Unusual foods that pack a health punch

17 June 2009

Unusual foods

When we travel to different destinations around the world, such as Australia, South Africa, Vietnam and Thailand, part of the fun is sampling (or at least investigating!) each country's culinary specialties, whether it's reindeer, kangaroo, python - or deep-fried tarantulas.

'Exotic' meats from all over the world are now available from specialist meat and game retailers in the UK, although they remain very much a niche market - whether for ethical reasons or simply a reluctance to stray too far from our traditional meat diet of beef, pork, chicken and lamb.

While 'exotic' meat and game may not be to everyone's taste, there's no excuse not to expand our culinary horizons to include some of the more unusual fruit and vegetables grown in the UK.

As well as the fun factor involved in surprising our taste buds with unfamiliar flavours, making the most of our home-grown produce is becoming ever more important in view of the rising cost and environmental impact of transporting foods from country to country.

Give your taste buds a wake-up call!

Sometimes, we overlook unusual foods simply because they're unfamiliar, or perhaps we're not sure how to serve them. However, most are just as easy to prepare or cook as the products we normally buy and will create added interest - as well as a greater variety of colours, flavours and textures - to summer meals and salads.

So rather than throwing the usual food suspects into the supermarket trolley each week, why not plan some days out to visit specialist shops and farmers' markets to source more unusual fruit and veg in season in August and September - such as Swiss chard, samphire, sorrel, calabrese, endive and kohlrabi?

Nutritionist Sarah Schenker has picked out some of the most versatile and tasty unusual foods to look out for when you're shopping, all of which have excellent nutritional properties:

  • Dulse (seaweed).
    Dulse and laver seaweed is particularly popular in Northern Ireland and Wales. Edible seaweeds are an excellent source of iodine, a mineral which is vital for the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. Dulse also provides copper and iron needed for healthy blood, magnesium for the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, calcium for healthy bones, potassium for the balance of body fluids and zinc for the immune system. In addition to all that, dulse is a good source of B vitamins and the antioxidant vitamin beta-carotene.
  • Damsons.
    Damsons will start to drop from the trees in late summer and they are delicious for making jams, chutneys, sauces for meat or in crumbles and tarts. They are a good source of vitamin C and soluble fibre, which can help to lower blood cholesterol levels.
  • Fennel.
    Florence fennel has a crunchy texture and a delicate but distinctive liquorice flavour that works well in summer salads. It can also be boiled or, better still, braised to complement a light chicken or seafood dish. Fennel, like celery, is very low in calories and high in fibre, providing only 12 kcal per 100g. In fact, you can use up more calories chewing and digesting it than you actually consume. Fennel is also a good source of beta-carotene, an important antioxidant needed for the immune system; folate, necessary to keep blood healthy; and potassium, needed to help control blood pressure.
  • Jerusalem artichokes.
    Jerusalem artichokes are not artichokes but edible tubers - a cross between a radish and an artichoke. They don’t have to be peeled; just scrub well, roughly chop and throw into stews and casseroles, where they give a deliciously distinctive flavour. The tubers store the carbohydrate inulin (not starch like most tubers), making it particularly good for bowel health, as this is a type of fibre on which the friendly bacteria of the gut can thrive. Jerusalem artichokes also provide plenty of iron, potassium and vitamin C. They are in season from the end of October through to February - perfect for hearty winter soups and stews!
  • Golden beets.
    As well being low in calories, golden beets contain vitamins B, C and A, and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium. Their real nutritional value comes from the high content of the flavonoid quercetin that is bound in their purple pigment and is believed to help protect against heart disease. They are also known as a 'mood food', as they contain a compound called betaine that is known to relax the mind, and may help with depression.