Roots are the focal points of a plant’s energy. This is why roots have always occupied a special place in man’s diet, as well as in his medicine chest. Popular roots such as ginseng, dock, radish, beets, and carrots are prized for their concentrated food value and healing power.
No wonder kuzu root (also spelled kudzu), one of the world’s largest vegetable roots, is considered big medicine in Japan and China. Averaging 200 pounds, the kuzu root is an Oriental giant. The traditional medicine of choice for a host of digestive disorders, kuzu is also the world’s premier cooking starch.
History in Japan
In its native land, kuzu has always enjoyed an excellent reputation. Asians seem to have no problem using kuzu as fast as it grows. Since ancient times, the leaves and roots have been used for food. The strong fibrous stems have been used as thread to weave fabrics and baskets. But it is kuzu cuisine that has become a fine art in Japan. The purest white kuzu-root powder is sought after by high-quality confection manufacturers and chefs of fine expensive restaurants.
The techniques for processing kuzu were probably brought to Japan from China. By the twelfth century, farmers around the city of Kyoto had discovered how to process kuzu root in such a way that the starch was separated from its tough inedible fibers. About that time, kuzu powder began to be used in food preparation around the cities of Kyoto and Nara.
The first place kuzu starch was prepared, in Japan, for commercial purposes was established in the Yamato province in the early 1600s at the foot of Mount Yoshino. However, as civilization gradually pushed out into the mountainside, land became too valuable to grow wild kuzu. Kuzu root powder manufacturers were forced to move to Japan’s more remote southern island of Kyushu. Today, almost all the kuzu root powder used in Japan comes from a few large producers in Kyushu.
History in America
Kuzu also has a dark side. A sea of green tendrils and leaves that blankets seven million acres of the southeastern United States from May to October, kuzu smothers utility poles, trees, and barns. This prolific vine causes millions of dollars in damage each year. It’s no wonder that kuzu has been jokingly referred to as a vegetable form of cancer and the weed that ate Dixie.
Ironically, while irate farmers and utility companies have been killing kuzu by spraying and burning the plants, for years Asian people in the United States have been importing kuzu roots and root powder for medicinal and culinary use.
Kuzu’s schizophrenic existence in America began around the beginning of the 1900s, shortly after it was introduced from Japan. With purple wisteria-like flowers perfuming the summer air and cattle grazing on its large, high-protein leaves, kuzu seemed like a perfect plant for southern farmers. Moreover, kuzu’s large, penetrating root system and nitrogen-fixing capability made it ideal for building soil and preventing soil erosion.
By the 1950s, however, many of kuzu’s advocates had become disillusioned. Indeed, it was kuzu’s incredible vitality that was causing the problem. Unchecked by its natural Asiatic enemies, kuzu enjoyed perfect growing conditions in the South and began to grow out of control. Under these conditions, according to Japanese foods scholar and author William Shurtleff, co-author of The Book of Kuzu, kuzu can grow one foot a day. One acre of neglected vines can cover thirteen-thousand acres in one hundred years!
In the 1960s, kuzu was partially redeemed because of America’s growing interest in everything Japanese. Students of macrobiotics, Zen, and Oriental medicine began learning about kuzu’s nutritional and medicinal value. It was even rumored that kuzu was the main food of the mysterious sen-nin, the Japanese mountain hermits who lived a life of simple austerity in order to find immortality through self-purification.
Kuzu soon became a respected food and medicine among macrobiotic and health-conscious consumers. Basic kuzu cream with umeboshi was found to be a very effective remedy for an acid stomach and for intestinal inflammation. Kuzu’s mild taste, translucent sheen, and good jelling ability made it popular in puddings, sauces, stews, and glazes.
Ingredients: Organic wild Kuzu root
In the East, kuzu, a member of the legume family, has enjoyed an excellent reputation and has been part of the cuisine of China and Japan for more than two thousand years. The starch that makes kuzu an outstanding jelling and thickening agent in cooking is partly responsible for its medicinal action. Some of kuzu’s complex starch molecules enter the intestines and relieve the discomfort caused by overacidity, bacterial infection, and – in the case of diarrhea – excess water. In many cases of abdominal aching and intestinal irritation, a bowl of kuzu gruel or pudding brings quick relief. particularly for children who often do not like the taste of over-the-counter stomach medications.
