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Exotic and Peculiar Vegetables

Updated on May 7, 2016
Purple kohlrabi
Purple kohlrabi
black salsify
black salsify

Ordinary to you but bizarre to me

What makes these peculiar? Peculiarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Some of these vegetables will be old family members to some and wild-eyed strangers to others. Living in the U.S.A., we have access to a huge variety of foods but your average supermarket carries only those items that sell well and quickly. Ethnic markets are available to many of us and that is where you will have to go to find some of these items, others, well you might have to grow your own or travel out of the country.

Each entrée starts with the most common name but with so many names for so many items you may need to use the find function of your browser to locate a particular name

To find nutritional information most of these are in this database of nutrition:
Due to the amount of information this is presented in two articles


Artichokes are a member of the thistle family. Looking at one, you would never guess it was good to eat. The origin of the artichoke is uncertain but it may come from North Africa. Artichokes were cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation and soon made their way to the Italian mainland to be enjoyed by the Romans. Italians still regularly eat artichoke but they remain unusual to many in the rest of the world. Artichokes make other foods taste sweeter because of the presence of cynarin, this inhibits the sweet detecting taste buds so when you take your next bite of food it tastes sweeter than it would otherwise. Artichokes are also the basis for the liqueur Cynar an Italian bitter apéritif liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants.
Cooked artichokes are the highest antioxidant source among all fresh vegetables. To eat an artichoke, pluck a leaf out of the head and scrape the inside base into your mouth with your front teeth, the rest of the leaf is discarded until you reach the base of the artichoke. At the base, you will find the “choke,” this bit of fuzz is well named and must be discarded before eating the bottom. Check the leading link for cooking instructions.

Arugula, (Eruca sativa) rocket, roquette, Italian cress

Arugula became an obsession with American chefs during the 90s. With a long history in European cuisines, especially Italian, arugula moved from being a bit of a fad in the 90s and has since settled in with a strong place among our salad greens. The flavor of arugula has been described as bitter while others say it has a "peppery-mustardy" flavor. This is probably too strongly flavored to serve as a salad by itself but it will add a little spicy note when mixed in a green salad. It can also be sautéed in olive oil with a bit of fresh garlic or fresh ginger, which will mellow the flavor a bit. Available all year in many markets.

Asparagus Pea, Goa Bean, Winged Pea

The asparagus pea is a tropical legume plant native to New Guinea. The tender pods are the part that is eaten most often (Although all parts of the plant can be eaten, roots and leaves too) and best eaten when under 1" in length, can be harvested within two to three months of planting. Flavor is said to resemble asparagus. To cook just simmer in water for a few minutes until tender. The young leaves can be picked and prepared as a leaf vegetable. The roots can be used like potatoes, and have a nutty flavor. The dried seeds can be useful as a flour but lack the gluten needed to make bread seeds are also brewed to make a coffee-like drink. Asparagus peas provide vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and other vitamins while the seeds contain 35% protein and 18% oil.

Bamboo Shoots

There are more than a hundred types of bamboo but only ten produce shoots that are considered edible; some may need to be cooked to render them safe because they contain cyanide (hydrocyanic acid). Cooking in water removes the cyanide making them safe. Bamboo shoots are a fair source of minerals and fiber and are low in calories so they are good as diet food. The shoots have a high silica content making them abrasive for your teeth. Bamboo shoots have a large role in Asian cuisines where they are used often to provide a contrasting texture but also as a vegetable on their own with flavor coming from other ingredients. Bamboo shoots are widely available canned and fresh, dried may be found in Asian markets. Flavor is mildly sweet with a pleasant crunch. If you buy fresh they will have outer layers that needs to be removed to reveal the core, then the core should be sliced and par-boiled to remove the bitterness.

Banana Flowers, Leaves, Hearts and Shoots and Vazhaipoo

We all know about bananas, don't we? We eat the rest of the plant too! Banana shoots sprout near the base of the plant, are covered and left to grow in the dark until they mature into long, thick, white spikes like gigantic white asparagus. In Southeast Asia, banana hearts are used as a vegetable, either raw or steamed with dips or cooked in soups, curries and fried foods or by roasting them in hot ashes. Hearts and shoots both refer to the same part of the banana plant. Banana flowers are sold fresh or canned in salted water. The end that holds the petals together is simply cut off and each shoot roughly sliced lengthwise. For fresh banana flowers, the outer bracts (petals) are stripped away, to get to the tender inner bracts, and then soaked in acidulated water to remove the bitterness. Like artichokes, the fleshy part of the bract is the edible part; the flavor is delicate and said to be reminiscent of heart of palm or artichoke. The trunk of a banana “tree” is also stripped down to the tender inner core and used as a banana shoot. Banana leaves are not edible but they serve as plates and wrappers for grilling other foods. The leaves impart a slight sweetness to the food being grilled.

