“A weed is a plant whose virtues are not yet discovered,” wrote Emerson. Well, the virtues of one so-called weed are certainly being rediscovered, and it is on fast becoming the next superfood. We’re talking about tiger nuts, the tuber of Cyperus esculentus, a member of the sedge family.

Prehistoric tools from 9,000 years ago, unearthed at an excavation site in Connecticut, contained starch granules from this tuber, so it was a food source for those Paleo-Indians. Dry tubers from 6,000 years ago have also been found in Egyptian tombs; ancient Egyptians ate them either roasted, boiled in beer, or as sweets made from the ground tuber and honey. They were also widely used as medicine, taken orally, used as an ointment or an enema, and added to fumigants to sweeten the smell of homes or clothing. Going back even further, research by Oxford University suggests tiger nuts comprised 80 percent of the diet of the Nutcracker Man, who lived two million years ago.

Growing wild across much of the world, this plant is also known as chufa sedge, yellow nut sedge, tiger nut sedge, and earth almond. In Spain it’s cultivated primarily for the popular beverage horchata de chufa (see sidebar). The tubers, which have a nutty, slightly sweet flavour, contain twice the starch of potato and sweet potato tubers, and are a good source of protein, fat, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins E and C. Once harvested and washed, the tubers are dried – mostly in the sun – for three months. They can be rehydrated by soaking without losing their crisp texture. Dried tiger nut can be consumed raw, roasted, or baked. The gluten-free flour milled from roasted tiger nut can be used in baking, while tiger nut 'milk' is a substitute for cow’s milk.

Tiger nut oil consists of 18 percent saturated fats as palmitic acid and stearic acid, and 82 percent unsaturated fatty acids as oleic acid and linoleic acid. It can be used for cooking or to dress salads, and also has cosmetic benefits thanks to its rich vitamin E content, which slows cellular ageing and improves skin elasticity. Ayurvedic medicine traditionally uses tiger nuts to treat flatulence, diarrhoea, and indigestion, while in China tiger nut milk is used as a liver tonic and heart stimulant. It’s claimed tiger nuts can prevent heart disease and thrombosis, activate blood circulation, reduce the risk of colon cancer, and fight dangerous pathogens in the human body, including salmonella and E coli. Tiger nuts, flour and oil are available online.

Recipe: Horchata de Chufa
1 cup tiger nuts, soaked in water for 24 hours at room temperature
4 cups hot water
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
ground cinnamon
Line a sieve with a double layer of cheesecloth and set over a jug. Drain the nuts and place in a blender with the hot water, then whiz until almost smooth. Pour liquid through the sieve. Whisk in sugar and salt. Cool, then pour into a bottle and refrigerate. Serve sprinkled with cinnamon.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson BHSc(CompMed) MHSc (HumNut) AdvDip (Nat) is a member of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society.