Cooking Kudzu: The Invasive Species Is on the Menu in the South | Civil Eats

Cooking Kudzu: The Invasive Species Is on the Menu in the South

In an excerpt from the new book ‘Devoured,’ journalist Ayurella Horn-Muller examines the unexpected culinary applications of ‘the vine that ate the South.’

kudzu

A swath of kudzu enshrouding trees and a telephone pole in Tate County, Mississippi. (Credit: Photographs in the Ben May Charitable Trust Collection of Mississippi Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Editor’s Note: Devoured: The Extraordinary Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Ate the South detangles the complicated story of the South’s fickle relationship with kudzu, chronicling the ways the boundless weed has evolved over centuries and dissecting what climate change could mean for its future across the United States. From architecture teams experimenting with it as a sustainable building material, to clinical applications treating binge-drinking and chefs harvesting it as a wild edible, environmental journalist Ayurella Horn-Muller investigates how kudzu’s notorious reputation in America is gradually being cast aside in favor of its promise.

Deep fried, sautéed, flavored, or stirred, kudzu has been a staple in the East Asian culinary craft for thousands of years. Starches made from powdering the plant’s root have ancient origins in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. But in the U.S., cooking with the weed is more of a recent phenomenon.

Spurred by the modern revival of foraging and a renewed social focus on environmental preservation—­emerging from an era of global pandemics and simultaneous climate disasters—­esteemed chefs and everyday people alike have begun working invasive species like kudzu into their recipes.

It may sound bizarre to some, but these revolutionary dishes can be found in a handful of restaurants scattered across the Southeast. From Georgia to Tennessee, flowering kudzu has been incorporated into everything from pie to wine.

“The leaves can be used like spinach and eaten raw, chopped up and baked in quiches, cooked like collards, or deep fried.”

Barring its seeds and seed pods, the vine that “ate” the South is almost entirely edible. Its tips, blossoms, roots, and leaves can be served up for safe consumption. Researchers at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System suggest that flour made from kudzu is imported to the U.S. and can be found in “many Asian grocery and health food stores.”

The blossoms tend to be purple-colored and smell like grapes; the roots have been compared to a potato—like taste and consistency. The latter can account for up to 40 percent of kudzu’s plant biomass, and the nutritional and medicinal properties of the root have led to nicknames like “longevity powder” or “Asian ginseng.”

In a 2009 Kitchn article, Kathryn Hill succinctly captures the uncapped potential of kudzu in the kitchen: “The leaves can be used like spinach and eaten raw, chopped up and baked in quiches, cooked like collards, or deep fried,” Hill wrote. “Young kudzu shoots are tender and taste similar to snow peas.”

One of those culinary connoisseurs making dessert delicacies with the vine is award-­winning chef José Gutierrez. Published in Eat the Invaders, Gutierrez’s kudzu sorbet recipe involves whisking kudzu blossoms with white wine, licorice root, cayenne pepper, sugar, and water.

Another source of creativity is Angela Gillaspie, who powers SouthernAngel.com—part blog, part DIY source, and part cookbook. Her website is a treasure trove of recipes for rolled or deep-fried kudzu leaves, kudzu tea, kudzu jelly, and kudzu quiche. Elsewhere, an assortment of recipes incorporating the weed can be found on Food.com, a hub of instructions on how to make everything from sweet kudzu blossom jelly to a flavorful pork tenderloin with chilled kudzu salsa on the side.

The vine is also popular in liquid form. Kudzu root-based teas have long been common in China and Japan, promoted in everything from weight loss supplements to drinks for an upset stomach. In Georgia, one chef incorporates kudzu into a beloved quintessentially southern beverage—lemonade.

Blending kudzu flower syrup, lemon juice, and sometimes gin, Mimi Maumus delights customers with fresh kudzu lemonade at home.made, her restaurant and catering company. Located in Athens, home.made has served the refreshing Asian-Southern fusion beverage as a seasonal menu staple for nearly a decade. A wild plant enthusiast and professional chef, Maumus was first taken in by the smell of the weed’s blossoms.

“I lived on this little street. And there was kudzu growing right across the street from me, and I didn’t even realize it was kudzu because it wasn’t taking anything over,” said Maumus.