Bitter Melon Leaves

Bitter melon leaves are sometimes eaten as a vegetable. Cooked like spinach.

Bitter melon on


Black eye Peas, Conch Peas, White Acre Peas, Cow Peas, Southern Peas, Crowder Peas, Pigeon peas

Okay, so what are all these peas doing in a list of exotics? After 30 some years in the South, I’m accustomed to the many varieties of “peas” but when I lived in New England they would have been completely foreign to me. First of all, these “peas” are really beans (legumes). There are many dozens of varieties of peas now, because farmers have been saving their own peas as seeds and names get confused as they pass from one farmer to another. All of these peas can be swapped in a recipe and any difference in flavor is slight to nonexistent. Blackeye peas, obviously, have a black eye but there are other colored eyes and they take the name of the color. “Waiter, I wanted Pink eye peas, and you served me black eye peas!” On the other hand, some of these peas are named for how they grow in the pods. Crowder peas have more peas crowded in the pod than non-crowder peas, seems like that would only concern another pea but who am I to deny my peas some elbowroom? Peas without color are called cream peas but then those cream peas that are not crowded are called conch peas. Confused yet? So, a white acre pea is a conch pea and a member of the cream group, but if it was crowded it could have been a zipper, cream crowder pea. Unless it had a colored eye when it would have been . . . Well, they are good to eat and nutritious to boot.

Black Radish, (Raphanus sativus) Black Spanish Round, Gros Noir d'Hiver

There are numerous forms of radish, including some that are grown for oil seeds. Radishes are also divided into spring and winter radishes and black radishes, like daikons, are winter radishes (prefer cool weather to grow) Black radishes are large, to 4 inches or over and the flavor is strong, bitter and pungent to very sharp. These have reported medicinal value and black radish is available in health food stores in powder and capsule form. Black radishes have course black skin that must be peeled and white flesh. Chefs often use these for carved garnishes but you can peel and cook them like turnips or shred them and serve with salads. If they are too sharp for your taste soak them in salted cream to remove the heat, otherwise, soak in salt water and rinse to cut the heat.


is a cream colored sweet potato, (Ipomoea batatas) native to the Caribbean. Unlike the more popular orange sweet potatoes we are all familiar with, boniatos are not as sweet and moist. Many people prefer their fluffier consistency and more delicate flavor.

Broccoli Rabe, Broccoletti, Cime di Rapa, Rape, Rappi, Friarielli, Chinese broccoli,

Broccoli rabe is common in Southern Italy and to many Italians; the vegetable has many spiked leaves that surround a green bud which looks very similar to a small head of broccoli. There may be small yellow flowers blooming from the buds, which are edible. The most common preparation is to sauté it in olive oil with garlic. Good quality broccoli rabe will have bright green leaves that are crisp, upright, and not wilted. Broccoli rabe is more closely related to turnips than broccoli. Flavor is somewhat bitter, like other greens, but also quite pungent. Broccoli rabe may be an acquired taste but is worth exploring. Wash very well to remove all traces of sand, trim the bottom and cook.

Broccolini, Baby Broccoli, Asparation, Asparations, Bimi, and Tender Stem

is a registered trademark of the Mann Packaging Company. Broccolini is related to broccoli but it is not young broccoli. It is a cross between broccoli and a Chinese kale (called kai-lan). Sweeter and more tender than broccoli, common cooking methods include sautéing, steaming, boiling, and stir frying. You can eat the entire bunch - leaves, stalk, and even the yellow flowers. Easy to prepare and completely delicious. There may be some confusion between Broccolini and broccoli rabe but they are completely different vegetables.

Burdock Root

Not popular in European cuisines burdock root (recipe) is widely used in Asian cuisines and may be available in Asian markets. Burdock root has a long list of reputed health benefits, especially as an anti-inflammatory and powdered root is available in health food stores. The root is very crisp and has a sweet, mild, and pungent flavor with a bit of harshness that can be lessened by soaking the sliced root in water before cooking. Popular in Japanese food where it is known as gobō. Native Americans are said to have used burdock root and preserved it by boiling it in maple syrup.
Also known as Arctium lappa, gobo, poor man's potatoes, Arctium, Arctium minus, Arctium tomentosum, Bardana, Bardana-minor, Bardanae Radix, Bardane, Beggar's Buttons, Burr Seed, Clotbur, Cocklebur, Cockle Buttons, Edible Burdock, Fox's Clote, Great Bur, Great Burdocks, Happy Major, Hardock, Harebur, Lappa, Love Leaves, Orelha-de-gigante, Personata, Philanthropium, Thorny Burr.

