The reinvention of traditional European vegetables in the Americas has come full circle back to the old continent, with Europeans warming to the seemingly endless and exciting ways of using ingredients like Brussels sprouts, curly kale and cauliflower in their kitchens and restaurants.
What were once just regular fare or even rabbit food have a newfound status of “superfoods”, and chefs are taking notice.
In light of this trend it makes sense for Europeans to get back to their roots and maybe beat the Americans to the next foodie trend.
Could kohlrabi, also known by the bland and hardly appealing terms ‘turnip cabbage’ and ‘German turnip’, be a candidate? Netherlands-based seed breeder Bejo Zaden thinks so.
The vegetable is quite popular in Germany, known for its high vitamin C and antioxidant content, but in the Netherlands it is one of what is known as the “vergeten groenten” (forgotten vegetables), which also includes parsnip, chard, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips and radish.
“No one knows what it is, but it is so nice,” says Bejo Zaden area business manager for Western Europe, Christine Jong.
“And don’t cook it!” she urges.
Bejo Zaden aims to shake off old associations with the vegetable as a cooked food and herald in its new position through its cut line of “Kohrispy” kohlrabi snacks, harnessing varieties bred with improved taste and processing characteristics including Konan, Kossak and Kolibri.
“If you have the flesh melon-like, it’s so crispy and delicious – why not just cut it and give it to children in the lunch box, snack on it? So you rediscover products, making people aware of a healthy product,” Jong says.
The vegetable has added nutritional benefits as it is fat free, cholesterol free, low calorie and very low in sodium, and is a good source of dietary fibre, vitamin B6 and potassium.
Carmen Mäder, sales representative at German subsidiary Bejo Samen GmbH, says the snacking kohlrabi trend has been gaining traction in her native country for the last three or four years.
“It has a bit of a carrot texture – you can dip it, you can cut small cubes, you can use it like noodles or as a veggie pasta,” she says.
“You can give it to a child in kindergarten, in school, it’s getting more popular. I’m always saying it’s the new sweet – not like chocolate but nearly the same; a healthy sweet.
“It’s like the snack carrots – it’s the same. You can see it now in the supermarkets, it’s coming.”
Mäder highlighted production was increasing in Germany.
“That’s not only because of the freshness but because we have good varieties,” she said.
“Konan, it’s a very sweet one – when you taste Konan in the field you can taste it’s got a little bit of a flavour of vanilla.
“Something to say about Kolibri is that it’s a purple one. The shade is purple but inside it’s white.”
Jong adds kohlrabi’s growth is part of a broader trend in brassicas, a family to which cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts belong.
“You see now more and more interest coming into the brassicas, especially in the Americas of course with the hype of the curly kale of the last years – it is still not over,” she says.
“You see that Europe is following the Americas a little bit and making this old-fashioned product actually new and hip again in smoothies and so on, so that is taking off in sales in places like Spain or other places where they were not so curly kale-minded. There is new interest.
“Our American team is picking that up and they have a big project for the school lunches. Jeff Trickett is our manager, so what he does is he speaks with all the organisations that provide the school meals, and tries to get the kohlrabi sticks in the school lunches; and not just that but the kohlrabi noodles.”
U.S. television chef Martha Stewart has kohlrabi recipes including kohlrabi slaw and kohlrabi chips, while BBC Food recommends its use for a soup or as part of a salad with Turkish-style kofta kebabs.
Other initiatives at Bejo
While we had the chance to catch up with Mäder and Jong, we also discuss other new product releases at the company. A big focus has been lettuce since Bejo’s acquisition of Agrisemen in 2015, while the group is also gaining traction with its ‘Delicioni’ fresh onion and its ‘Cool Carrot Candy’ snack line.
“This is very good for the wok in Asian-type cuisine, or also on the barbecue or in salads,” Mäder says of the Delicioni, which can potentially be grown year-round.
“It’s very tasty, very fresh and has a lot of juice in it.”
“For the variety you can get the yellow colour, red ones and white ones, so for the Delicioni fresh onion you can choose a bundle with three colours. It looks great in the market, fresh and shiny.”
Jong says what the company wants to do is inspire people, whether they be growers, retailers or consumers, with improved varieties of a range of vegetables and proposed processing ideas and formats for marketing.
“With every concept you can think what varieties to use. We are a breeding company so we are looking at which varieties to use under the concept, and whether there is a specific area where you cannot use the varieties.
“You think about how to make shelf life better for instance, like in kohlrabi, if you cut it is it not browning? How do you keep it? We do a lot of research in how you keep the product after harvest. We think that is still part of our breeding job.
“You see in the genetic background of the product there is a difference, so if you know what you do with a vegetable you can select the best vegetable for that purpose.
“That means you combine the needs of the grower, that have high yields and are resistant, but at the same time it holds well when you cut it.”
This philosophy means Bejo is constantly updating the varieties available and suitable for different concepts, with Jong citing the Cool Carrot Candy as an example.
“Every year we want something new…now we have more colours and more varieties, so we have a brand new variety in the concept – it’s called Adana,” she says of the cultivar, as a fine Nantes/Amsterdammer type which grows early and has a cylindrical shape.
“And we have the Mokum variety, this is new in the assortment. This was selected; we do taste trials with Wageningen University and we’ve developed a taste model.
She emphasises the company does not have patent rights to these varieties, but breeders’ rights.
“That means everyone can use your material to further breed on and make new varieties,” Jong says.
“In Europe we’re very much in favour of this innovative strength to use each other’s material, using each other’s offspring to select because that is giving a boost to innovation.
“So we don’t want a patent – we want to keep the world free and with more diversity to use each other’s offspring,” she says, mentioning this is made possible through the International Seed Licensing Platform whereby seed companies combine together to “regulate the patent so we’re still able to use things at a normal cost.”