She remembers it being high up, a tangle of vines draped along power lines. One day, she found herself entranced by the viridescent mass towering in the sky. “I had paused, and I was just standing in front of it, and I had a neighbor who was walking her dog, [who said] ‘Smell that grape Kool-Aid?’” “I do,” Maumus remembered saying with inflection—­to which her neighbor told her matter-of-factly, “Yep, that’s the kudzu.”

An abandoned barn overwhelmed by kudzu in 1946. (Credit: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

An abandoned barn overwhelmed by kudzu in 1946. (Credit: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Maumus loosely knew it in the way many from the South do—a nuisance of a plant that crowded roadways and killed crops across the Peach State. At the time, the chef wasn’t aware that the climbing vine that had caught her gaze was edible. After her neighbor pointed out the blossoms to her, the source of the distinct aroma, she vividly remembers thinking: “‘Wow . . . it does have this almost artificial grape smell.’” For a moment, she noted how captivating a plant it was, but still never once thought, “Let me try and eat some.”

A love affair with experimenting with wild edibles in her dishes would lead Maumus right back to the striking vine that she couldn’t forget—that memory of its reigning stance, clinging to points in the sky cemented in her mind. In 2015, Maumus went foraging with the owners of Bartram Trail Farm in Winterville, Georgia—a local source of seasonal organic vegetables for chefs just a fifteen-minute drive outside of Athens.

“There are so many wild edibles that most people don’t know about,” she proclaimed. Her journey with kudzu weaves into her relationship with incorporating wild edibles into her culinary craft. “I fantasize about them, I romanticize them,” said Maumus.

By then, the chef was familiar with the poster child of invasive species and had already begun trials with it in her frying pan. The farm was run by Jason Jones and Scott Brandis, who helped her in sourcing kudzu leaves for those kitchen-table tests. She would learn from the farmers that the types of leaves used in her dishes mattered, and through her personal experiments, she also discovered that the ideal parts of kudzu to cook with were the baby leaves of a petite variety—not quite as fuzzy, or as fibrous as the rest. “I could cope with those,” she noted.

It wasn’t long before she stumbled upon the best way to serve kudzu to her customers: to get rid of the plant’s natural layer of fuzz, which could be done by frying the leaves. Spellbound by that powerful, “purple Kool-Aid” blossom scent, Maumus was motivated to make a simple syrup out of kudzu flowers, with the idea to turn it into a lemonade.

That fall, she gathered a bunch of the plant’s flowers and whipped up a recipe. “I was imagining it being this beautiful fuchsia color, the way the flowers are themselves,” said Maumus. But when she first made the simple syrup, it surprised her—­instead of a beautiful, bright shade, the mixture ended up a gray, muddy-water color. “What a disappointment,” she thought.

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But not all was lost. Although the color wasn’t appealing, the chef found the taste of the syrup to be “delightful.” Channeling her inner chemist, Maumus experimented with making the result more pleasing, landing on a solution where, if acidulated, the dull color of the mixture vanished and the vibrant splash of the blossoms came out in full force. “It became this magic trick that I started doing around the kitchen,” she said. “I felt like Willy Wonka. Like I had just found some crazy new thing.”

Kudzu’s got a little more than enchantment to its appeal—­the plant also packs plenty of nutritional power. In 2014, a report published in the Journal of the Alabama Academy of Science compared the antioxidant levels of kudzu to levels belonging to spinach and shiitake mushrooms. Authors Safaa Al-Hamdani and David Marc Ponder found that kudzu had measurably higher levels of antioxidants than its counterparts—a benefit that compounds its advantages as a source of plant protein, which was discovered in a 1983 analysis by James A. Duke, a botanist for the Department of Agriculture.

Duke found that per 100 grams, raw roots and cooked kudzu leaves offer 2.1 and 0.4 grams of protein respectively. Kudzu was one of many plants Duke would go on to recommend for medicinal treatment application, in books like his 1997 title, The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs.

