In some of the more wild areas of New York City’s Central Park or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, you may notice something spicy in the air. Before you can put your finger on what exactly it is,it’s gone. Chances are, you’ve just had a whiff of common wild burdock which grows throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
Fall is the season for burdock root (gobo in Japanese). Many Japanese dishes feature the vegetable, whose fragrant flavor, somewhat akin to a parsnip, lightens heartier fare. Most commonly the root is sliced up with carrots, stir-fried then simmered in soysauce and cooking sake in a dish known as kinpira gobo. Although not as common, people also eat the stems to this vegetable steamed or stir-fried.
Interestingly burdock root and Americans do not have the best history. According to reports, during World War II American POWs in Japanese internment camps complained of “being forced to eat a root of a tree” as a form of torture or punishment. While conditions were certainly harsh, I think it is safe to say that eating burdock root was one of those instances of cultural differences.
You can certainly buy burdock root at most Asian grocery stores these days, but it is entirely possible to harvest wild burdock yourself—even in places like Central or Prospect Park. Here is a video about harvesting wild burdock on your own. All you basically need is a shovel, as you are digging the plant up by its roots.
To make one of the most popular burdock dishes, kinpira gobo, check out this video (English):
For other ways to use burdock root in Japanese cooking, check out these two links by Cooking with Dog (English and Japanese)