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“Nut & Gluten Free.”
So reads the packaging of Organic Gemini tigernut products, offering a few clues as to why you may just now be noticing tigernuts at pricey grocery stores and health food markets even though they’ve been cultivated for thousands of years in Egypt; are the basis of Valencian horchata; and were a major part of our early ancestors’ caloric intake 1 to 2 million years ago.
That last claim is according to the Organic Gemini branding: Tigernuts “comprised up to 80% of our Paleo ancestors’ diet,” I learned from reading the back of the bag.
You’ll find similar claims floating elsewhere on the internet, most likely stretched from a 2014 paper called “Baboon Feeding Ecology Informs the Dietary Niche of Paranthropus boisei”.
The abstract states:
Paranthropus boisei [an early hominin that lived in eastern Africa from 2.3 to 1.2 million years ago] only needed to spend some 37%–42% of its daily feeding time (conservative estimate) on C4 sources to meet 80% of its daily requirements of calories, and all its requirements for protein.”
And it’s believed that a major source of these C4 foods (“low-quality foods like grasses and sedges”) were tigernuts.
Neither nuts nor tigers, tigernuts are tiny root vegetables: the chickpea-sized tubers of the sedge plant Cyperus esculentus. They're starchy and chewy and according to the packaging, contain "as much Iron as red meat." One ounce of Organic Gemini's sliced tigernuts also takes care of 40% of the daily recommended amount of dietary fiber.
This is all to say that—lofty health claims drawn from scientific papers and well-designed packaging marketed towards health-conscious consumers aside—tigernuts are probably pretty good for us.
But as a non-scientist, non-nutritionist, non-raw foodist, non-vegan who is neither gluten-free, nut-free, or paleo, I'm more concerned with the taste. What's it like to eat a tigernut? What's the value beyond the nutritional breakdown?
First, I tasted the tigernuts as is. I opened the bag of the peeled tigernuts and ate a couple, tentatively. I soon learned it was wise not to try to chomp on many at once: To chew on one of these tubers is a commitment (and a jaw exercise).
You'll quickly crack through the hard outer layer to meet a fibrous inside that is nutty, sweet, gritty, surprisingly familiar-tasting (Amanda Hesser said that they tasted like the first bite of a raw pecan), and hard to break down.
A Huffington Post article described them as "the perfect snack because there's no way to eat them fast, and you therefore have no choice but to slowly savor their smoky, creamy, nutty, earthy flavor." For me, the perfect snack can be one of many things (sweet or salty, crispy or soft) but "hard to eat" does not make my shortlist.
But if the raw snack wasn't for me, perhaps the flour—with its clumpy appearance and sweet-yet-sour smell—would make for interesting baked goods.
I decided to try the recipe on the back of the tigernut flour package first. It was simple: Mix 3 tablespoons of water with flax (I assumed ground flax) and let sit in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Then mix with 1/2 cup tahini, 1/2 cup tigernut flour, 1/2 cup maple sugar (I used coconut palm sugar), and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Stir in chocolate chunks (are these paleo? I do not know), shape into cookies, and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until slightly brown.
Despite my skepticism, the cookies looked beautiful when they came out of the oven: crisp outsides and soft and chewy interiors, with a caramelly gooeyness against the grit and texture from the flour and the flax. The flavor was tahini-forward (some taste testers guessed peanut butter) and many described them as "healthy-tasting."
But even in comparison to non-vegan or gluten-free cookies, these cookies were good. Really good. This all-purpose flour, butter-loving baker would make them again.
Then I put all of the health claims of tigernuts in the shredder and creamed tigernut flour with 6 ounces of butter and non-organic, non-vegan, non-paleo sugar.
I wanted to test a claim I'd read on a PaleoforWomen.com (a site that, I must admit, I do not visit frequently): Tigernut flour, the author wrote, can be subsituted for all-purpose flour 1:1.
I decided to swap in tigernut flour in a recipe that would mask neither its flavor nor texture: pound cake (specifically, Yossy Arefi's Brown Sugar Poundcake). Instead of using the 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, I used 180 grams of tigernut flour, figuring that substituting by weight was less risky than by volume.
The tigernut flour cake took 40 additional minutes to bake than instructed in the original recipe. Even after a tester came out of the cake clean, it had a crumbly texture and a raw batter taste. (Yes, I should have waited for the cake to cool completely—a cardinal rule of gluten-free baking—before turning it out).
Regardless of my negligence, the cake still sliced nicely. It did not have the dry crumb of a pound cake; instead, it was incredibly moist, almost like it had been soaked in a sugary syrup. And while the cake was on the whole damp and gooey, it still had some grit from the flour: I didn't mind the harder bits, but Ali suggested that finely chopped nuts stirred into the batter would mask it.
The cake was very sweet (probably from the natural sweetness of the tubers), though in a vegetal (as well as purely sugary) way. Next time, I'd reduce the sugar. And while tigernuts are not nuts, they have a similar flavor profile, with an earthy, coconutty taste, too.
I wouldn't say this is a 1:1 substitution. And the taste and texture of the tigernut flour was not completely invisible. But I wouldn't have wanted it to be. This cake was more interesting than a traditional pound cake, and I'm sure a more experienced gluten-free baker would have been able to achieve a less crumbly loaf.
So after tasting the raw snack, would I go out and buy it? Probably not. Tigernuts are expensive ($12.99 for a bag on Amazon) and I'm not in the market for raw or vegan or paleo snacks. I'm more likely to buy the flour, but not because it's gluten-free: Because it tastes different than what I'm used to and am interested in experimenting.
So consider this my trend prediction: We'll be seeing a lot more tigernuts (in grocery stores and on restaurant menus) in the future.
Tigernut: Would you or wouldn't you? Tell us in the comments!