When I first came to Brazil in 2005 I had never heard about hearts of palm. My husband was quick to introduce me and I immediately fell in love with them. Hearts of palm are mild in flavor, tender, and perfect in salads, pies, or with pasta. Hearts of palm are considered a delicacy because of the labor intensive process of harvesting them. You can find them in almost any supermarket in the USA and if you haven’t tried them before I highly recommend running to your local supermarket, grabbing a jar, and adding them to your salad for lunch or dinner. I can never get enough of hearts of palm and use any excuse to add them to a dish. But, what exactly are hearts of palm?
Simply put, hearts of palm are the inner core and growing bud of the palm tree. The stem of the palm tree is harvested and the bark is removed leaving a layer of white fiber around the central core. This fiber is removed leaving the center core of the heart of palm which is eaten. The fresh hearts of palm tend to be crisp and crunchy whereas the canned hearts of palm lose their crunchiness and are much softer.
Here is a great video showing the whole process of harvesting to packaging the hearts of palm.
There are various varieties of palm trees that the heart of palm is harvested from, this includes the palmito juçara, açaí palm, sabal palm, and the pejibaye. The palmito juçara used to be the most popular uncultivated (wild) palm tree that was harvested for the heart of palm. Brazil was the largest producer of this heart of palm variety until the 1990’s when there was a lot of poaching for these popular stems which resulted in the threatened extinction of the wild palmito juçara. Today Ecuador is one of the highest producers of hearts of palms together with Costa Rica. The majority of hearts of palms that you find in the supermarket now are from domesticated (farmed) palm trees.
When the stem of the palm is harvested for the inner core the palm tree dies. The most common palm trees have only one stem and when it is cut the tree has nothing remaining to keep it alive. It is because of the single stemmed palm trees that palm trees with multiple stems, such as the sabal palm and the pejibaye, were domesticated (farmed) so as to prevent the killing of the palm tree when its stems were cut for the inner core. Today, most hearts of palms come from large farms which harvest the inner core of the palm from a tree that can have up to 40 stems. The multiple stems of the domesticated palm trees prevents the killing of the tree and harvesting hearts of palm becomes much more sustainable.
In Brazil hearts of palms are called palmito. In English there are several different names, some of which I had never heard of: hearts of palm, peach palm, burglars thigh, and swamp cabbage (not sure where burglars thigh comes from, anyone know?). Hearts of palm can be used in so many different ways, my favorite ways to eat hearts of palm is to slice them and add to a salad, cut in half and stand them on a plate and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt, or to make a pie like this torta de palmito!