The other day I made a new friend—a short, ruddy-complected individual with a pointed head and a feisty nature. No, I’m not referring to Agatha Christie’s little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, but a head of Radicchio di ‘Treviso’. An offspring of the famous chicory (Cichorium intybus) plant, radicchio is one of many characters arising from this deceptively humble roadside weed—a group that also includes the cream-colored endive, another prime salad ingredient. Chicory is a winner, from its whimsical sky-blue blossoms right down to its sturdy roots, which are used as a rich coffee substitute. Complex and exciting, and hoarding some intriguing medicinals, chicory truly is the stuff of great adventures.
And yes, there’s even a Belgian in this story. A long time ago, a Belgian farmer grew chicory for its root (the root is a centuries-old coffee substitute in Europe). He put some of these roots into soft soil in a dark shed and then forgot about them. Three weeks later, the roots had sprouted tight little heads of cream-colored leaves, and voilà—the Belgian endive was born. It soon became a favorite, which we still enjoy today.
Believe it or not, the pale Belgian endive and the vibrant red-headed radicchio come from the same chicory species, Cichorium intybus. There are at least 40 varieties of this species. The Italians take credit for radicchio, or red Italian chicory, branding them with their locales of origin. For example, ‘Treviso’ is a pointy-leafed red variety from that region, which resembles endive in shape, while ‘Verona’ and ‘Palla Rossa’ are round-headed red radicchios. A related chicory species, Cichorium endivia, produces escarole, which comes in large heads of broad- and curly-leafed greens.
All chicories are bitter, some more than others, depending on the variety and local growing conditions. The other day I was extolling the virtues of chicory to my hairdresser and, somewhat puzzled, she asked, “If it’s bitter, why would anyone eat it?” True, one doesn’t intuitively put bitter things into one’s mouth, but that is where the delicious principle of food contrasts comes in: Bitters like chicory are perfect foils for other flavors. Bitter herbs also aid digestion and help cleanse the body. Blend chicory with other greens, citrus fruits, berries and a tangy-sweet dressing for your salad, and you have the ultimate way to kick things up a notch.
When buying fresh salad chicories, look for compact heads with crispy, unblackened leaves. Refrigerate in an aerated bag or crisper, and eat within a couple of days, as chicory greens spoil quickly.
Substitute Chicory for Coffee
Salads aren’t the only way to enjoy chicory. A steaming mug of roasted, ground chicory root could be called “the Uncoffee.” Europeans have been substituting caffeine-free chicory for coffee since the 1700s. Back then it was much cheaper than coffee and, fortuitously, also good for the digestion. Chicory still can be economical—it is two to three times more soluble in water than coffee is, so less chicory can be used. Nowadays, chicory is frequently included in fancy coffee blends and herbal coffees, or used on its own. Coffee with chicory has been a favorite in New Orleans for more than 200 years. The city’s famous café au lait is made with rich roasted black coffee, chicory and boiled milk. Sometimes roasted chicory is combined with other herbs, such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). One popular detoxifying blend contains dandelion root, chicory root, rye, beet root and barley. Herbal coffees are brewed just like regular coffee. And whereas caffeine devotees may not flock to herbal coffees, even a small amount of chicory in their morning java may be a rewarding perk. Chicory root is used in other beverages, too, including appetite improvement teas (although an appetite booster is the last thing many of us need!).
Chicory Detoxifies and Heals
Need further enticement to try chicory? Consider this: Not only is it a recognized digestive bitter herb and detoxifier, but chicory might help protect your liver, encourage beneficial colonic bacteria, possibly regulate a rapid heartbeat and help fight specific diseases, such as malaria and leukemia.
Bitter herbs like chicory are remarkable detoxifiers. Chicory contains antioxidants that search out toxic, tissue-frying oxygen radicals in the body. For example, cichoric acid—a polyphenol in chicory leaves—acts as a sunscreen and also helps stimulate the immune system. Some Mediterranean peoples have traditionally obtained many of their dietary antioxidants by eating wild greens, such as chicory. Red-leafed chicories—especially in their early stages of growth—tend to be richest in antioxidants. Pale Belgian endive is less endowed, squeaking by with as little as 20 percent the antioxidant value of the more colorful chicories. In Europe, chicory leaves are lightly breaded and fried or cooked into rich sauces, but cooking depletes antioxidants, so it’s preferable to eat the foliage fresh and unfettered.
Some bitter compounds are great digestive system supporters, and chicory is rich in good bitters. Bitter plants, such as chicory and dandelion, help detoxify the liver and tune up the digestive organs in general. Chicory is one of seven plants included in the over-the-counter herbal supplement Liv.52 (made by Himalaya USA), a liver-supporting medicine that’s been around for more than 50 years. A recent six-month human clinical study (randomized, double-blind) reported in Phytomedicine showed that Liv.52 was more effective than a placebo in protecting liver cells from cirrhosis damage; this effect was attributed to the diuretic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immunomodulating properties of the component herbs.
I was intrigued to learn that even the chicory flowers—those sky-blue beauties that appear in mid-summer—are no slouches when it comes to medicinals. These daisy-like blossoms contain liver-protecting esculetin. The seeds might be the best part, according to an animal study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology that suggests extracts might heal liver cell damage as well as the standard herbal drug silymarin (the active ingredient in milk thistle).
In the future, we can expect to hear more about the benefits of chicory. Some of these will come from studying traditional usage more closely. For instance, folkloric reports from Afghanistan tell us that water extracts of the root were a remedy for malaria—not surprising, considering chicory contains two bitter compounds, lactucin and lactucopicrin, now known to have anti-malarial activity. Another bitter substance, magnolialide, is found in the leaves, and it appears able to redirect human leukemia cells back to normal growth. One day, chicory might even be used to correct heart irregularities, as root extracts apparently slow the pulse. (Lactucin and lactucopicrin are sedatives that act on the central nervous system, which might contribute to this action.)
Today, chicory roots are a major commercial source of inulin, a water-soluble starch that feeds beneficial bacteria (bifidobacteria) in the digestive tract and also serves as a dietary fiber. Inulin boosts bifidobacterial numbers in the colon, especially in individuals who have low counts. Bifidobacteria help us absorb nutrients, possibly by producing vitamins and digestive enzymes, and by creating a more acidic environment that helps calcium and magnesium uptake, thus encouraging stronger bones. In a study of young girls, inulin supplementation increased calcium absorption by more than 30 percent over the course of several weeks in girls with low initial calcium absorption.
As a dietary fiber, inulin might reduce the risk of colon cancer, partly from bulk cleansing and detoxification and partly by suppressing tumor cell survival. A study reported in the British Journal of Nutrition found that fermentation products from inulin thwarted cancerous cell growth, initiation and spread.
Many common foods, including wheat, bananas, onions and garlic, contain inulin and related starches, but chicory (and Jerusalem artichoke) contains relatively high amounts. An additional benefit of inulin is that it also is sweet-tasting without adversely affecting blood sugar levels, so it is used by many diabetics as a sweetener. You can buy chicory inulin extracts, usually in powder form. Brand examples are Chicolin and Fiberrific. In addition, you can purchase yogurts and other foods that contain inulin. These foods are called “prebiotic” because they create the conditions conducive for growth of digestive bacteria.
When we consider chicory—its many benefits, as well as its varied forms—it’s mind-boggling that so many different products come from this one species. I have gained a new respect for this roadside weed—this mystery of the plant world. I’m also heading out to buy my first packet of chicory coffee.
— Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Catnip and Kerosene Grass: What Plants Teach Us About Life (www.CandlenutBooks.com).
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