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In Germany, everybody knows that asparagus is "the king of vegetables", especially the white variety. When the season starts, there is an asparagus craze, spilling over to unexpected areas like fashion advertising. It costs more than the other vegetables at the supermarket - you seldom see it for less than 6 euro per kilogram - and yet people buy so much of it that late shoppers often only see the empty box under the price label. My coworkers grumble about "not enough variety" when the canteen has pork steaks two days in a row, but when there's asparagus, they can eat it everyday for a week. One of them doesn't ever touch vegetables unless they've spent time in a can, and is unhappy when he discovers that the canteen has smuggled fruit pieces in the dessert, but he happily eats the asparagus as a main dish.

A typical example of its celebration by the press: I opened chefkoch.de, a large source for user published recipes which also has editorial articles. Of course, there was a recent article about asparagus (happens every April in most culinary publications). It had the noble goal of reminding Germans that there is green asparagus too, not only white, and that the green one can be eaten in other ways beside boiled and combined with hollandaise (that's literally what it says). It starts with the words:

The spring is here and brough the universally loved asparagus time! Asparagus is the most liked of all vegetables and is rightfully called "royal vegetable".

And that's how about every asparagus article I've come across reads.

Don't get me wrong, I like asparagus. The flavor is almost too delicate to eat it as a main dish, but it has some interesting uses. But I've always wondered why it is supposed to be so much better than any other vegetable. Historically, it could make sense that it tastes better than the potatoes, turnips and cabbage which thrive in the German climate. But my generation has been raised on imported tomatoes, bell peppers and champignons. And given that it is much more sensitive to improper cooking techniques - and let's be honest, many housewives/husbands tend to overcook everything - the vast majority of people is probably eating asparagus which tastes far from the optimal. Add to that the "hollandaise" from the tetra pak, and it is really nothing special. Oh yes, nobody is ever thinking that you could have any variation with asparagus. It automatically means hollandaise (or an imitation of it). Often, there is some ham with that, too.

I was wondering if this cult of the asparagus is common to other cuisines, or a typical German phenomenon. Also, are there any proven reasons for its enormous popularity? (It would be nice if you could support them with evidence).

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+1 for a fascinating question. I live in the US, and was never exposed to the white variety of asparagus until I traveled to Europe. (Not that I ever sought asparagus out; I loathe the taste.) I've since noticed the white variety in a few specialty shops, but no one goes crazy over it as you describe. And the common green variety is just treated like any other vegetable. –  Aaron Apr 12 '11 at 22:39
    
In the last month I've seen white Asparagus in Wholefoods and Shaws in Massachusetts and Wholefoods in NYC, so I would say it's not that obscure. –  Marcin Apr 13 '11 at 9:37
    
Actually, in a town I lived in they have an Asparagus Festival every year. –  duchessofstokesay Apr 13 '11 at 10:38
    
Wikipedia's article on Asparagus has a section devoted just to it's popularity in Germany and the Low Countries, so it does appear to be a thing specific to that area. That's not to say it's not popular elsewhere, but I don't think people go kranken for it like they appear to in Deutschland! I like it simply pan fried with cherry tomatoes, rosemary and a couple of smacked garlic gloves. –  ElendilTheTall Apr 13 '11 at 11:06
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“In Germany, everybody knows …” – well, I for one didn’t. What about truffles (perhaps not really a vegetable)? Then again, I’ve never particularly liked white asparagus. –  Konrad Rudolph Apr 13 '11 at 12:32
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4 Answers

Don't really like to define one vegtable as better than another, but Asparagus has always had a reputation as a luxury item. A combination of the expense of producing it (You cannot get a high yield, plus it takes a number of years to develop a productive asparagus bed) and a relatively short season (At least in the UK) meant it would be a rare treat for most people. Of course now with it imported from all round the world, it is much less so.

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Asparagus is delicious! In North America it is certainly not the phenomenon that it is in parts of Europe, but its popularity is on the rise (I worked in a grocery store for many years....). We have only been getting the white variety (which is just the green variety grown with soil mounded over it so it is never exposed to sunlight) for the last few years. North American palettes are finally starting to move past meat and potatoes (not that there is anything wrong with meat and potatoes, mind you).

I certainly recognize it as the best vegetable. I have found that people that say they don't like the taste (like my wife) are quickly converted once they get to taste it properly prepared (and not cooked too hell and back).

Sorry for the double post. Meant to edit the original, not sure why it went double.

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I've never heard of asparagus being "the king of vegetables". This article (and the articles that preceded it) may cast some light on why asparagus is not so commonly eaten. According to the article, "This allergy is well-known in Germany, especially when dealing with young asparagus shoots."

Here is a quote from the first article in the series: "Now when some of us eat asparagus, shortly afterwards our urine smells very stinky, something like rotten or boiled cabbage, or even ammonia. But not all of us can generate, or make, this odour. Now here's something surprising. Not everybody can detect, or smell, this odour."

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I certainly don't know why asparagus is so beloved in Germany, but here in Croatia it's one of the less used vegetables so it's definitely not a global phenomenon. I suspect it has to do with culture and what grows best in certain cultures.

To give another example, I guess that most people in Italy would call tomato a king of vegetables, if it were a vegetable (curiously, it's a fruit). It's the ultimate Mediterranean ingredient; I cannot find it, but some time ago I read an article on how it's actually even healthier when cooked and combined with olive oil.

Wikipedia mentions that eggplant is referred to as the "king of vegetables" in India. In my country old people sometimes call eggplant "a poor man's meat." However, this is not as known to younger generations which take eating meat almost every day for granted, while our grandparents lived in a culture where not a lot of people could afford meat more than once or twice a week.

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