According to Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care in Portland, Oregon, kuzu also contains a very high concentration of flavonoids, which are responsible for its strong medicinal effect on the digestive and circulatory systems. Flavonoids, which occur naturally in kuzu and other plants, are fairly well known as antioxidants. However, they also have the ability to inhibit the contraction of smooth muscle tissue, thereby increasing blood flow and relieving cramping in the intestines.
The medicinal effects of kuzu’s flavonoids were proven during numerous clinical studies in China in the 1970s. The results, published in several important Chinese medical journals, showed that crude kuzu root preparations or its extracted flavonoids, given as injections or taken orally, reduced high blood pressure, relieved chronic migraine headaches, and eased aches in the shoulders and neck. In China, kuzu flavonoids have successfully treated sudden deafness, which can be caused by restricted circulation. Flavonoids also have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of the formulation of blood clots, and protect against heart disease.
Recently, research on kuzu has focused on its use as a treatment for an entirely different type of problem: alcohol abuse. Fascinated by reports of Chinese physicians using kuzu to treat chronic alcoholism, Harvard medical researcher Wing-Ming Keung traveled to China to collect clinical information. During his visit, Keung interviewed thirteen traditional and modern physicians and compiled three hundred case histories. “In all cases,” said Keung, “the medication (a tea made from kudzu root and other herbs) was considered effective in both controlling and suppressing appetite for alcohol and improving the function of alcohol-affected vital organs. No toxic side effects were reported by the Chinese physicians.”
When Keung returned to Harvard, he conducted his own research, which confirmed what he had learned in China: that kuzu, for reasons still not understood, can curb the desire for alcohol as well as its ravages on the body.
Obviously, research on the medicinal value of kuzu will continue, both in the United States and in Asia, although kuzu’s capabilities are far more extensively studied and documented in the East than they are in this country. For example, key Chinese medical texts describe the properties and uses of tablets made from kuzu root extract for a wide range of both minor and serious illnesses.
Although kuzu may not be well known to Western herbalists, it is commonly prescribed by American acupuncturists trained in Oriental herbology, to be used in conjunction with acupuncture treatments. Acupuncturist Mary Cissy Majebe, O.M.D., director of the Chinese Acupuncture and Herbology Clinic in Asheville, North Carolina, uses teas made from kuzu root and complementary herbs for specific conditions requiring the elimination of accumulated heat (as with head colds, influenza, and muscle stiffness) with “excellent results.” However, she stresses that similar symptoms do not always indicate the same underlying cause of illness. If you have a condition that you think would benefit from kuzu or another herbal remedy, talk with a trained healthcare professional.
As a remedy, kuzu root is used in two ways: as powdered starch and as whole dried root. Kuzu starch remedies can be used to treat minor indigestion; some experts use it to treat colds and minor aches and pains as well (eating lots of foods made with kuzu starch can have the same effects and is considered good preventive medicine). Teas can be used when a different type of medicine is needed: for chronic headaches, stiff shoulders, colitis, sinus troubles, tonsillitis, respiratory ailments, hangovers, allergies (especially hay fever), bronchial asthma, and skin rashes.
In his book Healing Ourselves (Avon Books, 1973), holistic health practitioner Naboru Muramoto recommends a drink called kuzu cream (see recipe) for colds, general body pains, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Kuzu cream is also recommended for neutralizing stomach acidity and for relaxing tight muscles. When made with the addition of ginger juice and minced umeboshi (salt-pickled plum), the drink is especially potent. The ginger aids digestion and circulation while the salt plum neutralizes lactic acid and eliminates it from the body.
Kuzu cream and other remedies are made using kuzu root starch while medicinal kuzu teas are usually made using pieces of the whole kuzu root, which contains more water-soluble medicinal flavonoids, some of which are lost during starch production. Kuzu root tea (kakkon) is found in herbal shops and some natural foods stores and frequently contains several other medicinal herbs including ginger, licorice, and cinnamon.
Today, Japan’s largest kuzu root powder producer is Mitoku’s organic supplier the Hirohachido Company, located at the edge of Kagoshima Bay in southern Kyushu. Hirohachido makes three hundred tons of kuzu root powder annually. This represents about two-thirds of Japan’s total production. Fifth-generation president Kazuhiro Taguchi is head of the family-run business, which was founded in 1875. The original shop was in Akizuki, a small town in northern Kyushu. In 1953, the march of civilization pushed the Taguchi family further south to their present location.
