What is Kudzu and How do You Use It?

Oct 10, 2013

The short answer to this question is that kudzu is a type of plant belonging to the pea family and it can be used medicinally and as a starch in in food preparation.

There is much more to know about this plant, however. For example, it is considered an invasive species and even a noxious weed in many areas, though that has not always been the case. In fact, kudzu has served many purposes throughout history. For example, during World War II it was introduced into Fiji by the United States Armed Forces to serve as camouflage for equipment.

Kudzu fibers have also been used to make clothing, paper and baskets as well as being an ingredient in soaps and lotions, particularly in the Southern United States. In terms of the Paleo Diet, however, the most notable use for kudzu is as a starch that can be used to make jelly or as a thickener in sauces and soups.

The Kudzu Plant

Kudzu is a climbing perennial vine belonging to the legume family Fabaceae. This plant is native to southeastern China and southern Japan but it has been introduced in many other nations including the United States. The Kudzu plant was first introduced into the United States in 1876 during the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, PA when foreign countries were invited to build commemorative exhibits honoring the 100th anniversary of the United States’ formation.

As part of a beautiful garden constructed by the Japanese government, kudzu drew the eyes of the American public for its sweet-smelling flowers and large leaves. Thus began the use of the plant by American gardeners for ornamental purposes.

It wasn’t long before the plant became popular throughout the country for use in ornamental gardening – it even played a role in forage for farm animals and as a method of erosion control. By the 1950s, however, it became clear that the fast-growing plant had become invasive and was becoming a threat to native species.

Uses for Kudzu

Despite its invasive tendencies, the kudzu plant still has a variety of uses. Basket makers, for example, have found that the rubber-like vines make excellent material for weaving both functional and decorative baskets. Medicinally, kudzu has been used to treat heart problems, sinus infections, skin problems and chest pain.

In China, the root and flower of the plant have been used since 200 B.C. to treat alcoholism and to reduce the symptoms of hangover including headache, vomiting and upset stomach.

What makes kudzu effective in medicine is its isoflavone content – particularly puerarin and daidzein. These isoflavones have been shown to serve as both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial agents. Recent studies suggest that kudzu may even have potential in treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Kudzu in Cooking

In relation to the Paleo Diet, the most popular use for kudzu is in cooking. There are three parts of the plant that are edible and used for cooking: the young leaves, flowers and roots.

It is the roots of the plant, however, that are used most commonly. Kudzu roots can be dehydrated and pulverized into a starchy powder that can then be used as a thickener in soups and stews. This powder is gluten-free and high in fiber – it also contains protein as well as vitamins A and D.

In following the Paleo Diet, kudzu makes an excellent alternative to corn starch. Due to its proliferation in the Southern United States, the leaves and shoots of the kudzu plant have also become popular for consumption. In fact, you can gather kudzu yourself as long as it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals.

In gathering kudzu, be sure to separate the edible parts of the plant – the leaves, vine tips and roots – from the inedible, the vine. The purple blossoms can also be collected for use in syrups, jellies and candy. The young kudzu leaves can be eaten raw in salad or blanched and sautéed. The roots can be cooked like potatoes or ground into powder for breading fried foods. Tender shoots of the kudzu plant can be steamed or fried and have a flavor and crunch similar to that of snow peas. As you can see, the uses for kudzu are extremely varied, as are the benefits.

If you are looking for a way to add some variety to your repertoire of Paleo recipes, consider experimenting with this versatile plant. Look for kudzu root at your local health food store or order some online. If you live in the Southern United States, you may even be able to forage for the live plant yourself!

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