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The Radish: A History Rooted in Ancient Times

Words by
October 17, 2016
Imagine a time when vegetables were so cherished that they were cast in precious metals and showcased in temples, dedicated to (sometimes) faithful Gods. It sounds like any plant lover's dream, but in fact was a reality of ancient Greece, or so the story goes. Golden radishes, silver beets and lead turnips were offered to the god Apollo.

Root vegetables are easy to dismiss as the ugly step-sisters of more elegant veggies, like mesmerising Romanesco broccoli or Pantone inspired Rainbow Chard, but they hold their own in terms of flavour, variety and sophistication. There was a reason the radish was cast in gold, a reason we may not exactly know, but we can take it as a hint to pay respect to this oft-overlooked root.

Today the radish is more often celebrated for its easy and quick cultivation, but then ignored when it comes to inventive or consistent consumption. Any novice gardener knows just how easy it is to sow the seeds, wait a couple weeks, and pull up bunches of beautiful red, round, and perky bulbs. But often the novelty of their simple harvest wears off and the bulbous roots grow soggy while the luscious greens turn yellow, hidden in the back of the fridge. Because Europe is mostly accustomed to the petite spring and fall varieties, we are also in the habit of eating them raw where their spicy bite is best appreciated. However, to discount the many ways to consume the radish is as big of a mistake as thinking that the only radish available are small, rosy-red buttons we see on supermarket shelves.

If you’re impatient and stubborn, the radish could be your new best-growing buddy, as they are hard to kill, easy to seed and delicious to eat.”

Radishes are in fact more diverse than the average store might suggest. A member of the Brassicaceae family (with cabbage, mustard greens, and kale among many of their cousins) radish varieties range widely in size, shape and colour. What we see today of Raphanus sativus, the scientific classification of the colloquial radish, has been shaped over centuries by human selection from its original form native to western Asia. Popular are the ‘French Breakfast’ with their snowy white tip and pink gradients, or the typical ‘Cherry Belle’ with their bright red outside and stark white inner flesh. The ‘Giant of Sicily’ is an Italian heirloom that doesn’t come from Sicily at all, but rather Italy’s other island, Sardinia, and is known for a sweet, crisp taste. An unusual sight to behold is the ‘Black Spanish’ with a rough black skin, white flesh and either round or oblong shape. Perhaps even less common to the typical Western market are the Asian winter varieties that include the ‘Daikon’ and the ‘Chinese Red Meat,’ with the ’Daikon’ growing upwards of three kilos and pushing 25 cm in length!
illustration © Vibe Jakobsen
The radish family is varied not just in looks, but also tastes. Each distinct variety is suited for a different preparation. Larger more starchy varieties do well roasted or braised or made into stocks, while brighter and smaller varieties show more kick when eaten raw, but are equally delectable pickled, flash sauteed or grated into a satisfying slaw. What is commonly considered the spicy or pungent flavour of the radish is formed by an enzyme reaction that creates a volatile mustard oil. This spiciness is mostly concentrated in the skin so peeling will remove potency while cooking halts the enzyme reaction, tempering the strong flavour. The French are famous for serving up just-plucked radish with the greens still intact and dipping them into butter with a dash of salt for an enticing appetiser. Their greens, known to be bearers of vitamin A and C, and rich in calcium, are popular in soups or as spicy additions to salads. Fermented dishes like Nepal’s Gundruk soup made with radish leaves or India’s Sinki that utilises the root have been around for centuries.

Archaeological evidence suggests they were one of the first crops, alongside wheat, fava beans and peas, that early Europeans survived on. Additionally, it’s said that the radish itself was given to feed the labourers building the pyramids of Egypt. Even today in Oaxaca, Mexico, the tradition of showcasing the radish root continues on December 23 of each year. Shopkeepers carve elaborate scenes and designs from the root to attract customers to their stores for last minute Christmas shopping. A hotly contested competition, the history of this night and the celebration of the radish dates back about 1,000 years.

When it comes to radish consumption don’t be shy. Seek out a rare variety or check out what’s popular at your local market. If you’re impatient and stubborn, the radish could be your new best-growing buddy, as they are hard to kill, easy to seed and delicious to eat. While the fresh bite of a tender spring radish warrants little more than a dash of salt and maybe a dab of butter, we suggest throwing them in your favourite pickling mix to get a fermented treat that will do you well.