Gobo, or burdock root, is a hardy biannual plant belonging to the chrysanthemum family. It can grow to around three or four feet tall with large pale green leaves. The edible roots are normally harvested when 12 to 18 inches long. Gobo easily grows from seed. The spring-sown seeds are ready for harvest from late summer through to autumn, and the autumn-sown varieties are overwintered and dug up the following spring or early summer. Although gobo produces flowers, it’s best to harvest it before the flowers appear, otherwise the root gets too tough.
I remember watching my dad digging up gobo from our backyard; it was always quite a workout because the taproots can extend for several feet. My father would choose sandy, loamy soil and cultivate it very deeply, making sure there were no rocks. Cultivating the sandy soil at least a foot and a half deep before planting the seeds helps make the effort of digging it out a little easier. These days gobo can easily be found in Asian grocery stores.
It’s believed that gobo was originally used in Japan for its medicinal qualities. It is a good source of dietary fibre, contains calcium and potassium and it’s low in calories. Since it can grow nearly anywhere and rarely bothered by pests, many cultures have used it over the centuries. Burdock root has been used in early Chinese medicine and it’s also been documented in Indian Ayurvedic medicines, as well as used by German and Russian herbalists. For the Iroquois in North America, burdock root was an important winter food; they dug it in the autumn, dried it, and ate it throughout the winter. Although burdock root grows wild around the world and many cultures have used it throughout the ages, it had only, until very recently, been actively cultivated by Japan as a vegetable. In that regard, it’s very likely the seeds Japanese Canadians used were brought here by the Issei (first generation) from Japan. (My father says he uses seeds given to him from a late Issei relative in our extended family.)
A popular way to cook gobo—and the way my grandmother used to prepare it—is kimpira, a sauté and simmer cooking technique often used to prepare root vegetables. When gobo is cooked this way the bitter flesh becomes nutty and sweet.
1 cup gobo
¼ cup carrot or one large carrot
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp mirin
½ tsp dried chilli flakes or shichimi togarashi
To prepare the gobo you can scrape off the bark with a knife but I use a vegetable peeler to take the bark off, it’s quicker and safer. If the gobo skin is thin you can also clean it by using a coarse vegetable brush. Cut the gobo into thick matchsticks. Immediately soak the cut and cleaned gobo in cold water to prevent it from turning grey. Cut the carrot into matchsticks.
Heat a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the vegetable oil and add the drained gobo. After a few minutes add the carrots, shoyu, sugar, mirin and continue to cook over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. Sprinkle on the sesame oil, chili flakes, or shichimi togarashi. Gobo kimpira can be served hot or cold.