Maybe the name takes you back to gentler days of Moosewood Cookbook and the dusty spicy local co-op. Or maybe you were a kid back then and fell for a chocolate bait-and-switch. Whether you are sweetly nostalgic or wary and resentful, it’s worth giving carob another chance. Katherine argues that it’s time to pull this earthy crunchy 70’s food into the superfood age. She offers foraging tips and recipes to help you get to know carob on its own terms.
From November through January, the carob trees in my neighborhood dangle hard, lumpy, dark brown fruits resembling lacquered cat turds. They are delicious and nutritious and of course I collect them. I am, without apology, a pod plundering, legume looting, pirate of the carob bean. If you seek adventure and happen to live in California, Arizona, or on the Mediterranean coast, you can probably pilfer some carob fruits yourself and play with them in your kitchen. If you lack local trees or the pirate spirit, you can order carob powder and even whole carob beans with one simple click.
Although plundering season begins just as the year is ending, I always wait until January to gather carob fruits for two reasons. First, carob functions mainly as a healthful chocolate substitute, and during the holiday season, fake chocolate just seems sad. In January, however, eating locally foraged carob feels virtuous and resourceful. Second, November and December are when my local carobs make the flowers that will produce the next year’s crop, and those flowers smell like a pirate’s nether parts after a shore leave. Or so I imagine, and not without precedent. A man who should have been inured to such salty smells, Pliny the Elder, natural historian and commander in the Roman Imperial Navy, described the flowers as having “a very powerful odor.” It’s not clear why these flowers have a sort of seaman scent, since the main volatiles wafting from the flowers – linalools and farnesene – smell like lilies and gardenias (Custódio et al., 2006). In any case, I keep my distance until the flowers have finished mating season.
Despite their stinky flowers, carobs make great street trees and produce a valuable crop in many Mediterranean-type climates. They are beautiful, tolerant of dry and poor soils, pest resistant, and tidy. Carobs are legumes – like familiar peas and beans – but they belong to a different branch of the legume family (Caesalpinioideae), one that contains mostly trees and woody shrubs with tough inedible fruit (Legume Phylogeny Working Group, 2017). Carob pods look about as edible as Jack Sparrow’s boots, and the species’ scientific name, Ceratonia siliqua, means “horny long pod,” which well captures the intimidating nature of their leathery fruit. But as you will see below, the fruits are easy to harvest and process, and their sweet pulp is worth seeking out.
Evidence suggests that people have indeed been seeking out carobs for a long time. Although carob’s origin is uncertain, the species seems to have evolved in the eastern Mediterranean and wild plants would have been available to foragers well before agriculture arose in the region. The plant geneticist Daniel Zohary believed that carob was domesticated late, perhaps only in Roman times, but that it spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean region once people learned how to propagate the trees. Remains of horny pods were found in the 1st century ruins of Pompeii (Zohary, 2002), where carob trees perished alongside our noble friend Pliny the Elder. The University of Cyprus has recently embarked on a project called “Black Gold” to reinvigorate the island’s ancient tradition of carob cultivation and develop new food products from it. Right now, countries around the Mediterranean produce tens of metric tons of carob annually, and one Australian company has jumped into the market with an Aussie Sharkbar.
Carob powder is derived from the fruit wall, and this is what we will process for the recipes below. A less visible but incredibly common carob product appears on ingredient lists as “locust bean gum,” which comes from the gelatinous endosperm of the seeds. It is used to thicken cosmetics and almond milk and to keep crystals from forming in ice cream.
“Locust” is a common name for several of carob’s close relatives, hence the confusion, but I’m still puzzled by the marketing choice of “locust” over “carob” for a list of ingredients you might eat or rub into your face. Squeamishness over true six-legged locusts may underlie another common name for carob, “St. John’s bread.” His “meat was locusts and honey,” but surely John the Baptist subsisted on sweet tree pods and not icky arthropods.
In ancient Greece and Rome, dry carob seeds provided a standardized weight for jewelry, which we now call the carat. So if your own pirate’s code precludes stealing actual gold and gemstones, you can still fill your bandana with carats of a sort.
Becoming a carob pirate
First, I must state clearly that we Botanists in the Kitchen are committed to sustainable use of wild foods and do not endorse actual pirate behavior, including stealing carob beans from private property or taking anything from parks or forests where collecting is prohibited. The interests of others and the conservation status and abundance of any plant must always be considered.
Fortunately, taking a few handfuls of carob fruits before they hit the ground does not damage the trees or deprive anyone but slugs of a snack. Carobs are not native outside of the Mediterranean and anyhow they do not reproduce readily by seed, so you are unlikely to affect their propagation. And honestly, as much as I love them, publicly available carob pods are not in high demand. In fact, you may be doing your community a service by keeping them off the sidewalk. After all, the trees are planted for their foliage, not their fruits.
To collect carobs, you must first find them. The Friends of Urban Forests have collected a useful series of tree maps for many cities, including several where carobs grow. City streets, public parks, and college campuses are good places to look as well. Even without a map, if you have local carobs, you should have little trouble because carobs are among the easiest to spot once you have a search image. They brandish bold compound evergreen leaves with elliptical thick green to blue-green leaflets, about 1.5 inches (4 cm) across, arrayed in pairs along a red-tinged rachis.
Their trunks become rakishly knobby and gnarled with thick ribs running along their length. They often have low branches, making harvesting easy, and in mid-winter the black pods dangle in conspicuous clusters. Of course, during early winter flowering season you can always find them with your nose.
