October 4, 2007
The first time goji berries popped up on my radar was last winter, at London's Borough Market: amidst the fudge makers and the pie ministers was a natural foods stand that sold all manner of esoteric goods. Dried goji berries were prominently featured, with various health promises attached.
I tend to take these clamorous claims -- a better eyesight! improved marital activity! eternal life! -- with so many grains of salt I could salt-crust a chicken, so I shrugged and walked away.
But the berries wouldn't let themselves be forgotten so easily. I read about them repeatedly over the next few months (in Heidi's super natural book in particular) until, my curiosity fully aroused, I caved in and bought a small bag while in NYC in the spring.
Goji berries, which may or may not be the same as wolfberries depending on whom you talk to, have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia and the bulk of the world production is grown in China, but they have recently benefited from an increased popularity in the West, where they are touted as a superfood, uncommonly rich in antioxydants and nutrients.
A fair amount of marketing mythology has flourished around their origin and properties, while assorted crooks jumped at the opportunity to sell goji juice as if it were liquid gold, but none of the fountain-of-youth claims seem to be supported by independant medical research. In any case, the berry, though not particularly flammable, can pride itself on having sparked lively debates.
Being neither a doctor nor a botanist, I chose to concern myself with the berries as a cook: alone in my New York hotel room, surrounded by the stash of apples and yogurt I had also purchased (if you need me to launch into a detailed rant on the subject of hotel breakfasts, just let me know; my soapbox is polished and ready to go), I proceeded to examine the berries and assess not their nutritional, but their organoleptic characteristics, as they say*.
Tiny and crimson pink, dried goji berries have a texture that can be described as a cross between that of raisins (chewy) and dried figs (pleasantly grainy). Their flavor, subtly tart, hints at herbs and tea. Less sugar-intense than most dried fruits -- in fact, they straddle the line between the sweet and the savory -- they definitely grow on you until, one handful leading to another, you realize that the bag was, indeed, quite small.
I bought another one when I was in London again recently, and got them from The Spice Shop this time**. Having already established that the berries made for a good snack, I decided to use this new crop in my cooking. Goji berries can step up wherever one would use raisins or dried cranberries, and I've had good success inviting them into my very chocolate cookies (recipe in my cookbook or here) or into an Indian-inspired pilau rice, with roasted cashews.
I have a little left -- what would you do with them?
* Organoleptic: being, affecting, or relating to qualities (as taste, color, odor, and feel) of a substance (as a food or drug) that stimulate the sense organs. The word is used more and more frequently by French food experts, and it always amuses me because it seems like the least sensual word one could find for such a sensuous concept.
** While the berries seem to have reached full fad status in NYC and London, I haven't seen them sold in natural foods stores in Paris. They may, however, be available in Chinese shops; I've yet to conduct this particular research project.
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