Carob on its own merit

What’s not to like?

October 21, 2011

Let’s get something out of the way: Carob is absolutely not chocolate, nor is it fit to replace it. Shefali Kulkarni, in an article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review from 2006, calls it "the tofu of chocolate," and I can’t think of a more apt comparison.

Both carob and tofu have a reputation of being healthful and gross, neither of which is necessarily true of either substance. Both have been hyped as better alternatives to other foods — chocolate and meat, respectively — and neither creates a convincing imitation. Both were big in the 1970s and have since fallen out of favor.

Apart from agedashi tofu and the bizarre appeal of cold, raw tofu eaten right out of the container, I see little reason to rally to the defense of clammy, spongy bean curd. Carob, however, is another matter.

Carob gets a bad rap for being touted as a chocolate analogue, a dangerous proposition considering the militant devotion of chocoholics. As any one of them will tell you, there is no substitute for the real thing. Sure, carob has a deep, smooth flavor with a touch of acidity. This puts it in the same category as chocolate and coffee, much in the way that Dick Cheney, Michael Cera, and Muhammad Ali are all categorized as men.

Carob tastes completely different from chocolate and doesn’t have the same feel-good chemicals. I’m not saying carob is the Dick Cheney of chocolate. But taken on its own merit, which nobody does, carob is marvelous and intriguing, with a personality of its own.

Carob chips may look like chocolate chips, but don’t let that fool you.

Carob also gets a bad reputation by being abused by hippies who bake it into healthy “treats” involving too much wheat germ, whole-wheat flour, and even black beans, and not nearly enough heavy cream, egg whites, and butter. Carob was embraced by health foodies in the 1970s and 1980s, who proclaimed it to be lower in fat and higher in nutrients than junk-foody chocolate.

Of course, trends in nutrition change just as quickly as trends in fashion, and eventually people figured out that, mixed with fats and sugars and baked into cookies, carob isn’t much healthier than chocolate after all. While carob’s natural sweetness lets a cook use less refined sugar, baked goods containing chocolate and carob are essentially on par — and carob doesn’t make everything better when you have PMS.

We also learned that chocolate is actually good for you (antioxidants!), and that was the final nail in carob’s coffin of irrelevance. These days in the U.S., you typically see it only in natural-food stores, the graveyard of passé health trends. Next to the sunflower seeds and soy jerky in the bulk aisle, you may find carob peanut clusters. In the freezer aisle, you might discover carob-covered rice-cream sandwiches (which sound like something I made up for the purpose of this story, but they do exist, and I swear, don’t knock ‘em till you try ‘em). I have no idea who else eats this stuff, because everyone I know proclaims to hate carob. Yet somehow it remains in production.

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Perhaps because I grew up in Berkeley in the 1980s, I always ate and liked carob, and continued to do so here and there as an adult. But when I stopped eating chocolate was when carob and I really renewed our relationship.

That’s right, I don’t eat chocolate. Call the Times. A couple of years ago, I stopped drinking coffee because it turned me into a twitchy, high-strung sociopath, and I found that I was suddenly inordinately sensitive to trace amounts of caffeine and theobromine, the related substance that you find in chocolate.

If I was in "Mystery Men," this sensitivity would be my superpower. If I drank a cup of decaffeinated tea or ate a couple of Newman O’s, I’d be up all night. So I cut out decaf and chocolate, too, joining the ranks of white people with high-maintenance, self-imposed dietary restrictions.

It isn’t the terrifyingly big deal that people imagine. While I always enjoyed chocolate, I was never a chocolate person, the kind who moan erotically when they talk about it. I liked it because it was sweet, rich, and creamy. No chocolate? Fine. There are plenty of other sweet, rich, creamy things to devour. Cocoa-free white chocolate. Peanut butter. Carob.

Carob, a fleshy brown pod that grows on trees (often in pleasant neighborhoods of southern California, incidentally), originated in the Levant, and various Mediterranean peoples began cultivating it as soon as they could figure out how, probably in the first millennium B.C., according to the page-turner Domestication of Plants in the Old World, by Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf.

In Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, author Tamra Andrews tells us that this magical fruit shows up in the Bible and its various collections of side comments (the Mishnah, the Talmud, etc.), as well as in mythology both Mesopotamian and South American — carob somehow made it there, too. Jews eat it on Tu Bishvat (Tree Day), and Arabs drink carob juice during Ramadan. As the carob tree is an evergreen, and its fruit rich in vivifying carbohydrates, it has often served as a symbol of immortality, writes Andrews. It is sometimes called St. John’s bread, because he snacked on it when he was hanging out in the desert.

