Burdock/Gobo 蒡

These Roots are Not Parsnips!
A Cocktail Ingredient

Using burdock roots in Japanese cuisine

Burdock Root – Gobo

In the market, bundles of Burdock or Gobo  look like a stack of brown sticks.  About three and a half feet long, and maybe as thick as a forefinger. Sometimes they are tied with a string, so they look exactly like a bundle of sticks.

Are these things good to eat?  Japanese people think so. In Japanese cuisine Gobo appears in a number of dishes – stews, salads, snacks, even a tea that’s said to have anti-aging effects.

Gobo is also one of the most fibrous foods anywhere, and it has to be cooked before eaten. To do this, you need to scrub or peel off the outer brown skin.  A stuff scrub brush or sharp paring knife is ideal for this.

Or you could use a vegetable peeler.  There’s even a special kitchen gadget, called a Gobo Peeler, sold in Asian markets for heavy Gobo users.

Tool for Peeling Burdock

The peeled Gobo stalks look creamy, like a kind of creamy parsnip. Unlike some Japanese vegetables like Udo, which can be substituted for Western ones like celery, Gobo can not really stand in for any other vegetable.

Not a Parsnip! As Japanese cooking maven Joan Itoh says, ” It does not blend well into Western cooking, and it is not a parsnip, so buy gobo on the nights you are cooking Japanese style.” [1]

Wear Rubber Gloves: Some alkaline compounds in the Gobo root can irritate your skin while the root is still raw, so it’s a good idea to wear rubber gloves when preparing Gobo.  Once peeled, it is usually sliced in a fine julienne to get to ready for cooking.  It should be stored in water with a little vinegar to keep it from discoloring and darkening before you cook it. [2]

What Goes with Gobo: Once cooked, gobo has a very crunchy texture, and has a faint, hard to describe flavor. Japanese cooks feel that Gobo goes well with Celery, some other root vegetables like Carrot, Turnip and Lotus Root, also with sesame and Japanese Red Pepper (togarashi), so that is what it is usually cooked with.

Cook Before Eating! You need to cook Gobo before you eat it; it is never used in the raw state. Even for salads Gobo is cooked first, then combined with other cooked or raw vegetables.

Gobo Lands in Japan: Burdock is a member of the chrysanthemum family, although one of its more homely members.Burdock arrived in Japan during the Heian Period (794-1185) and has been popular every since, both as a vegetable and a herbal.  Burdock leaves were used for medicinal purposes in the early days.  Burdock is available everywhere in Japan throughout the year, and not expensive. The Japanese may be the only people who cultivate Burdock for food.

Burdock in Japanese Cooking: Burdock is thought to have an affinity for Miso, and is often cooked in Miso Soups.  It is used in stews, salads, side dishes and appetizers, and as a healthy tea. It also features in a meat dumpling, where the crispy crunch of the Burdock contrasts with the rich succulent taste of Beef. [3]

Using burdock roots in Japanese cuisine

Burdock Root – Gobo

Burdock and Loach: Burdock appears in a famous dish of the Edo period (1603-1867), called Dojo Nabe  鰍鍋 or Burdock and Loach Sew, which combines Burdock with a fish called dojo or Loach, sometimes described as a kind of fresh water eel. The stew is a signature dish of some traditional restaurants in Japan, most famous perhaps the colorful old Komagata Dojo in the Tokyo downtown neighborhood of Asakusa. [4]

Cross-Cultural Aspects: When  former Japanese Prime Minister Noda compared himself to the Loach in Dojo Nabe, he was not really comparing himself to the humble fish, but trying to say that he felt he was being boiled alive politically. Japanese people knew what Noda was talking about, but Western people did not pick up on why he seemed to be calling himself an obscure and lowly kind of eel.  Many Westerners had probably not even heard of a Loach before.  The American Embassy in Tokyo felt they had to do a news release to explain the simile. [6]

A Niche Cocktail: Dandelion and Burdock Bitters appear in cocktails like Saints & Sinners and a variant on the Old Fashioned.  This may be strictly a niche application in the West, but one does come across it.  The Burdock Bitters may be derived from a dish called Dandelions and Burdock, said to have been invented in the 13th century by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Nutrition: Burdock or Gobo is low in calories, with only about 83 calories per 100 grams of the boiled root, with skins removed.  It is high in dietary fiber, with 1.6 grams per 100 grams of boiled gobo, which also provides 2.9 grams of protein and 17.6 grams of carbohydrates; also 65 milligrams of phosphorous and 330 milligrams of potassium. [6]

Kinpira Gobo: Perhaps the most popular way to use Gobo is in a dish called Kinpira Gobo, or 金平 or Golden Petal Burdock, a dish of Chopped Burdock Root cooked in Soy  Sauce and Sesame Oil.  It is good as a side dish or appetizer, and goes well with drinks. Most cooks have their own recipes, learned from their mothers, and each version is said to be the best. Here is a simple and good version of this classic. [7]

