Kudzu can be found almost everywhere in Western North Carolina, and apparently it’s here to stay. So, instead of fighting it with herbicides and mowers, why not bring it to the table?
Although it tops the list of the South’s most notorious invasive plant species, the much-maligned vine has some stalwart fans in the Asheville area. And they’re hoping that by learning to appreciate kudzu’s finer qualities, such as its multiple culinary and medicinal uses, Southerners can develop a healthier relationship with their landscape.
“Rather than have this defeatist attitude about the plant, let’s get to know it,” says Justin Holt, co-organizer of the biannual Kudzu Camp in Sylva.
Holt is captivated by what he calls the “hidden story” of kudzu, which has been revered in Asia for millennia as a source of nutrition and medicine. Used with great success in the American South during the Dust Bowl era to curtail catastrophic soil erosion caused by deforestation, it fell from grace when it began to spread uncontrollably — established vines can grow at a rate of more than one foot per day, according to The Nature Conservancy.
“Kudzu is this really dramatic plant,” he says. “It’s hard to ignore. It kind of makes you marvel and wonder how a plant can be so vigorous.”
Friends with the enemy
At the three-day Kudzu Camp workshops, held in late winter and late summer, participants get training and hands-on experience in harvesting, processing and using all parts of the plant for various purposes, including everything from basketry to cuisine. Because there are no leaves or flowers out in the cold months, the upcoming winter workshop, scheduled for Friday through Sunday, March 16-18, focuses on the roots.
For those harvesting kudzu during the spring and summer, one of Holt’s go-to resources, The Book of Kudzu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, provides recipes for numerous dishes that can be made from fresh kudzu leaves that are boiled, sautéed fried and pickled. And the plant’s beautiful purple flowers, notes Asheville ethnobotanist Marc Williams, are known for making a lovely jelly.
But the fibrous roots are a different story. They are too tough to be eaten as a vegetable. But when freshly harvested, they can be washed and chopped then dried to be used as a medicinal tea. And with some additional processing, there are many more applications.
“Kudzu starch is our best local source of starch for thickening,” says Williams, who favors it over cornstarch and arrowroot for making puddings, soups and sauces.
Asheville permaculture enthusiast Todd Smith, who follows a macrobiotic diet, also incorporates kudzu-root starch into his meals as a locally sourced replacement for arrowroot, cornstarch and flour. Like Williams, he uses it to make puddings as well as jams, and in place of flour as a base for a tamari béchamel sauce that he serves with vegetables.
Smith notes that in macrobiotic philosophy, a plant-based regimen that originated in Japan, kudzu is commonly used as a culinary ingredient based on its healing properties. “In macrobiotic cooking, food is primarily regarded as medicine,” he says. He, Holt and Williams all point out that kudzu (known as kuzu in Japan), is used in Asian healing traditions as a remedy for everything from headaches to diarrhea to hangovers. And some studies show that an isoflavone in the kudzu root can help reduce alcohol consumption in those who regularly imbibe.
During Kudzu Camp’s communal meals, Holt and fellow organizer Zev Friedman serve kudzu-based dishes made with starch prepared during the previous winter’s gathering. Some favorites have emerged during the eight years of the camp, including maple hickory-nut kudzu pudding and kudzu matcha mochi (a chewy rice cake made with matcha green tea). And the camp’s many regular participants must find great satisfaction in enjoying the fruits of the previous year’s labors, because extracting starch from kudzu roots is a labor-intensive process.
First, the intrepid foragers must find and dig up the roots, which Holt says can weigh up to 300 pounds, although the largest he’s come across so far in WNC is about 70 pounds, and the majority are much smaller. “The largest roots are the ones from vines that are actually growing on trees,” he notes. “They basically use the tree as a trellis to get more sunlight, so they have much less competition from plants growing on the ground and can channel all the photosynthetic energy into one root.”
Next, campers scrub the roots clean and chop them into about 1-inch pieces with a machete. The pieces are loaded into metal cauldrons where they are pounded by hand. The resulting fibrous pulp has a deceivingly delicious appearance. “It really looks exactly like pulled pork,” Holt remarks. “Every year, someone makes a comment about how we should start a vegan barbecue.”
But to get to the good stuff, the root mash has to be submerged in cold water and vigorously kneaded, then the mixture has to sit for about 12 hours to allow the starches to settle out. After that, the water is siphoned off, fresh water is added, and the process begins again — and again and again.
“Sometimes it takes up to a couple of weeks to get it fully purified to pure white starch with no bits of fiber or other impurities,” Holt says. So, no, camp attendees don’t get to take any starch home with them. But in addition to the knowledge they gain, they have the option to leave with fresh roots and sometimes vines for basketry and other crafts.
And there are some more far-reaching benefits. “We kind of built the whole event around sharing food and sharing stories and exploring these permaculture concepts and trying to build what we refer to as ‘kudzu culture,’” Holt says, adding that a group of camp devotees have formed a cooperative that harvests the fresh roots and markets them to herbalists throughout the U.S.
“Kudzu is actually just something we perceive to be a problem because of our cultural attitudes and norms. If we can create a culture around kudzu, that kind of flips the script and opens up a lot of opportunities that are waiting there in the soil for us to discover.”
The next Kudzu Camp takes place Friday through Sunday, March 16-18, at a kudzu patch in Sylva. The event is open to all ages, and there is no cost to participate, although donations are accepted. For details and to register, visit kudzuculture.net or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.