The Internet tells me that people in the Middle East make carob molasses by soaking carob in water and reducing the extraction. You mix it with tahini and eat it on toast. There is also something called pekmez, which as far as I can ascertain is the same thing in its Turkish iteration, sometimes made from carob, sometimes from other stuff, and taken as medicine. When the Bible talks about “honey,” it might really be carob molasses — for more on that subject, see Phyllis Glazer’s recent honey article in the Los Angeles Times, which also includes some good-looking recipes.

Like chocolate and coffee, carob is excellent in sweets. With a little tinkering to compensate for its unique sugar levels (high) and consistency (somewhere between chocolate and coffee on the melty-grainy continuum), it can be successfully plugged into many traditional recipes with excellent results. Deep in the vaults of the Multnomah County Library — so deep that a page had to be sent to retrieve it, which makes me think it wasn’t checked out since before the Atkins diet — I found a beautiful gem: The Complete Carob Cookbook, written by Kathy Collins and apparently published by her family way back in 1981.

The author explains, in dubiously uncited claims, carob’s purported health benefits (“better for diabetics and individuals with acne problems” than chocolate) and gives a few dozen ways to prepare it. This is my favorite kind of DIY cookbook, because rather than being sharply branded and marketed, it shows the author’s roots. It’s full of the health-foody techniques and values that were in vogue at the time of its publication, but also reveals the down-home way Kathy Collins must have grown up cooking.

Like the 1978 Betty Crocker cookbook, it is a product of its time. In that world, chocolate is evil, but trans fats are A-OK because nobody knows what they are yet. The cookbook has recipes for sunflower-wheat germ-carob “health cookies” and sun-cooked carob cake made with raisins and raw grains, but also carob Bavarian cream and carob Texas sheet cake.

Cohen’s rendition of carob mousse pie.

Before I read this book, I had never seen carob and Cool Whip in the same recipe. Both appear in Collins’ carob mousse pie, which I predictably couldn’t pass up. The result was a smooth, creamy slice that would seem normal at a suburban barbecue if you didn’t know what was in it, a great example of how carob can step out of the shadow of its reputation and shine as a legitimate, fresh flavor for conventional desserts.

Why should vanilla, chocolate, almond, and lemon have all the fun? Carob is unexpected, but no weirder or more assertive than root beer, a common dessert flavor that if you think about it is incredibly weird.

I also tried Collins’ carob pudding cake. Rich, dense, and dark with not a lot of dairy, this one shows off carob’s subtle bitter and citrusy notes. In the oven, the batter separates into two layers: a dense cake resting on a quarter-inch of pudding-like sauce, which you spoon over the top. I had never made a pudding cake before, and I thought it was amazing. (I am easily amused.) This recipe is very sweet and would be good paired with tart frozen yogurt or fruit.

I’m not done experimenting with carob. I want to try that Texas sheet cake, and it seems as if carob would also lend itself well to savory applications like mole, chile, meat stew, or Moroccan chicken with dried fruit. Maybe I’ll bring some pods with me on my next half-marathon.

Have you cooked or baked with carob? Do you love it or hate it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Just don’t try to tell me that it’s just like chocolate.

Related recipe: Carob Mousse Pie

There are 16 comments on this item
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1. by Rusty Wright on Oct 21, 2011 at 5:39 PM PDT

Instead of the name tofu, I prefer to use the name bean curd. Makes it even more gross sounding! (Even though I like tofu.)

2. by biobaker on Oct 21, 2011 at 11:15 PM PDT

I’m one of those women who moans erotically at the mention of chocolate, but I like carob, too. I’ve never much cared for chocolate in trail mix (beats me why), but carob chips are awesome. Riffing off my own 1960’s wheat-germy health food books, I also like to make vegan iron and B vitamin-loaded cookie balls, using carob powder and molasses and oats and wheat germ and such, which usually end up in the freezer as cookie dough balls because they taste so darn good unbaked. I learned the hard way, though, that trying to feed carob to most of my friends results in lots of “this tastes weird” comments and lots of leftovers for me.

3. by Alexis Muermann on Oct 22, 2011 at 4:21 PM PDT

I would love to get past my carob block. Can we call it something else? I was a fat kid in the late 70’s/early 80’s so while everyone else had their chocolate chip cookies, I had my sunflower/wheat germ/carob “treat”. A chocoholic from way back, carob, my mom said, was chocolate, but healthy! And healthy makes you lose weight! They were terrible, as were all of the other carob things she used to feed me. God bless her for trying to do the right thing, but just the name sends me running for the corner, my fist clamped around a bundle of Hershey bars.

4. by Melissa Gustafson on Oct 26, 2011 at 4:49 PM PDT

I LOVE carob! Always have. I like chocolate too, but chocolate has always seemed like dessert to me and carob seems more substantial, somehow. I make energy blobs (not really bar-shaped!) by combining carob chips, shredded coconut (unsweetened), and a bunch of whatever else I’m in the mood for (sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, nuts, oats, dried fruits, flax seed, etc.) with a Tbsp. or so of peanut butter or oil, and heating JUST until slightly melty/soft, then dropping big spoonfuls on waxed paper and letting it harden. Probably not low-calorie, that’s for sure, but they gave me SO much energy when I was breastfeeding and would get starving to death between meals!