A prospective nutritional boost isn’t the major draw behind Chef Maumus’s kudzu-­based concoction. It’s primarily about the presentation. Once she landed on a recipe for kudzu lemonade she loved, Maumus started taking the ingredients for her newly created beverage to others working in her restaurant. Made from a pint of sugar, some water, and two pints of kudzu blossoms, she’d give them a full shot of already prepared simple syrup and just half of a lemon before instructing the recipient to add lemon juice to the thick mixture, stir it, and then sit back and observe what comes next.

“I didn’t know it was invasive. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I certainly didn’t know it was edible.”

Without fail, everyone exclaimed elatedly as they witnessed how merging the ingredients would immediately turn the liquid from a dull slate to a gorgeous fuchsia tint. “It was just blowing people’s minds and it was delicious,” she declared.

It wasn’t long before Maumus added kudzu lemonade to the restaurant’s permanent drink menu—eventually even serving it with extra flair. That level of performative panache is now a given. If you order the lemonade at home.made today, chances are you’ll get it presented on a wooden platter, with different colored liquids laid out in scientific beakers, all materials evoking a Frankenstein-esque sense of curiosity and the thrill of adventure.

From there, it’s up to the customer to mix the liquids into a glass, so they can experience the color transformation firsthand. “It was like this mad scientist moment,” said Maumus. “And I was in love. I was just in love,” she continued. Others seem to love it, too—­she describes it as a “hit” at the bar—but the chef knows that while the taste is enticing, the part that has made the beverage so irresistible is the arresting aesthetic. “And that was the beginning.”

Her initial entanglement with the “vine that ate the South” predates her work as a professional chef and restaurateur. After college, Maumus didn’t head straight to Athens to set up shop. At first, she found herself in a pocket of western Georgia’s countryside, trying her hand at adulthood. It was there, in the “teensy little town” of Roopville, Georgia—which had a population of just 231 in 2020, according to U.S. Census data— where she first came across the incomparable plant. What Roopville lacked in people it made up for in kudzu.

“I would drive past this patch on the side of the road that was just trees, completely overcome by kudzu. It really was just so beautiful to me,” said Maumus. She doesn’t remember if it was flowering, drawing her to its seasonal array of blossoms. What hypnotized her was the sheer abundance of the plant—and how it sparked a childlike imagination, one that conjured up visions of mythical creatures and beguiling beings.

“These huge forms that were covered in this ivy-like grass that I would look at and I would imagine ‘Oh, there’s a T-Rex,’ and I would just imagine these storybook scenes,” she noted. “It was just like cloud-gazing.” An almost immediate captivation with an unknown plant, leaves cascading like a waterfall across the sites it claimed as its own, is what Maumus most clearly remembers.

“I thought it was completely beautiful,” said Maumus. It wasn’t until years later that she would learn more about the vine that captured her fancy. “I didn’t know it was invasive. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I certainly didn’t know it was edible,” she confessed. She couldn’t help but be enthralled by the visceral response it evoked, thanks to the sheer growth it appeared capable of. “I thought Coca-Cola should do a commercial with something coming out of the kudzu,” she added. “It looked really magical.”

This sensation stayed with her, becoming far more than a passing notion about a plant casually observed on the side of the road. A thought that would never really disappear, rooted, in many ways, like a deluge of kudzu embracing an abandoned plot of land, deep in the rural countryside. “There were times that I thought, ‘Well, there’s so much that I wish someone could figure out a good use for it,’” said Maumus.

The chef says this stuck with her, especially in light of the constant shortages of food affecting regions across the world. “I wish this thing could be helpful, because there’s so much,” she remembers thinking. “What could we do with it?” That is exactly the question she has funneled into her own craft. It’s no surprise that the chef and mastermind behind home.made’s menu is obsessively interested in constantly innovating ingredients and techniques. “I was naturally on this path toward unusual ingredients,” she said, “and just always asking, ‘Is that edible?’”

It was how she’d eventually find her way back to the plant that once caught her eye. After seeing it at local farms, Maumus’ curiosity was, once again, piqued—leading the chef to want to cook with it. “Kudzu, good Lord, almost every part of that thing is edible,” she proclaimed.

