What is an Artichoke?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

When people refer to an artichoke in cooking, they tend to mean the globe artichoke, of the thistle family. Two other artichokes, the Jerusalem and the Chinese, are also eaten, but they are vastly different from the globe. The Jerusalem is a form of daisy, and the root or tuber is eaten. The Chinese artichoke derives from the woundwort plant, and the tuber is also considered the edible part. Conversely, the edible part of the globe is the thistle top.

TheJerusalem artichoke is a form of daisy.
TheJerusalem artichoke is a form of daisy.

The globe artichoke enjoys a long history of both lore and cooking preparation. Earliest cultivation was thought to have occurred in the Mediterranean. A Greek myth evokes the lovely story that the first artichoke was a woman of surpassing beauty named Cynara with whom Zeus was enamored. Zeus decided to make her a goddess but Cynara so missed her home that she would sneak back to earth from Mount Olympus to visit her family. This infuriated Zeus, who exacted a rather awful retribution by turning her into the first artichoke.

Traditional cooking methods involve either boiling or steaming the artichoke, and length of cooking time is determined by size.
Traditional cooking methods involve either boiling or steaming the artichoke, and length of cooking time is determined by size.

In a way, the myth is indicative of the artichoke’s nature. Only a tiny part of the vegetable is eaten. The exterior is hard and inflexible, even when cooked, and one must peel off each leaf to get to the “heart of the plant.” A tiny amount of the bottom of the leaf is often dipped in sauces like mayonnaise, before the teeth scrape off the flesh of the plant. The heart, as well, needs to be separated from its hard thistle bottom to be edible. Thus the artichoke takes a bit of work for the eater, just as Cynara represented more work then Zeus wished to bestow on her.

In about 800 CE, two groups of Moors are thought to be responsible for cultivation of the artichoke in Sicily and Spain. The word derives from Arabic rather than Greek, suggesting the Moors may have cultivated the vegetable first. The artichoke was enjoyed throughout Europe, showing a resurgence of popularity in the Renaissance.

Culinary lore credits the introduction of the artichoke to the US to both the French and the Italians. It is thought the French attempted cultivation in Louisiana, while the Italians cultivated the vegetable in California. Clearly cultivation of the artichoke in California was more successful. Today commercially grown artichokes in the US are exclusively from California, with about 75% of those being grown in Monterey County.

Traditional cooking methods involve either boiling or steaming the artichoke, and length of cooking time is determined by size. Many chefs prefer the baby artichokes, as they tend to cook more quickly and are the most tender, yielding more vegetable output than overgrown artichokes.

Artichoke dip, which utilizes the hearts of the artichoke, became a popular offering during the 1980s. The dip is served in a hollowed round of French bread, and people enjoy dipping cubed up French bread, crackers or chips into this yummy but relatively high calorie offering. The artichoke served alone is not high in calories, with approximately 25 calories per vegetable.

The artichoke is also high in vitamin C, folic acid, and potassium, making it a good nutritional choice. Since it takes a little longer to eat, it is a favorite food of dieters. Marinated artichoke hearts are often used in salads, yet these do retain some of the oil in which they are preserved, so they may exhibit a higher fat content.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I didn't know they were something edible.


Artichokes are fussy plants, requiring attention, good soil and regular watering. There are several varieties such as purple globe, green globe and violetta di chioggia. Artichokes are delicious vegetables even if they are a bit inelegant to eat.

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