5. by Linda Ziedrich on Oct 27, 2011 at 12:15 PM PDT

In the mid-1970s I lived for a year in Davis, California, where my favorite treat at the local ice-cream shop was carob-honey ice cream. I was a chocolate addict, but that didn’t matter. The carob-honey was simply wonderful.

6. by jenny on Dec 13, 2011 at 12:57 PM PST

I love teccorino beverages, which are marketed as non-caffeinated coffee alternatives. however, it still gives me a strange buzz so I wondered if anyone knows where this is coming from? carob is the main does smell and taste like chocolate to me but I am not a chocolate aficionado...

7. by Vickie Mackie on Mar 2, 2012 at 4:35 PM PST

I really love carob always have. My daughter has just had her first baby and is breast feeding. Her husband has chocolate snacks around the kitchen. She was feeling a bit cheated that she could no longer indulge in chcolate herself. But, Mom to the rescue with carob!!!!! She loves it and is safe for baby!

8. by Beth on May 6, 2012 at 8:09 PM PDT

When I was growing up my school would give out raw dried carob on Jewish Arbor Day. I’d like to have some again- does anyone know of a source for it around Portland?

9. by Mollie on Jul 12, 2012 at 4:27 PM PDT

In answer to Jenny’s question: the slight buzz is coming from theobromine.

10. by David on Dec 31, 2012 at 10:52 PM PST

I also grew up in Berkeley. When I was young, I would visit my grandmother in Los Angeles. She would always have carob milk ready for me when I got there. Back in the late 70’s they used to sell it in the super market. It was really good. You can’t buy it in the store any more, but it is easy to make. Milk, carob powder, and sugar. Yum!

11. by anonymous on Apr 25, 2013 at 1:27 PM PDT

Maybe it’s a Berkeley thing! I spent several years there during my childhood and came to love carob. I still eat chocolate and I agree with the author of this article that it’s not fair to compare the two beans.
Several years ago an Israeli friend introduced me to carob molasses mixed with tahini, spread on toast for breakfast. I frequently eat this along with a strong cup of coffee!

12. by Carola on May 9, 2013 at 3:04 AM PDT

I adore carob! I like chocolate, but love carob, and have since a child. Not sure it does anything for diabetes (I buy the unsweetened chips but if I eat too many, my blood sugar will rise in a way that it does not for, say, coconut butter), and, by the way, carob chips and coconut butter is a heavenly combination! Add a few toasted hazelnuts, and you are on your way to heaven. All the best!

13. by anonymous on Aug 19, 2013 at 4:28 AM PDT

We eat carob pods straight off the tree... they are so naturally full of sugar that you don’t really need to do anything to it, unless you want to. I think it tastes more chocolate like when I eat it in the pod like that... but watch out for the extra hard seeds, or you’ll break a tooth...(go on, ask me how I know!) But I think it’s great as is, and it does NOT compare to chocolate. Carob vs chocolate = chalk vs cheese

14. by anonymous on Aug 21, 2013 at 12:22 PM PDT

i cut sugar, coffee and chocolate in one fell swoop. now i use carob in lots of things. One recipe that we LOVE is “fooled ya chocolate mousse”
in a blender blend until smooth and creamy
-cream from the top of 1 chilled can coconut milk
-3 Tb carob
-3 Tb xylitol (or agave)
pinch salt
-dash vanilla
-1 perfect avacado :-)

add a little of the coconut milk from the can if it’s too thick. Put into 3 little bowls (makes 3 generous servings) chill for mousse eat right away for pudding.
I was a true chocoholic and have been converted. Much healthier and less jittery :) also losing weight without a ton of effort!

15. by anonymous on Mar 8, 2014 at 1:18 PM PST

It is very tolerable, and as long it is good for you, I`m for it.

16. by anonymous on Jun 5, 2014 at 10:23 PM PDT

I love carob, I would never ruin it by putting it with heavy cream and butter like you proclaim, yickk.. I have it in my cereal or in my banana smoothies. I’m pretty sure the people who buy this food who you are unaware of are health conscious vegans like me who don’t eat chocolate or other stimulant containing foods like coffee. Hi, we exist nice to meet you.

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Spaghetti on the Wall

Shoshanna Cohen is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. As a runner, hedonist, and culture geek, she is interested in food as fuel, as pleasure, and as language, sometimes all at once. Find her on Twitter (@shoshannac) or read her blogs about food and drinks (Socktails) and about running (Nice Shorts).

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