Cactus, Prickly Pear, Opuntia, Nopale, Cactus Pads, Nopalitos

The edible nopal cactus has fleshy oval leaves called pads or paddles and fruits called prickly pear. Popular in Mexico and other Central American countries, parts of Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa and Australia. In the United States it can be found at Mexican grocery stores, and in Southern states where it grows as a weed. The leaves have a soft but crunchy texture that also becomes a bit slimy like okra when cooked. Cactus pads tastes a little bit pungent and earthy like a tart green bean. Prickly pear fruits are sweet and juicy with lots of seeds but lacking much individual flavor. When you buy cactus pads they should already be de-thorned but you will need to trim them with a vegetable peeler to remove any “eyes,” remaining spines, and outside edges of the pads, rinse thoroughly to remove any stray spines and sticky juices. Many other varieties of cactus produce edible fruit but only the Opuntia or Nopale is usually offered for sale in markets. Flavor is a bit peculiar, something like a cross between a tomatillo and a pineapple.


See taro


Cardoons are closely related to the more common globe artichoke. While the flower buds are eaten like an artichoke, the stalks are eaten more often. The stalks, which look like large celery stalks, can be steamed or braised. They have an artichoke-like flavor. While not often available in American markets, cardoons may be found in some farmers markets available through May, June, and July. Cardoons were popular in Colonial America but while they have lost favor here, they are still popular in Europe. Cardoons are a source of vegetable rennet, needed to make vegetarian cheeses. Cardoons are one of those things worth looking for, and many recipes exist in older European cookbooks.

Cassava, Manioc, Tapioca, Yuca Root, Yucca Root, Mandioca

Aipim, Macaxeira, many other names
For most of us in the U.S. cassava is known only as tapioca and then only as tapioca pudding. For a half billion people in other parts of the world cassava is a food staple, providing most of the calories consumed daily. Nutritionally, the cassava has twice the fiber content and a higher level of potassium than potatoes. Uncooked cassava can be toxic and may be highly toxic because of cyanide compounds within the root. Cassava is known to farmers as bitter or sweet depending on the amount of cyanide present. Cook cassava as potatoes, they can be boiled, mashed, fried, grated and fried like pancakes or made into dumplings. Flavor is very mild, slightly earthy but more grainy or pasty than a potato. Never eat cassava raw, cooking reduces the levels of cyanide to harmless levels.

Celeriac, celery root, celery knob

Celeriac is a type of celery, grown for its ridged, lumpy root. Celeriac tastes like celery but it will absorb the flavor when cooked in any dish. Celeriac is not like other root crops in that it has a very limited amount of starch. Unlike a potato or cassava, celeriac is not a big source of calories, thus making it an ideal food for dieters. Celeriac deserves more use in this country, it is a vegetable with an ancient history and is widely used in Europe. Prepare celeriac by peeling with a knife first, the skin is too thick and lumpy to allow the use of a peeler. Drop the peeled pieces in acidulated water to prevent browning and then cook as you would a potato or vegetable. They’re excellent pureed with just a bit of butter, roasted with a bit of olive oil, added to stews or just steamed.

Celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. asparagina, augustana, or angustata),

stem lettuce, celery lettuce, asparagus lettuce, or Chinese lettuce,
Celtuce is a type of lettuce grown for its thick stem, which is peeled, sliced, and stir-fried and used as a vegetable. The leaves may be eaten in salads when young and tender. Popular in China, where it is the most common form of lettuce, and is called wosun. Flavor is said to be like a cross between a summer squash and an artichoke.It is a cool season crop so expect to see it during the winter months in Asian markets.

Chayote, mirliton, christophene, vegetable pear, choko, starprecianté, citrayota, citrayote

Chayote is a native Mexican plant and is another of the squash family. Flavor is quite mild and reminiscent of summer squash and zucchini. The mild flavor makes this an ideal vegetable for picking up other flavors. Good for stuffing, the size means that a half chayote filled with a bread stuffing is just right for a single serving. Cook these briefly to preserve a little crunch, these are also good eated raw, thinly sliced or julienned in a kind of slaw. Chayote are cultivated in Florida, California, and Louisiana, common in Hispanic groceries and showing up in larger markets and grocery stores. Select firm, smooth, unwrinkled chayote. Old chayote become very wrinkled and become dry and tough.

