Cooking up tradition:Gundelia (Akkoub)

Today’s recipe features Akkoub (Gundelia) an ingredient with deep cultural roots in bilad al sham (Levant) in general and in Palestine in particular. Since my last post was about the green heralds of spring in the Arabic cuisine, I thought I’d keep things rolling with today’s recipe.

What is Akkoub (Gundelia)?

Akkoub is a type of thistle that grows wild in the mountains in belad al sham (the Levant). It has a distinctive flavour (which is close to a cross between asparagus and artichokes).

What makes akkoub interesting is that it is deeply intertwined with the cultural heritage of the region. You see, Akkoub is not grown in farms, it has to be foraged in the mountains and it is only available in late winter and early spring. As a result, it became synonymous with the people’s relationship with the land and their sense of belonging to it.
That and the amount of time and effort that it takes to clean it and prepare it for cooking make it a special delicacy that is reserved for special occasions and loved ones.

I still remember when my mum used to spend hours every spring, preparing bags of Akkoub to freeze. They would all be labeled in the freezer. Some for my uncle who lives abroad, others for her best friend who only comes to Jordan once or twice a year and the rest were reserved for special times throughout the year.
Going back to the significance of Akkoub. For us Palestinians, gundelia (Akkoub) is a symbol of resilience and resistance. Its ability to thrive in harsh mountain terrain is seen as a metaphor for the strength and perseverance of the people who call this land home. And its use in traditional cuisine is a testament to the rich culinary traditions that have been passed down through generations.

What are the health benefits of akub/ gundelia?

When you look at the plant above, you may wonder why would anyone go through all that trouble, well, the answer are the health benefits. Studies have found that it has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective (liver protecting), antioxidant, antiplatelet and hypolipemic activities.Traditionally, Gundelia is used for treatment of liver diseases, diabetes, chest pain, heart stroke, gastric pain, vitiligo, diarrhea and bronchitis. It is also reported to have hypoglycaemic, laxative, sedative, anti-inflammatory, anti-parasite, antiseptic and emetic effects.

How is Akkoub (gundelia) prepared or cleaned?

The thorns and thorny leaves are removed leaving the stems and particularly the undeveloped flowerheads (called baid in Arabic which is the same word used for eggs due to their shape) these remaining parts can now be eaten.

The cleaning is done using a sharp knife or kitchen scissors The end result looks like the picture you see below. Most people tend to buy akkoub precleaned as cleaning it is a slow and demanding process.

How to eat akkoub?

The cleaned akkoub is usually fried or sauteed with onions. it is then served as is with a squeeze of lemon, shatta, olives and pita bread. This version is called Akkoub bil zait (Akkoub with olive oil). This happens to be the simplest way to enjoy its delicate flavor and my personal favorite. Gundelia is also added to scrambled eggs for a healthier more substantial breakfast. To serve it as a main meal, you can add the cooked akkoub to a yogurt and meat stew. Akkoub bil laban (gundelia in yogurt) is usually served with rice for a main meal you won’t soon forget

Akkoub bil zait (sauteed gundelia with olive oil and minced onions)

1 kg akkoub cleaned, washed and cut into 2-3 cm pieces
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion minced
1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a pot place the olive oil and onions and saute for 3-5 minutes
  2. Add the akkoub, salt and pepper and cook over medium low heat till the akkoub softens and is cooked through (the duration of time will differ depending on the freshness of the akkoub and how fibrous the original plant is, young akkoub shoots tend to cook faster. If you are in a hurry, add the water as it will help the akkoub cook faster)