It’s not a nut and it doesn’t roar, but, as Alessandra Felice finds out, these stripy tubers have plenty of bite…
Tiger nuts or chufas are edible tubers that have been used since Palaeolithic times in Africa, where they were a food staple and then spread to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and, with time, to South America and Spain. And now, they finally made their way to us and are rightfully gaining more popularity.
They are currently cultivated in Africa and Spain, where they are the base to make a traditional drink called horchata, which is tiger nut milk mixed with cinnamon and sugar. Even though they may look like nuts, they are in fact root vegetables, just like sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. Because they’re a root vegetable, they are perfect for people with nut allergies, and tiger nuts are gluten and grain-free as well. But their power is not just in being allergy-friendly, as these tiny veggies are a powerhouse of concentrated plant nutrition.
Full of fibre
Tiger nuts have a really high fibre content, more than oat bran or chia seeds. Fibre, as we know, is essential for bowel function, moving waste products through the digestive tract and to support digestion. Plus, consuming foods containing fibre can help in keeping blood glucose levels stable and avoid insulin highs, promoting a slower release of energy from nutrients.
What these tubers are becoming very well known for, is being a source of ‘resistant starch’, which acts as a prebiotic. Prebiotics – also contained in foods such as chicory, dandelion, bananas, onions, leeks or garlic – serve as fuel and energy source for the beneficial gut bacteria that can then grow and thrive, supporting digestive, immune and general health.
Because of this though, it’s better to introduce prebiotic into your diet slowly, as they can create a change in bacterial balance. A rapid alteration in gut microflora could temporarily create intestinal discomfort like bloating or an upset stomach.
Tiger nuts are also extremely rich in minerals like iron, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. These nutrients are involved in essential biochemical reactions in our bodies, such as production of red blood cells, oxygen transport to cells, muscle contraction and relaxation, digestion, regulation of cardiac rhythm, nervous conduction, bones and teeth structure, and participate in the production of energy through the formation of the ATP molecule (the energy currency molecule of the body).
Antioxidants and more
These root vegetables are a source of numerous antioxidant compounds as well, such as vitamin E, vitamin C and oleic acid. Vitamin E plays a role in the formation and functioning of the red blood cells, muscles, skin structure and other tissues. Vitamin C is knowingly essential for immune function, collagen production and skin health, but also to improve iron absorption from plant-based sources. And oleic acid is an important monounsaturated fatty acid that can protect cells and skin against oxidation and inflammation.
Tiger nuts have a slightly nutty and sweet flavour and you can find them in a number of forms, such as whole, peeled, chopped or flaked and milled into flour.
Whole tiger nuts can be eaten as they are, mixed into salads, yoghurt, cereals and why not even soups to give an added crunch? Peeled ones are slightly softer and a bit less rough and hard, but both varieties can be used to make tiger nut milk.
To make tiger nut milk, soak about 200g (7oz) for 4-6 hours and then rinse well. Blend with 450ml (16fl oz) water until smooth and then strain through a nut milk bag or cheesecloth. Add a pinch of salt to preserve it and, if you like, add vanilla, cinnamon or a touch of your preferred sweetener.
Even if you eat them on their own, soaking them in water for a couple of hours makes them softer and crunchier, so try out which texture you like best.
Chopped and flaked tiger nuts are simply whole tiger nuts broken down into smaller pieces or flakes, while the flour is simply whole tiger nuts ground into a fine consistency. It can be found more coarse, similar in texture to wholemeal flour, or very fine and made from peeled tiger nuts.
It can be used raw as it is or for cooking and baking. It’s gluten-free and a great substitute for almond or coconut flours when there are nut allergies or sensitivities.
Once you choose which tiger nuts to buy you get to the best part, which is using them and experimenting with different recipes.
If you make milk, add it to smoothies, hot drinks like the traditional horchata or spiced chai lattes and hot chocolates, your morning coffee and matcha lattes or substitute for other non-dairy milks in your favourite baking creations. You can even use it as a base for plant-based ice creams!
And don’t discard the pulp after milking, because that you can either dry in a dehydrator or oven and use as flour, or use as it is to mix into raw bars, truffles and cracker recipes.
Baking up a storm
The flour works really well in baking cookies, breads, veggie burgers in place of wheat flour, muffins, cakes, which are both gluten and nut free, but also grain free for people avoiding grains as well for dietary reasons. It adds moisture and chewiness as well as a natural sweetness. Plus, you can spice up your standard buckwheat pancakes or waffles with tiger nut flour to add an extra sweetness and nuttiness to them and use it for energy bars and truffles instead of making them with only nuts and seeds. In fact, just like nut and seed flours, it can be utilised raw. It’s very nice paired with cinnamon and ginger into raw apple/pear cookies or raw chocolate chip cookies.
Chopped or flaked tiger nuts are perfect sprinkled on yoghurts, chia puddings, salads, soups and smoothie bowls to give them texture and an extra nutrient boost, but also to add to porridge and granolas! In particular, if you find shaved or flaked tiger nuts, you can substitute them for oats and create a grain-free breakfast that is equally delicious and nutritious.
Alessandra Felice (ND Dip CNM)
Alessandra is a nutritional therapist and medicinal chef, who trained with the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York and the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.