Bake

What's a Tigernut (& How Does It Taste)?

January 24, 2016

“Paleo.”
“Raw snack.”
“Kosher.”
“Vegan.”
“Nut & Gluten Free.”
“Organic.”
“Non GMO.”
“Brooklyn.”

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.

Tigernuts: Neither nuts nor tigers.

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.

Google searches for "tigernuts" are on the rise. Photo by Google Trends

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.

A rendering of Paranthropus boisei. Photo by Sci-News.com

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?

Tigernuts, peeled (left) and sliced (right).

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.

Gluten-free AND vegan (but probably not raw or paleo?).

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.

These were very good cookies.

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.

This cake was gobbled very, very quickly in our test kitchen.

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.

Yossy's pound cake (left) versus mine (right). Oops.

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.

Crouching tigernut, hidden tuber.

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!

19 Comments

Sashiko April 28, 2018
Definitely interested in trying it, but i'm on the AIP (a paleo diet specifically for ppl w/ autoimmune disorders).Need something to eat besides, meat, veggies, occasional root veggies n' fruit.
 
thebirdie January 17, 2018
Can you tell me how much flax and water? 3 tablespoons of water? Then, how much flax? Thanks!<br /><br />"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."
 
thebirdie April 28, 2018
Thank you!<br /><br />
 
Linda J. May 25, 2017
I agree with the post below. The tiger nut flour should not taste sour. I normally purchased Govidna from Canada, but the shipping adds another 20.00. So I finally found a vendor at Whole Foods, and it tastes sour, I'm starting to think it is, and perhaps I should have stored it in the fridge, not sure. But the consistency is more like a meal than a flour. So now I am trying something from a nut company. <br />
 
Rachel R. July 4, 2016
Tiger nuts taste different depending on where they come from and what the supplier does to them. www.g112.ca has very good ones, juicy when fresh or perfect as flour!
 
valerie January 24, 2016
thank you for your article; esp the gluten free details because I have a child with a wheat allergy. it's hard to decipher what some gluten free products derive from; and when other allergies coexist (i.e. nuts, beans) gluten free isn't always a helpful distinction. tubers rock! thanks for the specifics:)
 
Alisha January 24, 2016
So, I actually have some tigernut flour in my pantry but haven't done anything with it. What is the recipe for the poundcake? I'm curious!
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. January 24, 2016
It's Yossy Arefi's brown sugar pound cake: https://food52.com/recipes/35891-brown-sugar-pound-cake. I used 180 grams of tigernut flour, figuring that substituting by weight was less risky than by volume. But it wasn't a perfect substitution, so if you're going to try, you should read those few paragraphs first! The cookies are a surer bet. Good luck!
 
Sarah C. January 23, 2016
Heck, don't even go to the store. Just go to the lawn with a trowel and have at it. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/nutsedge-edible-zb0z11zsie.aspx
 
EllenQ January 22, 2016
I realize this isn't germane to the topic of tigernuts per se, but Paranthropus boisei belonged to a lineage of hominins that went extinct (the robust Australopithecines) as opposed to the gracile Australopithecines that are the ancestors of modern humans. So even if we thought that early hominids were a good model for modern human health (and I don't, they didn't live very long), a branch that died out seems like a really bad model.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. January 22, 2016
This is germane, and I'm excited to continue this conversation! Like I said, I'm a non-scientist, non-nutritionist, non-raw foodist, non-vegan who is neither gluten-free, nut-free, or paleo so it was hard to wade through all of the scientific information—but, at the same time, I felt like it made me understand, more clearly, how it's easy to be confused as a consumer!
 
EllenQ January 22, 2016
It is a complicated literature (I have a PhD in Anthropology and can't always keep up). I have no problem with reducing processed foods, etc. but the cloaking of the diet in evolutionary history is a bit silly. if you are interested in this topic, an evolutionary biologist by the name of Marlene Zuk wrote a book called Paleofantasy which discusses some of the differences between the "Paleo" diet and the real diet of our ancestors. Scientific American did a nice write up of it here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/
 
Darlene January 22, 2016
Woot, anthropologists unite!
 
amysarah January 23, 2016
EllenQ, I appreciate your jumping in as well. I have no expertise (just a healthy skepticism,) but have also heard pretty much what you've stated from a neighbor who's a professor of evolutionary biology. Definitely a discussion worth having!
 
Sarah R. January 23, 2016
Thanks for pointing out that the "paleo ancestors" cited by the tigernut salespeople are decidedly not homeo sapiens. I think their horchata is pretty delicious, but that line is really disingenuous. <br /><br />From a nutritional standpoint, their most interesting features are being high in resistant starch and monounsaturated fats. And of course an alternative to common allergens like nuts and wheat flour--I definitely get that folks on restricted diets are always looking to add more variety. <br /><br />I really enjoyed parts of Paleofantasy, though like with most popular science books she lets the best parts of her argument get lost in her (admittedly funny) takedown of dumb people on internet forums. But the sort of argumentative, sensationalist writing style is what sells books today, be it by vegans, paleo-types, or anti-paleo anthropologists. Instead of reaching the lay people interested in a "paleo diet," she just ended up alienating people who could benefit from a better understanding of evolution and health.
 
Darlene January 22, 2016
Never thought I'd come here and see someone mentioning hominin evolution, ha. Such a pleasant surprise!<br /><br />With that said (and I'm embarrassed to be *that* person), but Paranthropus boisei should be italicized because it's a species name. In the abstract quote, it should not be italicized since the rest of the text is italicized.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. January 22, 2016
Thanks for letting me know—yes! We don't have the ability to un-italicize the text in the blockquote, unfortunately.
 
Darlene January 22, 2016
Thanks for making the other changes and for featuring this new food. :)
 
Darlene January 22, 2016
new* (to me!)