The tiger nut (scientific name Cyperus esculentus) is a species from the sedge family that is cultivated in many parts of the world for its edible nut. It is an old crop in the Western Hemisphere but can be found in India, the Middle East, Southern Europe, Africa or the island of Madagascar. It is an adaptable crop that grows in various locations and climates: Australia, China, Ukraine, Hawaii, Indochina, New Guinea, Java and many other islands.
The plant is widely cultivated but it can also be found in the wild or as an invasive species. The oldest evidence of cultivation is in ancient Egypt, starting about 8000 years ago. It has also been grown in some areas of Southern Europe for at least several centuries. It is very popular in Spain, where the nuts are used to prepare a sweet drink similar to milk, named horchata de chufa. Despite its uses, the tiger nut is classified as a weed in some countries.
Tiger nuts have been used for a very long time but their name is misleading, since they are not actually nuts. The edible part is a tuber, with a high content of sugar, fiber and proteins. The tubers have a chewy texture and a strange taste that resembles caramel. They have a high content of nutrients and provide an instant energy boost.
The cultivation season of tiger nuts begins in August and lasts until the end of September, when the tubers start to dry. The process continues during the month of October and they can finally be harvested in November or early December. The plant needs a lot of water and must be irrigated at least once per week, similar to rice. The tiger nut is cultivated all around the world today but thrives in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea, especially in Spain, but also in Egypt. The tiger nuts have many uses as food, medicine or a perfume ingredient and are commonly used to flavour biscuits or ice cream.
Just like some of the related species from Asia, the tiger nut is packed with strong antioxidants and provides many health benefits. It boosts blood circulation in general and can reduce the risk of heart attacks or thrombosis. Due to the antioxidant action as well as the high content of soluble glucose, consuming tiger nuts seems to prevent colon cancer and other tumours. It is also used in fishing, as a very effective bait for carps.
The tiger nut is a small tuber, despite its name. However, the name is not completely wrong, since it looks like a nut and has a similar chemical composition. It is considered to be a very healthy diet choice and even one of the so-called super foods. This is because it can improve circulation, reduce the risk of heart diseases and prevent colon cancer. It provides a big amount of minerals like potassium and phosphorous, vitamin C and E, as well as many other nutrients like sugar, proteins, starch or fats. Compared to potatoes or sweet potatoes, the tiger nut provides twice as much starch, granting an immediate energy boost. A chemical analysis on the oil inside the tuber has found 82% unsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid and linoleic acid, as well as 18% saturated fatty acids such as palmitic acid and stearic acid. It is a valuable food source also due to the decent content of phytosterols.
Tiger nuts have a long history of medical use and were part of Ayurvedic medicine. They were considered a cure for diarrhea, indigestion, flatulence, dysentery and debility. From the end of the 18th century, the tubers became an ingredient in pharmacy. Today, the oil is sometimes used in the production of cosmetics, due to the high content of vitamin E that delays cell aging and has antidioxide properties. It combats wrinkles and makes the skin more elastic.
The ancient Ayurvedic medical system employs the tubers against a variety of problems, it is considered an emmenogogue, a treatment for open wounds, psychosis, a solution to control uterine contractions in child birth, as well as a cure for skin diseases, a digestive aid and a weight control supplement.
The excellent mix of nutrients provided by tiger nuts makes them one of the so-called natural super foods. Not only they provide a large amount of fibers and other nutrients but they are also known to boost blood circulation and decrease the risk of heart diseases. They are a popular snack in Spain and some North African countries, providing significant health benefits at the same time.
Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of dietary fibers but tiger nuts are especially rich in these compounds. The tubers consist of more than 30% fiber, which is more than most other options, including bran or oats. Fibers play a key role in the health of our digestive system and also provide a sensation of fullness, assisting in weight loss.
The benefits of tiger nuts for heart health might be caused by the rich amount of essential amino acids. One of these compounds, arginine, is known to reduce high blood pressure. This has also been certified by modern clinical tests. Some of the other amino acids might have similar effects.
An essential mineral found in tiger nuts is magnesium. Our body needs it for numerous purposes but it is especially used by the immune system and for the nerve and muscular functions. It is also important in hearth health because it can balance heart beat and control blood pressure.
