Not every taste withstands the test of time. Plenty of vegetables, herbs, and grains popular in the past have either gone of out style and are no longer cultivated on a mass scale or have had key flavors altered through breeding. Lucky for present-day diners, chefs are rediscovering and reviving these lost heirloom plants in contemporary cuisine. Here are five heritage ingredients making a comeback that will give you a taste of history.
You’re probably already somewhat familiar with benne seeds since they are the forefathers to modern sesame. The ovate seeds have a nutty character and add an umami quality to the dishes they’re featured in. They’re the backbone of Sean Brock of Husk’s Charleston Ice Cream, which is a warm savory starter made with Carolina Gold Rice, not a cold sweet finale. The seeds are incredibly versatile. Bourbon Steak’s executive chef Joe Palma used them to dapple a yeast doughnut, which served as a bun for his Big American burger topped with bacon, pimento cheese, and sweet ‘n’ spicy pickle relish .
Though it’s part of the grass family and can be used as a grain, sorghum is best known for being transformed into a dark syrup popular below the Mason-Dixon line. Tasting like a cross between molasses and maple syrup, it’s often used interchangeably with the two, either as a sweetener or drizzled on to flapjacks and biscuits. At Washington, D.C.’s Vidalia, it’s incorporated into the standout sweet potato sourdough in the restaurant’s complimentary bread basket. Conversely, it adds Southern-style sweetness to the butter accompanying the cast iron cornbread at Food, Wine & Co. in Bethesda, Maryland. Chef Erik Niel of Easy Bistro & Bar, Chattanooga, Tennessee, goes a different route entirely, using popped sorghum to garnish his tuna tartare (pictured below).
This winter root vegetable’s nickname is the “oyster plant,” because it supposedly expresses that flavor when it’s cooked – though some think it tastes more like an artichoke. A relative of the parsnip, it works best when boiled, mashed, or fried. Gabriel Kreuther of New York City’s Gabriel Kreuther has used it in a decadent gratin made with plenty of butter, half-and-half, Gruyere, Monterey Jack, and a pinch of nutmeg. At City Perch in North Bethesda, Maryland, executive chef Matt Baker has showcased salsify in a seared scallops dish given a luxe lift with shaved black truffles.
Otherwise known as field peas or crowders, these legumes are comparable to black-eyed peas. Commonplace in dry tropical environments – such as Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ghana – and high in protein, they’re a great meat replacement for humans or an excellent livestock grain. A number of culinary greats have championed them in recent years, including Blue Hill’s Dan Barber and Red Rooster’s Marcus Samuelsson, who have both featured them on their menus.
Though it resembles a root vegetable, its bulbous stem grows above ground and it’s actually closely related to cabbage. Once you peel off the tough outer layer and a fibrous second layer, you’ll find a softer core possessing a flavor similar to broccoli crossed with cabbage. In contrast, the greens taste similar to kale and can be served either raw or cooked. At the pioneering Indian restaurant Pippali in New York City, the stem is stewed together with yams, bananas, and carrots in a coconut, chili, and yogurt sauce to create curry-like kalan. Meanwhile, kohlrabi greens, along with baby arugula, sweet peppers, and trout roe, sometimes accompany the red snapper crudo at Washington, D.C.’s Urbana.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.