Jerusalem Artichoke - Metamorphosis of a Mistake

Adi Nemia-Cohen, Edna Assis |24/05/2021|1168
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In 2017 more than 50 Jerusalem restaurants, coffee houses, and bars participated in a food festival centered around one ingredient - the Jerusalem artichoke.  The festival was spread over several days, and some of the dishes are still found on restaurant menus.  The “official” name of the Jerusalem artichoke is sunroot (other names include sunchoke, earth apple and topinambur).  Linguistic confusion over the ages led to this root vegetable which is neither an artichoke nor has its origin in the Holy Land, to be mistakenly identified with Jerusalem for over 200 years.  So how did this tuber become so identified with Jerusalem as to be named after it?


Claudia Roden, in The Book of Jewish Food:  An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York:  A Cookbook published in 1996 presents a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke soup and describes the vegetable:  “The warty root, similar in shape to a potato, arrived to Europe from North America at the beginning of the 17th century. It became popular in Jerusalem, and was used there regularly in cooking, but didn’t have a name connected with Jerusalem.  The name is a 19th century English corruption of the ancient Italian name, “girasole artichoka” (sunflower artichoke), that the root received because its taste reminds one of an artichoke and the plant’s flower turns to face the sun…”

(Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food:  An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York:  A Cookbook, p. 68)

 Already by the year 1855, , Hensleigh Wedgwood published an article with the title, “On False Etymologies” and there is written:  “Jerusalem artichokes (a kind of sunflower), from It. girasole.”  The flower that blooms from the tuber of the Jerusalem artichoke is somewhat similar in color and shape to a sunflower.  The word for sunflower in Italian, girasole, is similar in sound to the English pronunciation of Jerusalem.  This similarity in sound, gave birth to the first mistake in the name of the plant.

 The source of the second mistake in the name of the plant, seemingly stems from the taste of the tuber.  The original farms which grew this plant were in North America, specifically in Canada.  The first description of the identity of the plant was around the year 1635.  Samuel de Champlain (b. 1603) wrote that the taste of the tuber reminded him of the taste of artichokes.  And with that, even though the plant is not even “related” to the artichoke it became associated with the taste. So the combination between the artichoke’s taste and the sunflower’s shape and the similar sound of the name, led to the misconstrued name of the plant as Jerusalem artichoke, later translated into Hebrew as “artichoke Yerushalmi”.  De Champlain brought these tubers (called by the Native Americans “chiquebi”) with him back to Europe.  De Champlain wanted to call them by the name of their origin - “Canada”, but his idea did not take root.  The name established in many languages is specifically Jerusalem artichoke.

 Because of its sweet and subtle taste, the Jerusalem artichoke was accepted quickly in the kitchens of the upper class.  It’s possible that the hint of the taste of actual artichokes aided the process of the tuber’s acceptance, as opposed to the apple which also arrived in Europe at more or less the same time, and was seen as an odd, mysterious plant.  Over time, potatoes received a more central place in the kitchens across Europe and were thought of as available, common and very nutritious.  The centrality of the Jerusalem artichoke declined during the 17th century; and it was eaten specifically during periods of distress and hunger, assuming a low status as evidenced by its use even as animal feed.


Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

A popular soup based on Jerusalem artichoke merited the name “The Palestine Soup.”   A diary written in 1834 relates that the name was given to the soup because of the Jerusalem artichoke.  The mistake in the root’s name occurring as a result of similar sounds, fixed the name of the dish, and gave it a new geographic significance in a sort of word game, jumping from Jerusalem to Palestine. 

Jerusalem artichokes began to star in the British and American kitchen in the first half of the 19th century, as a central ingredient in Palestine Soup, considered a nutritious family dinner for the middle class.  The Palestine Soup appears in the cookbook of Eliza Acton from 1845 and in the cookbook Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1861 - two very popular cookbooks in the English kitchen of the 19th century.  According to different recipes, the soup consisted of meat, Jerusalem artichoke, turnip, onion, celery, butter, chicken stock (or water or milk), salt, pepper, and bacon or ham to enrich the flavor.  Jerusalem Artichoke Soup, as we said, was a popular soup, but it was not kosher, because of the widespread inclusion of bacon and ham.  Judith Montefiore, the woman to whom is credited the first kosher cookbook published in 1846, found a solution and substituted chorissa sausages for bacon.  Even though it is associated with the land of Israel through its name, the soup, rich in flavors and spices, hails from the European kitchen.

A version of the recipe for Judith Montefiore’s Palestine Soup:

Palestine Soup

“Stew a knuckle of veal, and a calf’s foot, and one pound of chorissa, and a large fowl, in four quarts of water, add a piece of fresh lemon peel, six Jerusalem artichokes, a bunch of sweet herbs, a little salt and white pepper, and a little nutmeg, and a blade of mace;  when the fowl is thoroughly done, remove the white parts to prepare for thickening, and let the rest continue stewing till the stock is sufficiently strong, the white parts of the fowl must be pounded and sprinkled with flower [sic] or ground rice, and stirred in the soup after it has been strained, until it thickens.”

In a 1918 Jewish cookbook  published in the United States, Palestine Soup was touted as a recipe  for Passover.  The kosher for Passover variant was vegetarian, without meat, and it included egg yolks, apparently in order to enrich the soup.  It seems that during the 20th century, there was a change in the “character” of the soup, and from its origins as a meat soup which fed a middle class family, it became an elegant vegetarian soup.  The continuation of this process of refinement can be seen in the recipe for Jerusalem Artichoke Soup presented by the Kadosh Cafe at the 2017 Festival:  onion was replaced by a leek, and to the basic ingredients - butter, water, potato and of course Jerusalem artichoke - were added wild mushrooms, truffle oil, and chestnuts.

 Even though the source of the plant is in Canada and its name was given by mistake, and it is possible to “argue” with the words of Roden that it is “popular in Jerusalem, where it is used regularly in cooking”, there is no question that either as Palestinian Soup in its heavy, hearty British incarnation or as Jerusalem Artichoke Soup, a light soup with scents of winter, it sounds more delicious than Sunroot Soup.


Mushroom and Jerusalem Artichoke Soup | Kadosh Cafe

For 10 diners:

•             20 grams butter

•             2 leeks

•             Celery root

•             1 basket of wild mushrooms

•             1 basket of champagne mushrooms

•             1 basket portobello mushrooms

•             4 cloves garlic

•             1 medium potato

•             1 bunch parsley - chopped

•             1.5 kg Jerusalem artichokes - peeled

•             1 l. Boiling water

•             1 l. Milk

•             1 level tsp salt

•             1 tsp. Black pepper

•             1 tsp. Ground chili pepper

•             Nutmeg

•             ½ c. cream

•             300 g.sliced chestnuts

•             Truffle oil

•             Grated Parmesan cheese - for garnish



 Chop the leeks and the celery root into cubes and fry them in a large pot with a little butter until they turn yellow.  Slice the mushrooms and the garlic, add them to the pot and fry them well.  Add the potato, the parsley, and the Jerusalem artichoke and cook for about 5 minutes.  Afterwards, pour in the water and milk until the vegetables are covered and cook well for about 40 minutes.  When the artichoke is soft to the touch, season with salt, pepper, chili pepper, and nutmeg.  Blend with a stick blender.  Add the cream and cook 5 minutes more.  Pour the soup into bowls.  Garnish with a little truffle oil, slices of chestnuts, and sprinkle with grated Parmesan.

 Bon appetit!

(translation: Leiah Jaffe)


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