Il topinambur [sunchoke, Helianthus tuberosus] is unique in la cucina italiana: an import from the Americas, this ingredient has taken on over a dozen common names. By means of comparison, a pomodoro [tomato] is usually just called one name: pomodoro.
In addition to topinambur, you may hear this tuber called: la rapa tedesca [German turnip], il carciofo di Gerusalemme [Jerusalem artichoke], il carciofo / il tartufo di canna [reed-like artichoke / truffle], il girasole / la patata del Canada [Canadian sunflower / potato], il ciapinabò [?], il tupinabò [?], la trifola [the white truffle], la pera di terra [the Earth’s pear]…
It’s not fully clear where the male singular noun topinambur comes from. The most convincing explanation traces it to the Portuguese tupinambor, a word used to describe a tuber cultivated by the Tupinambá tribe of Brazil. Pronounced toh-pee-nahm-BOOR, the plural form of the word is exactly the same as the singular: i topinambur.
A species of girasole [sunflower], il topinambur flowers late in the fall, though today it can be found in markets year-round. Unlike il girasole, which is mostly used for its seeds, il topinambur is used for its underground tuberi [tubers].
Il topinambur grows wild throughout Italy, and until recently was not welcome in haute cuisine due to its common and humble profile. With the advent of Slow Food and renewed interest in eating locally, this tubero has experienced a resurgence in popularity. Some of its appeal also lies in its nutritional profile: with a high fiber content and low glycemic index, il topinambur is reputed to be beneficial for diabetics, nursing mothers, gut flora, to facilitate digestive transit, etc.
Topinambur trifolati [truffled sunchoke] is a popular contorno [side dish], a nutritious alternative to le patate [potatoes]. Check out the recipe for it here!
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