I Tried TikTok’s Grilled Sunflower Development And It’s Truly Actually Good

It’s important to know that I get most of my food trend news from TikTok. So when a few weeks ago, I started seeing videos of people chowing into sunflower heads, corn on the cob-style, I was intrigued. Farmers and homesteaders were snipping the weighty heads of their tall sunflowers growing in the gardens, peeling the leaves away and drenching it in olive oil, salt and spices before placing them face down on a grill. Fifteen minutes later? Snack time.

I instantly fell into an Internet wormhole, digging for where this trend came from. Was there a culture who has been doing this for centuries or is this something that TikTok has done?

The earliest mention of a grilled sunflower head that I could find was from a restaurant called Apteka in Pittsburgh. This vegetable-forward spot had the dish as a special in 2018, coincidentally right before Andrew Zimmern visited. But the idea of eating the head of a sunflower goes back to the chef’s roots.

“I grew up in Poland,” said Tomasz Skowronski, the chef behind the flower dish. “In the countryside, it’s really common to see people eating whole heads of sunflower that are fully mature. Kids will be sitting on a fence picking and eating it, or you’ll have guys drinking a beer and eating it.”

“I always really loved that,” he continued. “I thought it was so striking and beautiful, and I never really saw it in the United States.” He started playing around with the idea of serving something that represented that memory in the restaurant. He wanted to make it in a way that avoided having to spit out the tough and hard seeds.

“We figured out a time period that lended [the sunflowers] to being eaten more easily.” To do this, they had farms harvest the sunflowers earlier when the seeds are softer. “Once we realized we didn’t have to spit anything out, we cracked the code.” And when Andrew Zimmern dropped his episode, the idea of grilled sunflower heads went viral.

Fast forward to late summer of 2020: Jenna Asher, a chef for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, was experimenting with foraged and Indigenous foods. “I had been looking into some different things that the Indigenous people in this area had used for food and was just trying to think outside the box,” she said. “I was looking at a sunflower wondering how earlier people might’ve prepared it.”

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Asher couldn’t find any research that showed Indigenous people ate sunflowers in this way (and neither could I), but the idea of eating the seeds before they were mature intrigued her. She posted a video to the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Facebook page with a recipe, and it went viral. Emmymade, a popular Youtuber, recreated the recipe and eventually, the trend moved to TikTok, where I discovered it.

One of the first videos I saw was from Redleaf Ranch. “I started seeing a few videos pop up with people grilling sunflowers as I was growing this really big variety called the Mongolian,” said Brian Brigantti, who runs the Tennessee-based farm and TikTok account. “I thought I’d give it a try myself.” That video is now one of his most popular with more than 25 million views.

“A lot of people were really intrigued with the whole process. The actual taste of it was so interesting,” he continued. “I’ve never had a sunflower like that. When you have the seeds so young, they get a really nice crisp to them but are still really soft. They kind of pop in your mouth.”

Naturally, I had to try it. I reached out to a local flower farmer in my area (shout out to Backyard Blooms!) who hooked me up with some panache sunflower heads. I started by drenching them in olive oil and seasoning them with sea salt. On a grill set to 400 degrees, I put them face down, closed the lid, and let them cook until soft and a little charred, about 15 minutes.

I pulled them off, topped them off with more olive oil, salt, red pepper flakes, thyme and honey. Then I dug in with a fork. If I had to compare it to other vegetables it would be the texture of corn on the cob with the taste of an artichoke mixed with an eggplant.

The cool thing I’ve seen is that all the influencers, restaurants and farms making this dish are doing it in different ways. Brigantti used oil, salt, pepper, thyme and paprika. Asher used the oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes and topped it with basil, seasoning and sun dried tomatoes. A few visitors from Waimanalo Country Farms in Hawaii posted about their sunflower-eating experience on TikTok too. They grill ’em, then drench in garlic butter and Parmesan.

“Every single person had that same exact reaction like ‘What? You can eat that?’” Shawn Kadooka, one of the owners, told me. “They see us picking them in the field and then at the next station [where they are served]. It’s the whole process.”

But Skowronski from Apteka goes full fancy restaurant-style. Although the dish is always changing, their current recipe sounds out of this world: Dehydrated cabbage, porcini mushroom and golden beets are pulverized into a powder with dried sunflower petals, salt and pepper. The head is brushed with sunflower oil, sprinkled with salt, wrapped in aluminum foil and roasted for 20 minutes. Then, it’s grilled for a bit of char and smoke and dusted with the spice mixture. It’s served alongside a garlic yogurt sauce and parsley gremolata.

Each person I spoke with said the flavor of grilled sunflowers tasted like some iteration of corn on the cob meets artichoke, but Skowronski put sunflower into its own category altogether.

“It’s kind of hard to pin down the flavor,” he said. “There’s definitely a corniness. But the flavors are pervasive and slightly nutty. That waxiness is hard to ignore and is what’s unique about a sunflower. I don’t forget the fact that this is a sunflower that I’m eating.”

When I cooked it, my whole family was skeptical at first—but no one could keep their forks out of it, ripping out the soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside seeds from the stem. It is something I would try again as it’s a vegetable (or flower?) that absorbs and takes on the flavor of whatever you season it with. Marinating it, dusting in a spice mix or making a savory sauce are all ways to amp up the flavor.

It just makes me wonder, what foodie trends with a history will TikTok resurface next?

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