Chinese artichoke, Japanese artichoke, crosne, spirals choro-gi

The Chinese artichoke is related to neither the globe artichoke nor the Jerusalem artichoke. The tubers are about two inches long and have a delicate nutty flavor. They can be boiled, fried, stir-fried, roasted, added to soup, or eaten raw in salads. The tubers look like a string of misshapen mottled pearls. Buy ones that are firm and white. The tubers are not peeled but scrubbed clean. Exposure to light darkens the tubers and causes a loss of flavor. Store in the produce drawer of the fridge’ for up to a week.

Chinese Cabbbage, Bok Choy, Pei Tsai, Pak Choy, Choy Sum,

There are at least 45 kinds of Chinese Cabbages, that can be grouped based on size, shape, heading and non-heading. Flavor is milder than our usual cabbage and the leaves tend to be more tender making all of them well suited for stir frying. Look for firm heads with crisp leaves, avoid dry and wilted heads. Prepare by discarding any dry outer leaves, wash well to remove any sand. Add the thicker parts of the leaves to a stir fry before the tender tops.

Daikon, Chinese radish, mooli,

A large Asian radish shaped like a large carrot, the skin may be white or black and the flesh is white, crisp, sweet and mild, not as sharp as the little red radishes we are used to. Daikons may grow to 15 inches long with a 3 inch diameter. Japanese eat daikon shredded raw as an accompaniment to sushi. Daikons are excellent added to stir-fries and chefs frequently use daikons to make carvings and garnishes.

Dandelion Greens

Dandelions have been used as food for most of recorded history. Early European settlers brought the first dandelions to the American continent and they have spread across the continent. Dandelion roots are used as a coffee substitute, the flowers are made into wine and the young shoots are cooked as greens. Spring is the only time when dandelion shoots are considered palatable and they must be picked before the plant flowers. Even when gathered at the correct stage dandelion greens are quite pungent and bitter thus most cooks will parboil the greens and discard the first water.


See Taro

Doodhi, Calabash, Bottle gourd.

The young fruit has a light green smooth skin and a white flesh. Rounder varieties are called calabash gourds. They come in a variety of shapes, they can be huge and rounded, or small and bottle shaped, or slim and more than a meter long. Mostly grown for use as a bottle, these gourds may also be harvested young, cooked and served like a squash. Peel and remove seeds, then use these in any recipe for summer squash

Drumstick Beans, Moringa tree,

The Moringa oleifera tree is the source of these beans and this tree is one of the most useful trees in the world, every part of the tree has a purpose. The seed pods are prepared like green beans and are said to taste like asparagus. The seeds are sometimes removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The flowers are edible when cooked, and are said to taste like mushrooms and the leaves are eaten like spinach. The moringa tree is becoming a nutritional super star being called on to treat malnutrition in the tropics where the tree thrives. When these beans are purchased away from their natural habitat they are most likely going to be dried out and tough. In that case simmer them for 15 minutes, split them and scoop the contents of the bean into the dish being prepared.

Endive, Chicory, Curly Endive, Frisee, Belgian Endive, French endive, Witloof, White leaf

There is some confusion caused by these names as they represent two different cultivars of the chicory plant. Radicchio, escarole, curly endive and others are all derivatives of Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus). Chicory (aka endive, curly endive) may be familiar as the curly leaf salad green (Cichorium endivia)that is a little bitter.
Belgian endive, (Cichorium endivia) (aka French endive, witloof, and white leaf), is a vegetable that looks like a cone or tube of tight, pale green leaves. Belgian endive is not grown from seeds placed in the soil. Instead, it is cultivated by forcing a second growth from the cut roots of common chicory (Cichorium intybus).
Initially common chicory is grown until well developed when it is harvested by cutting the leaves off the roots; next the cut roots are covered with soil or straw and allowed to regenerate some top growth. The top growth is harvested young. Commercial producers now grow Belgian endive indoors where they can eliminate the light that would turn the plants green. To prepare Belgian endive for cooking, wash well, trim any damaged leaves and remove the bottom core to cut back some of the bitterness, then steaming is preferred to boiling but grilled is very good. Belgian endive is also wonderful raw in salads or used as little boats to hold other salads.
Chicory roots also dried and used as a coffee substitute or an addition to coffee, especially in New Orleans, the flavor is said to resemble chocolate


Fennel is a popular plant around the Mediterranean, especially in Italy. Feathery leaves that resemble dill weed, bulbs, stalks and seeds are all used in various dishes. The flavor is anise-like and the bulbs are crisp like celery. Fennel seeds are widely used as seasoning in Italian cooking, especially Italian sausage. Fennel bulbs are excellent eaten raw but they go well in stir-fries and many vegetable dishes, add a little to your next ratatouille for a treat. Fennel leaves are often not included with the plant in supermarkets but when they are, the leaves go well in egg dishes and anywhere as a seasoning. Seeds need to be ground or crushed with a mortar and pestle and make a good addition to bread stuffings and rice dishes. Bronze fennel makes an attractive garden plant with clouds of feathery leaves and the bonus that you can serve it with dinner.