But there is a twist in the story. Not all carob trees make pods. Ceratonia siliqua is dioecious, with some individuals bearing only pistillate (“female”) flowers and others bearing only staminate (“male”) ones. And yes, female flowers smell just as bad as male flowers do. My favorite local tree, however, is one of the occasional hermaphrodites, whose flowers bear both pistils and stamens. It is plausible that humans selected for hermaphroditic individuals during domestication (Zohary, 2002), and that my local genotype reflects that history.
Each flower in a cluster is tiny and completely lacks petals. A set of short sepals is almost entirely hidden by a fat green gland that secretes odoriferous nectar to attract and reward insects. That offensive scented nectar seems gratuitous, however, because the flowers have several hallmarks of wind-pollination: highly reduced perianth (sepals and petals), well exposed anthers, and dioecy (separate male and female flowers). On the other hand, they lack other wind-pollination traits, most obviously a long and feathery stigma to capture wind-borne grains and numerous anthers tossing out buckets and buckets of pollen.
Attracting insects thus appears to be important, and one study reports that the flowers don’t make any fruit without wasps and flies to pollinate them (Arista et al., 1999). Unfortunately, it looks like we have to tolerate the raunchy smell to get to the treasure. Nobody ever said a pirate’s life was a bed of roses.
Although carob is often used as a chocolate substitute, and it does taste similar to cocoa, carob has a unique flavor profile that deserves to be taken on its own terms. The flavor can be enhanced by roasting the pods gently for about 10 or 15 minutes. Roasting also turns residual moisture in the fruits into steam, which swells the cavity inside so that the seeds come out more easily.
It’s more fun to make your own, but you can find commercial carob powder in many stores, and both powder and syrup can be found online.
Use about 5 pods per cup.
Roast pods in a toaster oven at a low temperature (about 250ºF or 120ºC) for 10-15 min until they swell up and blister slightly. Their high sugar content makes pods burn easily and deeply, so keep a watch on them and remove them quickly if they start to char.
Crack open the pods and remove all the seeds.
Grind the pods in a coffee or spice grinder to the consistency of ground coffee.
For rich flavor, I like to use about half a cup of ground carob in a 4-cup French press to yield two hefty mugs. Brew for about 15 mins.
Add heated or steamed milk to taste.
Use to sweeten tea or coffee or to make carob-peanut balls.
You will need about 8 pods and two cups of water for every tablespoon of syrup desired. Pods do not need to be roasted, but allowing them to dry out for a week reduces the tannins and yields a smoother flavor.
Rinse any dust from the pods. Remove “stems” (pedicels). Hand break the pods into 1-inch lengths or roll over them with a marble rolling pin or a thick-walled wine bottle to crack and crush them. Pirates can use a bottle of rum.
In a sauce pan, bring to a boil one cup of water for every 4 pods. Remove from heat, add the broken pods, cover and allow to steep for several hours, until the water is the color of iced tea.
Reheat the water and simmer the pods for another 30 mins, or until the liquid looks like breakfast tea or very weak coffee.
Remove the pods and continue to simmer the liquid extract until the depth of the water is about half an inch.
At this point, right before it is thick enough, the syrup can burn very easily. For the final reduction, either strain it into a small sauce pan and heat gently under constant vigilance, or strain it into a glass measuring cup and microwave it a few minutes at a time.
You will know it is ready when it has been reduced in volume to half a tablespoon per cup of starting liquid. It will thicken a bit when it cools, but will always be more like maple syrup than molasses. Refrigerate for storage.
Carob peanut balls
Peanuts and chocolate are a classic combination, but peanuts and carob really belong together, as they are in the same family. If you can’t make or find carob syrup, you can use clover honey instead and sort-of add a third member of the fabulous Fabaceae.
Roast and grind 2 or 3 carob pods, as described in the mocha recipe above, but continue to grind to make a very fine powder. Put the powder through the finest sieve you have to remove grainy bits. A gold filter for coffee or a very fine tea strainer works well. The leftover grainy bits can be steeped for tea.
Mix a tablespoon of powder with about a teaspoon of carob syrup (or a bit less honey).
In a coffee grinder or mini food processor, grind a half a cup of whole peanuts into smooth peanut butter. Add salt to taste. Add the powder and syrup mixture and blend to combine.
Allow the mixture to sit for an hour as the powder binds with the peanut butter.
Roll mixture into about a dozen small balls. Roll the balls in carob powder to coat them. You may need a second coat if they become sticky.
Arista, M., Ortiz, P. L., & Talavera, S. (1999). Apical pattern of fruit production in the racemes of Ceratonia siliqua (Leguminosae: Caesalpinioideae): role of pollinators. American journal of botany, 86(12), 1708-1716.
Custódio, L., Serra, H., Nogueira, J. M. F., Gonçalves, S., & Romano, A. (2006). Analysis of the volatiles emitted by whole flowers and isolated flower organs of the carob tree using HS-SPME-GC/MS. Journal of chemical ecology, 32(5), 929-942.
Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG) (2017). A new subfamily classification of the Leguminosae based on a taxonomically comprehensive phylogeny The Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG). Taxon, 66(1), 44-77.
Pliny the elder. The Natural History of Pliny, vol. 3, Chapter 16 (8), translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, 1855
Zohary, D. (2002). Domestication of the carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.). Israel journal of plant sciences, 50(sup1), 141-145.