12 Unusual Vegetables You’ve Probably Never Heard Of Before
For many of us, our daily vegetable consumption consists of a pile of iceberg lettuce scattered with cherry tomatoes and a few slices of cucumber. The monotony of the same boring vegetables day after day can drive us to give up on healthy food choices.
However, shopping outside the supermarket, like at a farmer’s market or an Asian specialty store, will introduce you to an entire world of exotic and unusual vegetables. Some have striking colors like jet-black and bright fuchsia, and others look like something out of a science fiction movie with bumps, spikes, or fuzz.
Some even have cartoon-character-inspired names like Fat Baby and Wooly Bear. Read on to learn more about a dozen unusual vegetables that can get you out of the culinary rut.
12 Unusual Vegetables You Need to Try
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Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato
From the outside, this sweet potato looks identical to the orange sweet potatoes you’ve had for years alongside pork chops or in a Thanksgiving pie. However, cut one open and you’ll be shocked to see a brilliant purple starburst.
These cook up just like regular sweet potatoes but they’re a little dryer and denser, so you must add a few minutes of cooking time. Be patient and you’ll be rewarded with the rich, almost wine-like flavor of the Okinawan purple sweet potato.
Using cauliflower to replace everything from rice to pizza dough is all the rage these days, and Romanesco cauliflower is an unusual vegetable that’s perfect for these applications, as it is considered by many to be milder and sweeter than its generic counterpart. It’s also visually stunning with a fractal-like spiral of spikey cones.
Romanesco cauliflower tastes a bit like broccoli, and just like broccoli it is a very versatile veggies. You can eat it blanched in noodle dishes and salads (don’t forget to shock the veggie in a cold water bath with ice cubes right after blanching it to preserve its vibrant color and texture. You can saute it in vegetable oil and serve it as a side dish, with pasta, or in sandwiches, or you can pickle it.
Tiger Nuts (Earth Almonds)
While a tiger nut has a slightly nutty flavor, it isn’t a nut at all. It’s actually a tuber found mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere and it resembles a shriveled up hazelnut. They are highly nutritious and a great substitute for those with allergies.
A bowl of tiger nuts makes a great snack for those with nut allergies and people with gluten sensitivities will appreciate tiger nut flour. Tiger nuts are s superfood rich in fiber, protein, vitamin E, C, and Iron (one ounce of tiger nuts contains around 40% of the daily recommended intake), and tons of antioxidants. To boost antioxidant content and the rest of the goodness, germinate the nuts prior to consuming.
You probably know this one by its other name, Chinese broccoli. But if you aren’t familiar with Asian cuisine, you may not have ever tried it. Kai lan is a dark, leafy green vegetable with a slightly bitter flavor.
Steamed, stir-fried, boiled, or even raw, add kai lan to your Asian-inspired dishes to add crunch and a ton of vitamin B6, which lowers inflammation and helps alleviate joint and muscle pain.
Also, since this humble leafy green veggie is jam-packed with vitamin K, it is a boon for bone and heart health. Vitamin K helps remove excess calcium from the arteries which prevents them from hardening and causing a heart attack.
Vitamin K also keeps blood pressure within normal ranges, fights off inflammation, and helps with calcium assimilation, which prevents bone density loss and dreaded conditions such as osteoporosis.
These broad, flat leaves belonging to the mint family have a slightly grassy flavor with a hint of licorice.
Traditionally used in Asian cooking, one popular application is to replace the lettuce in Asian lettuce wraps with these. They can be deep-fried, stir-fried, marinated, or eaten raw. Indians use them in curries, while the Japanese use them to prepare sushi and their world-famous picked plums.
Perilla leaves have been also used in the traditional Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian medicine to treat different types of mild conditions such as colds, abdominal discomfort and nausea, and productive cough.
Lotus roots are the tuberous roots of lotus flowers and grow in the mud of a pond or river. Slices of this unusual vegetable resemble sand dollars with a ring of teardrop-shaped holes.
Lotus root slices can be a great crunchy addition to any stir-fry dish. Like taro root, lotus root can be made into a creamy, starchy paste that is often added to Asian desserts.
But lotus root is not only delicious in various dishes or on its own. It is also a boon for health. Since it rich in fiber, it helps digestion and alleviate stubborn constipation.
Also, lotus roots contain plenty of pyridoxine, which is a powerful mood regulator that promotes a sense of tranquility and lowers stress. This highly unusual veggie for us Westerners is a powerful ally in our weight loss journeys since it is rich in fiber and helps us feel full longer and prevents water retention.
Despite its name, yardlong beans only grow to about 18 inches. This unusual vegetable that grows on a climbing vine and can grow several inches in a single day.
They contain long, slender pods that can grow up to half feet long and have a delicious nutty flavor. However, yardlong beans can lose some of this flavor when cooked in water, so they’re best deep fried, sauteed, or steer-fried in oil. They’re great with garlic, onions, and coconut milk. These beans are very similar in taste to regular green beans, but their texture is very different.
However, don’t walk away if they look limp an wrinkled at the farmer’s market. This happens to fresh yardlong beans very often.