Akizuki’s climate and water are ideal for processing kuzu root powder. What’s more, according to Taguchi, the modern equipment used at their new factory in southern Kyushu subtly changed the quality of the kuzu root powder.
Determined to make the finest kuzu root powder in all of Japan, Taguchi’s father left a small group of workers at the Akizuki shop to continue the labor-intense, traditional hand process. The handmade kuzu powder made by Hirohachido Company at Akizuki is appropriately called Akizuki Kuzu.
It is exported by Mitoku and sold in natural foods stores around the world.
The 120-day process of making Akizuki Kuzu begins in December, when the kuzu plant has focused its energy back down underground and its roots are swollen with starch. The backbreaking work of hand digging roots in the mountains and backpacking them to the nearest road continues until the roots begin sending out their first shoots in the spring. In a good year, the roots will have about 13 percent extractable starch. If, however, there has been too much rain, too little sun, or if the previous autumn’s typhoon has damaged the plant’s leaves, the roots will produce less starch. When the starch level falls below 10 percent, it is not profitable for the Taguchis to process the roots.
The method of separating the starch from the fibrous kuzu root requires that the root be cleaned, cut, mashed, then washed repeatedly in cold water. After this initial stage, the crude gray kuzu paste is transported by truck from the large Hirohachido factory in southern Kyushu to the old shop at Akizuki.
At Akizuki, the crude paste is washed and filtered through silk screens many times to remove plant fibers and bitter tannins. After settling, the kuzu paste is again dissolved in cold water and filtered. The washing, filtering, and settling process continues until a pure white, clay-like starch is formed.
The starch is cut into 6-inch-thick blocks and placed in paper-lined boxes to dry for about sixty days. The drying process is critical. Kuzu cannot be dried in direct sunshine or heated ovens, as this will affect the purity of its color and impair its jelling qualities. Oven drying makes the kuzu too brittle and hard to dissolve in water. Proper drying takes place in a long wooden shed with large windows that are opened to circulate the air. Every few days, the boxes of kuzu are moved around to make sure each block dries evenly.
If the water used during the filtering process is not cold and pure, the kuzu will begin to ferment during drying. Too much humidity will cause bacterial fermentation and totally destroy the drying kuzu. When properly dried, each block of kuzu should contain about 16 percent moisture. Once dried, Akizuki Kuzu is carefully dusted with a soft hairbrush, crumbled, and packaged.
At Akizuki, fifteen workers produce only five or six tons of kuzu-root powder each season. At the large Hirohachido factory, forty-five workers make fifty times that amount.
According to Kazuhiro Taguchi, Akizuki is blessed with an abundance of pure water and a perfect cold, dry winter, ideal for processing kuzu. The result, says Taguchi, is kuzu that is unmatched in purity, dissolves quickly, has superior jelling ability, and gives foods a beautiful satin sheen. When pressed further, Taguchi claims that the molecular structure of handmade kuzu root powder differs from the automated factory product. These subtle differences enhance kuzu root powder’s medicinal properties.
Kuzu is unsurpassed as a thickening agent. It produces sparkling, translucent sauces; adds a shiny gloss to soups; and provides a smooth texture for sauces and gravies with no starchy or interfering taste. Try using kuzu as a thickener in sauces and gravies, and for added body in soups and noodle broths. Vegetables and fish that have been dusted with kuzu powder and then deep-fried have a light, crisp coating. Since kuzu helps balance the acidity of sweets, it is ideal in desserts such as kantens and puddings, and it is the perfect ingredient in icings, shortcake toppings, and pie fillings.
Store kuzu in a sealed jar. When you buy kuzu, the powder will be in small chunks. Crush the chunks with the back of a spoon before measuring. Use approximately 1and1/2 tablespoons of kuzu per cup of liquid for sauces and gravies and 2 tablespoons per cup for jelling liquids. For most preparations, completely dissolve the measured amount of kuzu in a little cold water, then add it to the other ingredients near the end of cooking time. Gently bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly while the kuzu thickens and becomes translucent.
Kuzu should not be confused with arrowroot, potato starch, and corn starch. Corn starch, in particular, is not recommended because it is highly processed and treated with chemical bleaches and toxic extracting agents. Potato starch is also mass-produced, and chemicals are used to accelerate the extraction process. While arrowroot is made by a simple, natural process, kuzu is far superior in jelling strength, taste, texture, and healing qualities.