An encounter with the tinned variety prompted Justyn McGrigor to source fresh palm hearts in Australia, where its crisp flavour and ivory colour is piquing interest from top chefs.
Palm heart, also called ‘heart of palm’, ‘chonta’ and the not-so-inviting ‘swamp cabbage’, is a unique and versatile product with much to offer the curious chef.
I was first acquainted with fresh palm heart cooking Thai – mainly stir-fries and more interestingly in coconut milk desserts.
I was reminded of it again on a trip to Europe when I was presented with a tinned palm heart on a pizza. I can’t say the tinned version was great, but it piqued my curiosity to source the fresh product back in Australia.
Turns out growing conditions are perfect (most of the time) in wet tropical Queensland, where our grower produces a beautiful palm heart from the Bactris Gasipaes palm (commonly known as peach palm).
I have been particularly impressed with the quality of their palm heart and their commitment to sustainability, which is required to grow it. They have been successfully cultivating the product since 2005.
Palm heart is a fairly common (and cherished) ingredient in the traditional cuisines of tropical areas worldwide, where various native palms grow, including Central and South America, Asia and the Pacific Islands. They even rate a mention during the Great Depression when the poor living near the swamplands of Florida felled the local palms to cook the core.
In Australia, it has long been a part of the bush tucker selection, along with blue quandong and Davidson plum, in the northern regions of the country. The Widjabul people of Rosebank on the New South Wales and Queensland border are said to cut open the local palms for the pure white sweet heart, a succulent and nutritious food source.
The heart of the palm, not surprisingly, runs through the centre of the tree. Native or wild palm varieties include coconut, palmito jucara and acai, however cultivation of these hearts results in the tree’s death.
Bactris Gasipaes, by comparison, is a domesticated variety that produces multiple stems, which means it can continue to grow after it has been harvested. Good for the palm, good for the supply of the palm heart!
Palm heart is considered a vegetable and when freshly harvested is tender and juicy, and ivory in colour. It has a shape similar to an asparagus without the top and a delicate flavour, a little like artichokes. Low in fat with a high iron and magnesium content, it is also considered healthy.
You can use it in similar ways to Italians with artichokes – as antipasti, raw and shaved or chopped in salads, steamed, crumbed or fried. Or work with it as they do in South East Asia, in stir-fries and curries.
Palm heart is available all year; however, the palm is a thirsty tree, with a fairly hefty water requirement, so sometimes the lack of water does affect supply. The drought conditions at the end of 2014 stopped supply for a few months, but it’s back in full swing now and we should see reliable supply continue throughout the year.
Once you get your hands on it, storage should be in a cool, dry environment, either in an airtight container in the fridge or wrapped in cling film and kept in the cool room.
Palm heart has been rather overlooked by mainstream Australia, which I think comes down to a lack of awareness of the product and a traditionally limited supply.
Despite not being widely known, it is in high demand with top-tier chefs, who enjoy working with something a little out of the ordinary.
Palm heart has the added advantage of being one of the few white colour foods, which remains so when cooked.
Fruit – Bergamot, chestnut, apple (golden delicious), guava and kiwi (gold).
Vegetables – Brussels sprouts, finger fennel, horseradish and mushrooms (pine and slippery jack).
Justyn McGrigor operates top supplier Murdoch Produce. Contact him on: 02 8543 9999 or murdochproduce.com.au.