Kinpira Gobo

Ingredients

  • 6 ounces Burdock (about 3 medium stalks)

    Mirin - Japanese Cooking Wine

    Mirin

  • 8 ounces Carrots (about 1 large carrot)
  • 2 tablespoons Vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Vegetable Cooking Oil
  • 2 tablespoons Soy Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Mirin
  • 1 tablespoon Sesame Oil
  • 1 tablespoon Sugar
  • 1 dried Togarashi Pepper

Method

First remove the outer brown skin from the Burdock by scrubbing with a stiff vegetable brush or scraping with a knife.  Immediately please the Burdock in a bowl fo cold water with about a teaspoon of Vinegar to prevent discoloration. Slice the Burdock into thin matchstick like julienne strips about 2 to 3 inches long.  Return the strips to the Vinegar water, let them sand about 10 minutes and drain off the water.  Repeat the soaking in another change of water and let the Burdock stand in the vVnegar water about half an hour.

While the Burdock is soaking, scrub the Carrot and slice into similar small julienne sticks.

When ready to cook, drain the Burdock and combine with the Carrot pieces.

To cook, heat the Oil in a large skillet, then add the Vegetables and stir to coat them with the Oil.  Then add the Soy Sauce, Mirin and Sugar.  Stir well and simmer about 5 minutes, until the Vegetables are tender but still crisp.

To serve, crush thChili Pepper and add it along with the Sesame Oil.  This dish may be served warm after cooking,or chilled later and is good with drinks and as an ingredient in Bento lunches.

Notes:

[1] Joan Itoh, “Rice Paddy Gourmet: Kinpira Gobo,” Japan Times, April 10, 1975.
[2] Karen Green, Japanese Cooking for the American Table (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1986).
[3] For example, Beef and Budock Rolls, Gyuuniku no Yawatamaki, in Peter and Joan Martin, Japanese Cooking (London: Deutsch, 1970).
[4] Komagata Dojo, 1-7-12 Komagata, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0043, Tel. +81.3.3842.4001.[5] For the U.S. Embassy statement relating to the loach designation,  [6] Standard Tables of Food Composition in Japan  ..[7] Adapted from Sonoko Kondo, The Poetical Pursuit of Food (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1986), Itoh, Green, Martin and other Japanese and English recipes for Kinpira Gobo.
[8] “Dandelion  Burdock Bitters,” at http://www.amountainofcrushedice.com
[9] Also on Burdock Bitters: Jemima Sissons, “Precious Mezcal,” Financial Times How To Spend It, September 27, 2013, pp. 39-40. Description of Oaxaca Sazerac made with agave syrup, Pernod Absinthe and Dandelion and Burdock Bitters by London cult bartender Tony Conigham.

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4 thoughts on “Burdock/Gobo 蒡

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  3. Really enjoyed the comments on dojo. It brought back a memory I would like to share because when former Prime Minsiter Noda compared himself to a ‘dojo’ or loach…….he may not have necessarily been referring to dojo nabe. He could have been referring to dojo tofu……….which is an old recipe where the little washed dojo are put into a pot with a large square of tofu. The heat is turned on and the little loach panic and start burrowing into the nice soft cool tofu. The end result is dojo cooked inside the tofu which was served cold and sliced on a pretty plate with a sauce…..a kind of brown and white pate. I recall this dish when it was cooked occasionally by the then very old caretaker, Abbeko-san, during my years of living in the Mejji house in Somi, Niigata Japan. I thought it was a cruel way to cook the little brown eels (or whatever they are)……….but that was disingenerous coming from someone who has boiled many a delicious lobster in her day.
    Abbeko-san had been born in the late Meijii era when dojo commonly lived in the muddy bottom of streams. He thought dojo tofu was a very interesting and nutrious dish that was enjoyed by poor country folks in the old days.
    If anyone out there wants to try it……….it might be nice to put a good splash of sake into the water………the way Julia Child is reported to have added voka to the water when she boiled lobsters.
    Joan Itoh Burk

    • “Without sake, this fish doesn’t work!” — Asakusa Wholesaler
      Ms. Itoh Burk,
      Thanks for adding another way of using Dojo, which is so limited in cuisine — more so even than Burdock. You may well be right about the former Prime Minister’s reference.
      So the partly inebriated Dojo swim upward into the cool Tofu where they are finally cooked. Better to set aside some of the Sake for drinking before and during the meal with Dojo in whatever style.
      As the wholesaler in Asakusa said, “This fish is the Friend of Alcohol (sake no tomo) — it just needs Sake to make it work!”
      Again, thanks for the input!
      Regards
      Iverson

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