Tiger nuts are also one of the best vegetal sources of proteins, which are usually supplied from meat. Proteins are the structural building blocks of the human body and we use them to develop bones, muscles and skin.
These tubers are an excellent diet choice for people who suffer from diabetes, one of the most serious diseases of the modern world. Due to the rich content of insoluble fibers, tiger nuts can control the amount of sugar in the blood stream. A good supply of fiber can prevent the spikes in glucose levels that can be so dangerous for diabetes patients.
A milk substitute can be prepared from tiger nuts and is very popular in some countries, especially in Spain. It is a good alternative for people who don't tolerate lactose because it doesn't include any but it provides a good amount of calcium.
Vitamin E, a powerful natural antioxidant, can be found in generous amounts in the nuts. Antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals, protecting tissues and cells from their destructive action. As a result, vitamin E can slow down the effects of aging, as well as reduce the risk of fatal coronary conditions and even cancer.
The oil found in tiger nuts is very similar in composition to olive oil and shares many of its health benefits. It has a very high content of healthy unsaturated fats, of about 80%, while cholesterol and other unhealthy fats only have a share of 18%.
The nutritional qualities of tiger nuts have been known for a long time and modern tests have confirmed the high content of vitamins and minerals. They are rich in minerals like phosphorous and potassium, as well as vitamins C and E. The tiger nuts can be used to increase the nutritional value of products like yoghurt.
Since they are cheap and provide a rich package of nutrients, the tiger nuts are even a possible staple food in some parts of the world. One of the countries that have considered the plant for this purpose is Egypt, where a study has concluded the tiger nuts are a better option than some of the current staples in the area.
The edible part of the plant is the tuber. They are less bitter than the tubers of the related purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus) and have a pleasant nutty and mildly sweet taste. The tubers can be quite hard when raw and are typically soaked before consumption. This improves the texture and makes them softer. They are eaten as snacks in some areas of Africa, as well as Spain.
Around the town of Valencia in Spain, tiger nuts have a significant economic importance. Their main use is as a raw material for the traditional beverage named horchata. This is prepared by combining the tubers with some water and sugar, resulting in a sweet drink that resembles milk.
The tiger nut tubers can also be roasted and ground into a flour. It is very nutritive and can be added as an ingredient in bakery products and biscuits. It is also useful to make jam, nougat, beer, soap, oil, starch extract, as well as ice cream for flavoring purposes. In Nigeria, it is one of the ingredients of traditional drink kunnu. This is a non-alcoholic beverage usually made from sorghum, millet or other cereals. After heating, sugar and a number of spices like alligator pepper, ginger, licorice or dandelion are added. Tiger nuts are used to improve the drink's nutritional value, since kunnu prepared from African cereals is often quite poor in this respect.
The oil extracted from tubers can be used in cooking, both for frying and as a raw ingredient in salads. It has very good qualities. Tiger nuts are often made into a beverage that is similar to milk and can replace it in the diet of people who don't tolerate lactose. It can also be used as a milk alternative in fermented products such as yogurt. It has been explored as a milk substitute in some countries of Africa.
Despite their qualities, the tubers have to be consumed in moderate amounts, especially in raw form. The dehydrated tiger nuts can cause digestive issues, if you eat more than 300 grams at a time.
The plant can grow in many conditions but needs mild temperatures to fully develop. It will not bloom if the climate is too cold or if it doesn't get enough sunlight.
The edible tubers are usually located close to the surface but can also be found at a depth of up to 30 cm. They are quite resilient and can survive freezing of −5 °C, as well as flooding, drought and other harsh soil conditions. For the best production of tubers, the plant needs moist sandy soils with a pH between 5.0 and 7.5. It enjoys water but doesn't tolerate salt. In the wild, the tiger nut is found most often in wet zones at low altitudes.
The harvest usually happens at the end of the year, during the months of November and December. By that time, the tubers have become dry and the leaves are scorched. The modern harvesting method is to use a combine to extract tubers from the ground. Some washing is required, in order to remove the stones and dirt from the mix. Even if the tiger nuts are already quite dry at this stage, they have to be dried for an additional three months. This is usually done using natural sunlight and closely monitoring the humidity and temperature. If dried correctly and turned every day, the tiger nuts will last longer and will not develop any kind of rot or bacterial infestation. However, drying also makes the nuts harder, smaller and covered in wrinkles.