On my last trip to Israel, I tasted a delicious soup made from Jerusalem artichokes at the Magda Kitchen, a tiny outdoor restaurant in the Jerusalem hills that Anthony Bourdain visited in Parts Unknown. “I like Jerusalem artichokes because they taste like mushrooms of the land,” said Michal Baranes, a Jewish Israeli who opened this homey eatery with her Arab Israeli husband Yakub Barhum in his village of Ein Rafa.
But despite the name, Jerusalem artichokes—also known today as sunchokes—aren’t originally from Jerusalem at all. French explorer Samuel Champlain discovered the North American tubers on Cape Cod in 1605 and brought them back to Europe, noting that they tasted like truffles. By 1618, Petrus Hondius, a Dutch gardener, called the root vegetable “artichoke under the ground.” Gardeners sent specimens to England, where Dr. Tobias Venner of Bath grew them in his garden called Ter Neussen; they became known as “artichokes Ter Neussen.” According to the English writer Redcliffe Salaman, when hawkers cried out “artichokes Ter Neussen,” nobody understood, but because people were enthralled with the Holy Land in the late 17th century they changed the name to the more understandable Jerusalem artichokes. The name stuck.
And eventually, the connection to Jerusalem became real. In The Jewish Manual—the first kosher cookbook in English, published in 1846 by Lady Judith Montefiore of England—you’ll find the first printed recipe for Jerusalem artichokes, appropriately called “Palestine Soup.”
In 1877 American writer Asa Gray wrote that the Native American name for the knobby tuber was kaischuc penauk, meaning “sun roots.” Almost a hundred years later, in 1966, Frieda Caplan, founder of specialty produce company Frieda’s Inc., trademarked the name sunchoke. “We did this because they are not from Jerusalem, and they are not artichokes, although the flavor is reminiscent of the artichoke heart,” Caplan said in an interview, “and because they are the root of a sunflower-like plant.”
Today sunchokes are very popular all over the world, including Jerusalem, where they are still called Jerusalem artichokes.
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