What are tiger nuts? History, functions & effects

The history of tiger nuts: a millenary healthy food

Chufa is a historical, gastronomic and cultural treasure, a thousand-year-old tuber venerated by our ancestors due to its great contribution of nutrients and its curative power for different illnesses.

According to research conducted by the University of Oxford, tiger nuts were a staple food in the diet of ancient civilisations, but not only that. There are ancient documents that demonstrate the use of tiger nuts for healing purposes, and tiger nut milk, today known as horchata in Spain, was better known as a medicinal beverage than as a refreshing drink. Persian, Arab and Chinese authors highlight the great digestive and antioxidant benefits of tiger nuts and horchata.

The first reference of tiger nuts in history dates back to the 15th century BC when samples of this tuber were found in an Egyptian sarcophagus.

Nothing to be surprised about, since we know that the ancient pharaohs were buried with all their treasures to enjoy them in their life after death. From this, we can deduce that the Egyptians considered tiger nuts as a real treasure! In fact, historians agree that the Egyptian paradise, Aaru, the countryside where Osiris reigned, was a valley of sedges, which coincides with the type of plant tiger nuts are.

It has also been discovered in a corridor of a Theban tomb in a sequence of paintings where you can see how two men make a shat, a cake in which they crushed the tiger nuts to get thick flour which was then baked and mixed with fat and honey. Guess what? This cake was reserved as an offering to their God.

The first written definition of tiger nuts in history is found in Volume 2 of The Histories written by the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus of Halicarnado in the 5th century BC, in which in addition to listing the possible pathologies cured with tiger nuts, he says that the dough made with the tuber was also used to produce paper, clothes and shoes.

History of tiger nuts in the Valencian Community

As of how tiger nuts came to Mediterranean area, historians are divided between two theories. On one hand, it is considered that they were brought to Spain by the Arab civilisation in the 8th century. It was consumed as foodstuff and also as a raw ingredient for the production of a refreshing drink obtained from its maceration, and which later evolved into the refreshing beverage we know today by the name of horchata (tiger nut milk or juice). On the other hand, it is considered that the Valencia tiger nuts come from a native plant since the African and Spanish tiger nuts are slightly different in appearance and size.

During the thirteenth century, in the lands of the Mediterranean, a popular legend attributed to the King James I of Aragon appeared to explain the name of the word “horchata”. According to this legend, horchata comes from the Valencian word “orxata”. The story tells that in the year 1238 a young female peasant gave the king tiger nut milk to refresh him after a battle. Loving the beverage, he asked the girl what was he drinking and she answered: “És llet de xufa”, meaning: “It’s tiger nut milk.” To which King James replied, “Això no és llet, això és or, xata!“, meaning: “this is not milk, this is gold darling”. However, this legend is nowadays known to be just a story since there is no document that states that horchata was consumed as a refreshing drink but as a medicinal beverage at room temperature. In fact, there were no refrigeration systems either.

Fast forwarding closer to the present, the well-known Valencian botanist José Cavanilles in his Observations on the Natural History of Valencian Kingdom published in 1795, refers to the cultivation of tiger nuts in the fields of Alboraya and l’Horta Nord, the Valencian northern countryside. He explains how Valencian businessmen spent the summer in Madrid selling horchata as a refreshing drink. It was also sold during June’s Feast of the Corpus Christi.

“What we know about horchata in the 19th century is that it was served cold in a cart with bells, so the rattling announced that horchata had arrived.”

The agriculture in the Valencian countryside is one of the most deeply rooted traditions of our culture that dates back to the 8th century when peasants were given lands during the Christian Reconquest. During all these time, families have lived from selling their crops in the local markets.

The tiger nut plant needs sandy, loose and well-levelled soils, with a Mediterranean climate: high humidity and minimum thermal oscillations. All these properties make the northern region of Valencia’s countryside known as L’Horta Nord the only area of Spain where these tubers can grow.

Effects of tiger nut on health

Numerous authors around the world during the history write about tiger nuts as an edible tuber and their positive effects on health. In their texts, they make reference to its medicinal uses to cure ulcers or aphthae of the mouth and gums, their diuretic properties, hemorrhoidal pains, headaches, dizziness and colics. Some sources refer to tiger nuts’ aphrodisiac properties, even claims that they may help to increase fertility and balance menstruation. Moreover, there are notes of its use as an antidote for scorpion stings. The one thing all sources agree is that besides being a healthy food, it is an exquisite delicacy!

Do you want to know more about the benefits of tiger nuts for the body? Check out this post.

The truth is that we have not discovered anything new, we have enough evidence that point out how tiger nuts have served as a healing food during the old days, but we get the feeling that this knowledge has been lost and we would like to return to the origins of our tuber. Our mission is to bring back the tiger nut as a healthy ingredient and to spread the benefits it brings to our health.

Surely you knew the about how great tiger nuts taste, but did you know about their history and effects on your body? In following articles we will tell you much more about this superfood, stay tuned!

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