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A Jerusalem artichoke is a crunchy, sweet tuber native to North America. These tubers are cultivated in many temperate zones as a source of animal fodder as well as human nutrition, and they are known by a variety of names including sunchoke, sunroot, Topinambour, and Racine de Tournesol. Many farmers' markets carry Jerusalem artichokes when they are in season from October through March, and they can also be found at some large markets, where they are often called “sunchokes.”
One might reasonably ask how a plant which is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem came to be known as a “Jerusalem artichoke.” Several explanations have been forward to explain this, but most people skirt the debate altogether by using one of the tuber's alternate names. The most likely explanation for the “Jerusalem” is that it was a corruption of girasole, the Italian word for “sunflower,” a reference to the parent plant. “Artichoke” may come from the Arabic al khurshuf, which means “thistle,” a word which could be loosely used to describe the foliage of these hardy plants.
In North American, the Jerusalem artichoke grew like a weed, and Native Americans obviously took advantage of this, consuming the roots and periodically transplanting them to keep stocks healthy. European explorers brought the Jerusalem artichoke back with them, along with an assortment of other Native American foods including corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, and the tubers became quite popular in some parts of Europe.
The sunchoke is closely related to the sunflower, and the plants are actually in the same genus. The flowers are a brilliant yellow, and they are mounted on tall stalks with broad leaves, much like sunflowers. The tubers resemble ginger roots, growing in gnarled, twisted forms with occasional smooth patches. Once dug up, they can be stored in a root cellar for several months before use, and they are eaten both raw and cooked. A Jerusalem artichoke patch needs to be dug up and replanted in fertile soil every year to ensure the best crop and to prevent soil exhaustion.
Raw Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten out of hand or sliced into salads or onto cold soups. The peel is perfectly edible, but many people prefer to remove it, leaving the white, crisp flesh behind. In cooked dishes, sunroots should be lightly cooked only, as they can become mushy with extended cooking. They add texture to stir fries, pasta dishes, and other foods, along with their characteristic sweet, nutty flavor, which is almost like a water chestnut.
Jerusalem artichoke, a relative of sunflower, is easy to grow, but not very tasty. In the kitchen they can be used instead of potatoes, among other things.