At first, she tried to experiment with the tap root, but couldn’t get any local farmers to give her a large enough root to be processed into a powder. Knocked down but not defeated, Maumus would turn to the leaves—toying with different ways of preparing them. It wasn’t long before kudzu lemonade was born. No set plan triggered it, but rather a sudden inspiration—a rekindling of a spark that had inadvertently lit once upon a Georgia road.

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If you ask Maumus, where and when you gather what you use in the kitchen matters. She is quick to warn other chefs interested in cooking with wild edibles that it’s important to be careful about where they are sourcing the vine—it makes sense that collecting kudzu off of roadways or plots of land right by industrial facilities will expose it to toxic exhaust—­and what time of year they’re collecting it, as well as what types of leaves to look for. In her case, she prefers to use smaller leaves from younger stands.

But she’s also not out there pulling kudzu herself; every fall, professional foragers collect copious amounts of it for home.made. Still, every now and again, she’ll pick some from her very own collection. “I have it growing in my backyard,” she said. “My daughter loves it. The kudzu lemonade got her hooked.”

Although kudzu lemonade is a seasonal staple at home.made, Maumus’s kitchen has since whipped up other kudzu-based treats, with the chef trying her hand at kudzu jelly and kudzu crème brulée. Whenever she thinks of a new way to create something delicious with the plant, she gives it a whirl. Taste and texture aren’t the only allure—the southern legends surrounding kudzu add an enthralling dash of mystique. “I’ve always seen it just as something magical,” she said.

From boozy lemonade to crème brulée, delicacies featuring kudzu can be found in a handful of revolutionary restaurants scattered across the Southeast. (Credit: Gina Profetto)

From boozy lemonade to crème brulée, delicacies featuring kudzu can be found in a handful of revolutionary restaurants scattered across the Southeast. (Credit: Gina Profetto)

Raised in Louisiana, Maumus didn’t grow up exposed to any charged stereotypes about kudzu—that understanding would come later, when she moved to the Peach State. The way she sees it, the older fables and poems depicting the weed as a monstrous green being are rooted in misconceptions. “It is a beautiful green monster, though,” she stressed. “I’ve just always said it’s like the clouds. Why would you get rid of the clouds?”

She knows kudzu is a threat to native flora but argues that all it takes is awareness and effort to rein it in. The property she lives on cradles a substantive sheet of the Herculean plant, which Maumus trims and watches out for overgrowth so it doesn’t overcome her adjoining vegetable garden. She’s not bothered by the work that goes into that, though. For Maumus, the aesthetic appeal and utility of the vine more than make up for the maintenance. As far as the chef is concerned, kudzu firmly has her “Georgia heart.”

“Considering how much we have of it and how easily it grows, if you want to talk about a renewable resource, we have one that we’re not using,” she noted. Of course, kudzu is not the only invasive with untapped resources in the South. Maumus believes the utility of other weeds like magnolia is overlooked by most—in everything from culinary to textile applications.

“These things are thriving for a reason. And I think oftentimes, they’re there for us,” said Maumus. “And if we could figure out why it’s there for us and use it for us, then we could learn to really love it.”

This could be an offshoot of a wider modern disconnect with nature and all it has to offer. “Our relationship with the natural world, it tells us things. It informs us. We just don’t listen,” she added. “If we could find a way to listen instead of pushing it away and shushing it, and instead saying, ‘Well wait, why are you so abundant here? What’s so great about here?’”

There’s a chance that we’ve been looking at kudzu all wrong. Maybe the very nature of an invasive vine is a message to humans from nature itself—a startling reminder that embracing how our environments and ecosystems are adapting to a warming world is the key to surviving it. “Maybe kudzu is trying to say, ‘Here I am. Here I am to remind you that I’m a gift. Figure me out, and use me,’” said Maumus.

“Maybe it’s The Giving Tree and we just keep cutting it down.”

Adapted from Devoured: The Extraordinary Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Ate the South published by Louisiana State University Press on March 6, 2024. Copyright © 2024 by Ayurella Horn-Muller.

Based in Florida, Ayurella Horn-Muller is an award-winning environmental journalist and the author of Devoured: The Extraordinary Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Ate the South. Her writing has been published in CNN, The Atlantic, National Geographic, The Guardian, USA TODAY, and PBS NewsHour, among others. Read more >

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