Radishes come in many colors and this one is maybe the least appetizing at first glance because of its jet-black skin. But cut it open and you’ll find the flesh is stark white. These unusual vegetables make a startling contrast to liven up any dish and are a conversation starter, for sure.
In Russia, and Romania, people use black radishes to make a potent cough syrup. They carve out the middle of the radish and add a tablespoon or two of honey or sugar and leave the radish on the counter overnight. In the morning, the radish is filled with deliciously healthy syrup (see picture above) which can help calm down even some of the most aggressive cough attacks.
Achocha Fat Baby
The look of this South American vegetable is just as unusual as its name. A bulbous gourd, an Achocha Fat Baby is covered in rows of spines and offers a raw for a crisp cucumber-like taste. Many people substitute these for bell peppers in recipes.
Achocha Fat Babies are hearty and easy to grow in a container garden. But beware, when Fat Babies reach their peak ripeness on the vine, they become extremely sensitive and will explode at the slightest touch!
Commonly used in the tropics but unusual to those who have never seen a banana tree, banana flowers are the edible blossoms that grow in bunches from mature banana trees.
Despite growing from the same tree, the banana flower tastes nothing like a banana, but it has a flavor similar to a zucchini blossom. Most people prepare banana flowers the same way you would prepare an artichoke.
Banana flowers are also known for their many health benefits such as improving lactation, treating infection and speeding up wound healing, fighting off malaria parasites, and keeping diabetes and anemia in check. You can sometimes find banana flowers in Asian grocery stores.
Chioggia Guardsmark Beet
While beets might not be on anyone’s list of favorite vegetables, the unusual look of this variety of a well-known Italian heirloom might convince you to give them another chance. They look like an ordinary beet from the outside, but when you cut one in half, you’ll see concentric beet-red circles on a background of white, like a marksman’s target. They make a nice addition to picky eaters salads.
Wooly Bear Gourd
Rounding out our list of unusual vegetables is the wooly bear gourd which, true to its name, appears to be covered in a thick coat of wooly bear fur. However, rather than being prickly, the spines that surround this gourd are actually quite tender.
Where Can I Find These Unusual Vegetables?
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A Farmers’ Market is a gathering of local farmers and craftsmen selling their produce and goods directly to consumers. You can find the freshest vegetables at a Farmers’ Market because most prohibit the buying and re-selling of produce.
Contrary to popular belief, produce at Farmers’ Markets is frequently cheaper than grocery stores because it eliminates the cost of the middleman.
They are great places to find exotic and unusual vegetables because small local farmers are more likely to take a chance on a less marketable variety of a vegetable than large volume growers.
Specialty Health Food Stores
Both chain stores and independently operated health food stores often stock lesser-known varieties of your favorite vegetables. Not only do they cater to health-conscious individuals who want organic, locally grown, fresh produce, they also stock dried, milled, or frozen forms of unusual vegetables that aren’t typically available.
However, be prepared for a hefty mark-up in prices at these health food stores, but they’re the perfect place to find something out-of-the-box for a special occasion meal.
Ethnic Grocery Stores
What you consider being unusual vegetables are often common staples in the cuisines of other cultures. A walk down the aisles of your local ethnic grocery store will open your eyes to a world of food you never knew existed.
Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and Latin food markets are great places to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Don’t let the language barrier scare you and ask lots of questions!
You can buy pretty much anything on the internet these days and that includes unusual vegetables. Although it might be hard to buy fresh produce online, the internet is a treasure-trove of butter, flour, pickles, and snacks made from vegetables, fruits, and nuts from all over the world.
Buying from overseas vendors can sometimes mean paying big shipping fees so look for local distributors.
Grow Your Own Garden of Unusual Vegetables
If you’re lucky enough to have room for a garden, you can grow your own hard-to-find vegetables. You can find seeds for many of the varieties on our list from the same sources discussed above.
Some vegetables we listed here are ancient, hearty crops that require very little space and can be grown in container gardens if you’re short on space.
How Should I Cook These Unusual Vegetables?
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Substitute a vegetable in one of your tried-and-true recipes for a more exotic variety from the same family. Try an Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato Pie or maybe a Yardlong Bean Casserole, just keep in mind differences in texture and flavor and adjust cook times and quantities accordingly.
Enjoy Them Raw
Sometimes you lose nutrients by cooking a vegetable, so try chopping up some of the unusual vegetables we highlighted here and eat them raw or throw them in your favorite salad. However, remember that some vegetables, like potatoes, contain toxins in their raw state that and must be cooked before eating, so research accordingly before eating an unusual vegetable raw.
Try a New Recipe
Your local ethnic grocer, friends who have a different heritage from yours, international cookbooks, and the online community are all great resources for authentic recipes using your newly discovered vegetable. Don’t be afraid to broaden your horizons and try some totally new recipes!
Whether it’s a close cousin of a familiar vegetable or a completely foreign vegetable of which you’ve never seen before, taking a risk on something new can add zing to an old recipe or introduce you to a brand new culinary heritage.
Use these unusual vegetables to make the main course of your next dinner party a conversation piece or simply jazz up your daily salad. Have fun experimenting!
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