimenting with chufa as an ingredient for unusual desserts.

“I made a horchata de chufa ice-cream with a goat’s milk dulce de leche, chocolate chestnut crumb, rooftop honey and fresh truffle for a demo at Truffle Melbourne,” she tells SBS. “During the demonstration, I used liquid nitrogen to make the horchata de chufa ice-cream. The flavour is unusual – it’s very earthy with different nutty undertones, almost like a mix of hazelnuts and coconuts to me.”

Delicious desserts and various nutritional benefits notwithstanding, humans seem to have a long and complicated relationship with tiger nuts. Evidence suggests the tubers were used both as medicine and food by ancient civilisations (Egyptians and Greeks were particularly fond of them), but fell out of favour in the 19th century when the plant was classified as a pest.

"The flavour is unusual – it’s very earthy with different nutty undertones, almost like a mix of hazelnuts and coconuts to me.”

These days, the jury is out: it’s still considered a noxious weed almost everywhere it grows naturally, but it’s simultaneously been seized upon by the health food industry as a superfood, in the same vein as quinoa or açai berries.

In Spain, it’s a different story: chufa is inextricably linked with the nation-wide reverence for horchata.

“Horchata is a very popular drink in Spain during the summer, especially in the eastern region (Valencia) and also in the south,” says Kabal.

“Spaniards from those regions get very nostalgic when talking about horchata de chufa, as they all grew up with it and it awakes a very distinct feeling of home.”

Similar to other superfoods’ meteoric journeys into the limelight and back, the hype over tiger nuts will likely fade. The cyperus esculentus plant, though – as a pest or produce – is here to stay.

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds?  It's Spanish week onThe Chefs’ Line airing every weeknight at 6pm on SBS followed by an encore screening at 9.30pm on SBS Food Network. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #TheChefsLine on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBS_Food. Check out sbs.com.au/thechefsline for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more!

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