By Heidi Lewis
The sunchoke has more aliases than the World Wrestling Federation’s roster of “Tanks,” “Crashes,” and “Hulks.” It has been called “sunroot” and “earth apple,” but its other most common moniker is “Jerusalem artichoke.” It has nothing to do with Jerusalem, as this vegetable is an American native, but rather the mispronunciation of girasole (Italian for sunflower). It has nothing to do with artichokes either: legend has it that French explorer Samuel de Champlain found Native Americans cultivating this root veggie in the 1600s, and his European colleagues thought it tasted like artichokes.
The sunchoke plant (Helianthus tuberosus) grows an average of 5–10 feet tall and resembles a sunflower (it’s a member of the same genus). Sunchoke tubers are somewhat reminiscent of ginger root in appearance, and tend to be 3 or 4 inches long and an inch or 2 thick. They are sometimes a stand-in for potatoes, as their texture is similar, but they can also be eaten raw and have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor.
One special feature of the sunchoke is inulin (not insulin). Inulin is a naturally occurring simple sugar that the plant stores, like starch—but it’s not starch. Normal digestion does not break inulin down into monosaccharides that elevate blood sugar, so it may be helpful in the management of diabetes. Almost 19 million Americans have diabetes, so there’s a chance someone you know will appreciate a sunchoke gratin.