Chufa / tigernut

The Egyptians appreciated their sedges. One of them is papyrus, from which they made the world’s first paper. Another is chufa (Cyperus esculentus), also known as yellow nutsedge, the best of the very small number of edible sedges. Dried chufa tubers, or tigernuts as the marketing people would have us call them, have been found in pre-dynastic Egyptian tombs from around 6,000 years ago. It is surprising that the rest of the world has taken so long to appreciate their qualities.

This year I decided to see how they would cope with growing in Scotland. C. esculentus comes in a number of subspecies, some of which are adapted growing in the tropics and some of which range as far north as Alaska, where they are considered a serious invasive weed. The variety that I got was a southern one, which probably meant that the yield wasn’t as high as it could have been but did eliminate any potential weed problems as the plants are completely killed by our winters and rely on human help to overwinter the tubers.

Chufa tubers have a notoriously poor germination rate – probably a deliberate strategy by the plant to hedge its bets by spreading sprouting times – but I managed to get a good proportion started by soaking them, then giving them bottom heat in a propagator early in the year. These were then grown on the window sill until the soil warmed enough to plant them out. I grew them in pots to guard against the invasive root systems that growing guides are full of dark warnings against, but in the event I found that they produced compact root systems with the tubers all held close to the base of the plant. They stood up to a few mild frosts but with the first hard frost of November the tops died off and it was time to have a look at my harvest.

Cyperus esculentus

My verdict? Chufa tubers are delicious. Raw, they have both the texture and the taste of coconut. They cook very quickly, which gives them a slightly more floury texture and a very pleasant taste inside, but more surprisingly they keep their crunch no matter how long you cook them for, which makes them a great textural addition to winter stews. Chufa tubers are also used to make a drink called horchata de chufa, for which they are grown in some quantity in Spain. The Spanish generally add sugar and spices, but to my taste it is at its refreshing best if you make it simply by blending some tubers in water and straining to take out the bits.

Chufa tubers are very nutritious, with twice the starch content of potatoes and plenty of vitamins and minerals. They also store very easily: once dried they keep indefinitely. The only remaining question is productiveness. My yields were low, but I gave them more space than they needed (50cm apart) so things could be improved by planting them closer together. Even if they turned out not to be very productive I would still grow some as I am very taken with the flavour and texture. My only problem is whether I am going to be able to hold off from nibbling on them long enough to have a supply to plant next year.

Chufa on sale in Burkina Faso. I didn't get this many.

Chufa on sale in Burkina Faso. I didn’t get this many.

31 thoughts on “Chufa / tigernut

  1. Well, if you liked it, I guess I will have to give it a try.
    I have only read about Chufa’s use in sugar drenched horchata, and nothing else. So I figured that even if it grew like a weed, I didn’t have a use for it. If it tastes descent on its own though, I’m all for trying it.
    How well do they reconstitute after being dried?

    • As far as I know they must reconstitute well since they are generally sold dried. The ones I planted certainly reconstituted well enough for germination, but I didn’t try eating them at the time. I’ve put a few in water and should be able to give you a definitive answer shortly.

      • I was mistaken then. When you said you ‘germinated them’ I thought you were starting from seed, not tubers. That is interesting info that they can grow from dried tubers.
        I look forward to your review of reconstituted Chufa.
        Thanks so much for sharing.

        • Loose talk, I’m afraid! What is the proper term for starting tubers into growth? ‘Sprouting’ I guess. The chufa have been soaking for a couple of days now: after a few hours they had swelled up and were tender enough to eat, although not fully reconstituted; since then they have stayed that size, perhaps continuing to swell slightly. I tried both some of this year’s crop and a left-over tuber from last year and they were almost exactly the same. Using cold or warm water didn’t make much difference.

      • Hi Alan, thanks for the great article. Just wondering if I understand correctly, you grew them from the dried tubers? I can’t find seed where I live but I can get the dried “nuts” in the health food shop and I’d like to try growing them.

  2. We have a few small areas in New Brunswick mostly along the St John River where chufa, groundnuts and woundwort all grow in some of the fertile floodplains. I’ve made the 150 KM trip a few times and have been able to gather groundnuts and woundworts to bring home to my garden but the chufa has eluded me so far. No doubt I will make the trip again as Chufa is one fascinating wild food. A book called Weeds of Canada claims most tubers are killed by soil temps of -6.5 C and also I find interesting they say 1 tuber in a single growing season can produce 1,900 plants and 7,000 tubers, wow that sounds like a weedy plant with a lot of good potential. Alan your tubers look to have grown to a nice size, I enjoyed reading what you have experienced with this plant.

    • Interesting that you haven’t managed to get chufa. Do you mean that you found the plant and it didn’t have tubers or just that you didn’t find the plant at all? I’m also interested in what you mean by groundnut – is it Apios?

      • Actually I suspect I found a few plants which were rare along the rivers edge where tall grasses were dominant, the clay soil was tough digging and no tubers were found, I’m hoping next trip to locate a sandy area where tubers should be closer to the plant and easier to see. The flora maps show it is considered locally common along the banks throughout 200 miles of the St John River though the access points I have chosen thus far have not turned up and colonies of this plant. I may need to approach a local farmer or 2 for permission to travel into some of the better sites via their private roads to the rivers edge.
        Yes the groundnut I mentioned are Apios americana.which I can easily gather after the spring floods as the tubers will often be dangling from the washed out river banks. In my garden Apios struggles in with my Jerusalem Artichokes but does well with daylilies and starts flowering just as the daylilies fade in August.

        • That’s interesting. I suspect that the Apios varieties that circulate over here come from the southern part of their range, which stretches down to Florida. As a result the one in my garden manages to set one tuber every year but nothing more!

          • Our Apios variety in eastern Canada grows tubers very near or at the surface often about an inch deep in a tight horseshoe-like ring of 5 to 10 small tubers. The plants only flower in sunny spots and never produce even immature pods. In tall grass near the rivers edge you will not notice groundnuts vegetation during the growing season though you may feel the rounded tubers at ground level or see them at the river’s bank.
            I’ve heard groundnut will grow larger tubers under elderberry shrubs and even does OK in mossy areas near bogs. I haven’t tried planting any in these locations yet, though I am tempted to try this some day.

    • Hi Emma. I got them from Ottawa Gardener of The Veggie Patch Reimagined. I’m sure you’ll know her through Facebook groups etc. The only information I got on their provenance was that they were var sativus rather than a North American variety. As for yield, Wikipedia says that tuber initiation is inhibited by high levels of nitrogen (so generous feeding might be counter-productive) and long photoperiods (not much we can do about that unless we are really dedicated). I did wonder if mulching them before the frosts killed the tops might give a few extra weeks of tuberisation. I also noticed that the ones I grew in pots sunk into the ground did much better than the ones planted directly into the soil. I suspect this is because the pots retained water for longer – I’ll try watering them more next year.

  3. I grew a patch this year, and found they gave effective ground cover when block planted at about 6″. I’m pondering their use in that role within a polyculture for next year. Plenty of water – remember they are a sedge, and a thick mulch of wood chip between the plants seems to have worked well for me. Harvesting is the only real hassle.

  4. “… or tigernuts as the marketing people would have us call them,” no…. The tiger nutname comes from the tiger-striped patterned coating on the nuts. People in West Africa have been calling them that for centuries…

  5. Got my tiger nuts from Dobies as part of the Rob Smith Range but did wonder if you could use the ones from fishing supply shops as they sell tiger nuts for fishing bait.

  6. I’ve just dug up my tiger nuts, got quite a few but what I want to know is how do you get them clean? There’re so small that cleaning them by hand is going to be a chore.

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