Chrysanthemums. Sometimes a cook needs to think out of the box, or in this case out of the flower pot. These sun shiny beauties are not only decorative, but a delicious way to add greens (and yellows) to liven up meals. However, in Israel they are largely ignored as a culinary herb despite growing abundantly in the wild and in untended yards. Many consider them at best pretty weeds, useful only for a child’s bouquet.
Asians and Cypriots have been making better use of this nutritious plant and enjoy it both cooked and raw. Visit a Korean or Chinese green grocer and they may very well have this vegetable in stock. Indeed, chrysanthemums are indigenous to Asia where they have become an indispensible part of their food culture.
While many wild edibles are sold by Arab vendors around the country, including difficult to harvest thorny species, I have never seen chrysanthemums. They are also no mention of them in the Middle Eastern cookbooks I own. For years the empty lots around my house have been neglected until the discovery of Uri Mayer-Chissick’s practical foraging book. It was then I realize that between March and April I would never have to buy another salad green again.
In Israel, the most conspicuous species is Chrysanthemum coronarium (known as Crown Marigold or Garland Chrysanthemum). According Nisim Krispil’s Medicinal Herbs of Israel it is often picked by the Arabs to prepare salad while the Negev Bedouins prepare a tincture from the petals to treat fever. It seems reasonable to assume that some families simply do their own gathering and don’t rely on outdoor markets.
Those in Tokyo sautée the stems and leaves in oil and garnish with sesame seeds while others prepare a more complicated sauce with tofu and miso. In Japan they are also a common addition to shabu- shabu, a soup similar to the Chinese hot pot. Chrysanthemums take center stage in the Vietnamese canh tan o soup and in Korea they are commonly added to wraps called ssam.
Knowing very little about Asian cooking I did what came most naturally to me- chopped them up and dunked them in yogurt, the Middle Eastern way. This takes the bite off the more pungent wild edibles, mellowing the flavor without destroying their super food qualities (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals, in short, not something you’d want to miss out on).
Yogurt with chrysanthemum and other greens
On the way back from picking up my son from kindergarten I collected a few of the yellows and mallows to make this impromptu salad. All together I had about 1 cup of greens. For those who don’t have unusual weeds, dill, parsley, celery leaves and even diced cucumbers can be used instead. In the United States, Ox-Eye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) would work well in this recipe. Chrysanthemums alone do not have a very aggressive flavor which pairs nicely with the more aromatic za’atar. Use thyme if fresh za’atar is not available.
A few chrysanthemum leaves and stems
1-2 mallow leaves
Small bunch parsley leaves
A few leaves of fresh za’atar
2 tablespoons feta cheese, crumbled
1 crushed garlic
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup of plain yogurt
Wash the herbs in water, making sure to remove sand, grit and stray bugs. Pat dry with a towel. Chop the herbs into bit sized pieces and place them in a small bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until combined. Serve with toasted pita halves with za’atar.