Fiddlehead Fern

A couple of weeks in late spring in New England the woods hold a treat for dedicated gourmets and hunters of natural foods. The fiddlehead fern is the first shoot of an ostrich fern and have to be discovered and picked very quickly because once they start to turn purple they also start to turn toxic. Nevertheless a cottage industry has grown up around these and they are available all year in cans and in frozen foods. The flavor is something between asparagus and a green bean and they are a bit chewy. If you’re lucky enough to locate some fresh supply wash well under running cool water and rub them with your fingers to remove the papery covering. Next all you need to do is simmer them for a few minutes or sauté them in butter. Some “experts” say to simmer them for 15 minutes to make them safe to eat but I can’t recommend making a fiddlehead mush like that and have never had an issue with eating fiddleheads lightly cooked. Lightly cooked they will be a bit crunchy and hold a hint of the flavor of the forest. Highly recommended!

Hearts of Palm, palmito, burglar's thigh, chonta, palm cabbage or swamp cabbage

Hearts of palm are, the inner growth bud or heart of the sabal Palmetto, a tall, graceful palm that is the state tree of Florida. Old timers call hearts of palm "swamp cabbage" and it is an ancient food, utilized by Native Americans long before we came to this part of the world. Before it became trendy it was as poor people's food, much like lobster was once poor people’s food in Maine. Eventually tenderness and delicate flavor was discovered and it became “millionaires' salad." Florida has a state law to protect it from the ravenous gourmets, but the plant takes a lot of work to reach the tasty heart. Harvesting a palm’s heart does kill the palm so some caution is needed to keep us from stripping the state of sabal palms. Canned hearts of palm are available all year and require nothing more than heating to be edible. Flavor is a little bit pungent and a bit like an artichoke. Fresh hearts are the best, crunchy and delicately flavored, best eaten raw in salads or with dips but they go well in stir-fries and cooked dishes. A local restaurant made a reputation serving a hearts of palm salad with lettuce and peanut butter ice cream as the dressing.


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    • chefsref profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee Raynor 

      8 years ago from Citra Florida

      Thanx Peter,Craig, BK and Simone Yeah, you pretty much need to be a world traveler to be exposed to some of these. Living in places like Thailand and NYC may give you guys a leg up. There are a few things here I've never seen, much less tasted. Peter, I recall as a kid in NY, eating smoked eels, mostly because it grossed out my friends. Ha Ha.

      Craig, you might look for a high end grocery, we have a "Fresh Market" and they have some of these things on rare occasions Well, time to finish volume 2!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      What a cool Hub! Many of these are entirely new to me. And I had no idea that one may eat banana flowers and leaves. Most fascinating.

    • BkCreative profile image


      8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Love all the veggies and the photos. Thanks for putting this together so very well. Yay!

      I've tried and enjoyed quite a few of these. Living here in NYC I can find them all.

      Rated up!

    • profile image

      craig nr 

      8 years ago

      Good Hub -------------These plants are very hard to find by going to a place like Publix , Winn-Dixie or Star Markets , etc;..........

      But this can be expected since as children we rarely had the opportunity to try them , at home or in school ... In school , none of these were ever provided at lunch time or from my understanding in any a Home Ec type class.....When people grow to adulthood you would be hard pressed to feed these to their unadventurous palates .....Most people are not in the Zimmern's Bizarre foods mold .....I'd gladly try many of these plants if only I could find someone that grows and sells or just sells them ......Even endive and pole beans are difficult to find , pole beans almost never , except frozen ,as well as Celeriac and Broccolini .....


    • PETER LUMETTA profile image


      8 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      chefsref, wonderful article. I have eaten over half of what you show here and have seen the rest between my Sicilian Gandmother and living and married to a Thai i've hade quite a diet. I even got my little daughter eating artichokes when she was a baby and now as an adult her friends think she is a freak eating those rhings. Loved it, Peter


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