Roots and rhizomes provide flavor, medicine and more, from the ground up.
The warm bite of galangal (Alpinia galanga) commonly flavors Thai recipes. Photo by Steven Foster.
Long before humans evolved from gatherers of food to growers of food, roots and rhizomes were vital for sustenance. Paleobotanists and anthropologists have noted that ancient cultures of Asia, as well as Africa, probably used more roots and rhizomes than those on other continents. In China, through historical cycles of feast or famine dating back to 1000 B.C., people have depended on a long list of plants for food and medicine. They not only used the flowers, leaves, seeds and barks, but also the roots and rhizomes, as they still do today.
In addition to providing food and medicine, roots and rhizomes had tremendous value in commerce, carried long ago by camel to new markets along the Silk and Spice Road of ancient Asia. They are still a part of commerce today, moving faster than camel speed.
And while both are useful, it’s important to point out that roots and rhizomes are botanically different. A rhizome is like a root but is actually a specialized stem characteristic of some plants growing horizontally in the ground, producing shoots above and roots below. A root is the underground part of a plant serving to absorb moisture and nutrients while anchoring the plant. It has no nodes, buds or leaves.
Roots and rhizomes that have added spice to Asian life for centuries include many with hot flavors. Herbs such as ginger, galangal, horseradish and wasabi provide tingle and bite, and once the burning sensation subsides, they make food taste sensational. That tingle also contributes to their medicinal value. Ginger and horseradish, for example, are used in preparations for muscular and joint soreness; acting as an irritant on the skin, they increase blood circulation and promote healing. Ginger is also well known for its use in calming stomach upset.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale), that tongue-tingling flavor we know from gingersnap cookies and ginger ale, plays an important role in the popular cuisines of Asia, as does galangal (Alpinia galanga), a lesser-known first cousin.
The aroma and taste of fresh ginger is sharp, with a hint of lemon. Slices of fresh ginger are added to marinades, grated or minced for meat or vegetable braising and shredded for stir-fried dishes. Ginger is used fresh, pickled, dried, powdered, candied and preserved in appetizers and savory dishes, as well as desserts. It is popular with fish, shellfish, poultry, beef and pork recipes. Rice and noodle dishes can depend on ginger to lift them from the mundane.
When you buy a “hand” of fresh ginger, you often have more than you need for that special dessert or stir-fry planned for dinner. Don’t discard the leftover. It doesn’t freeze or dry well, but in our kitchen, any leftover fresh ginger is peeled and thinly sliced into a glass container, then covered with dry sherry and stored in the refrigerator. We lift out the slices with a slotted spoon and mince or sliver them for dishes calling for fresh ginger, and we also use the ginger-infused sherry. A spoonful of the ginger sherry does wonders for a nondescript chop or slices of leftover roast. Ginger extract is used commercially inteas, cordials, soft drinks, chutneys, relishes and confectioneries. It also is used effectively as an aid for motion sickness, either as a tea or as ginger tablets and capsules available at most pharmacies.
Galangal grows prominently throughout Southeast Asia and is popular in Thai recipes. The flavor is slightly different from ginger, but with a similar warming bite to it. In contrast to ginger, the galangal rhizome is white-fleshed with a smooth, glossy skin.The powdered form of galangal has a slightly more intense flavor to it. Fresh and powdered galangal are available in Asian supermarkets.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a relatively common condiment on today’s table. The root can be grated and used alone or with the addition of apple and served as a condiment, or with vinegar and cream to accompany roast beef, cold chicken or hard-boiled eggs. In the United States, prepared horseradish is added to red cocktail sauce for shrimp and other shellfish, as well as in the famous Louisiana remoulade sauce. In Eastern Europe, horseradish is often mixed with beets as an accompaniment to meats. A dollop of horseradish and cream often crowns a bowl of borsch. Should you want to grate or blend your own sinus-opening horseradish root, take caution with the fumes; do it outside or open all the windows. This pungent stimulant herb is said to have antibacterial properties. When used as a poultice, it irritates the skin and improves circulation to help promote healing.
In Japan, wasabi (Wasabia japonica), also called mountain hollyhock, grows along the edges of cold mountain streams. Though sometimes known as Japanese horseradish because of its nose-clearing aroma and biting taste, it is not related to Western horseradish. The brownish-green skin of the rhizome is removed and the pale-green flesh finely grated. Fresh wasabi is seldom available outside Japan, but small containers of powder or tubes of paste are readily available in Asian markets, ethnic markets and possibly in your local grocer’s Asian foods department. (Check the label to make sure it is wasabi and not a horseradish/mustard combination.) Wasabi in some form accompanies most raw fish dishes in Japan. Sashimi plates are garnished with a tiny mound of grated wasabi or wasabi paste, which the diner mixes to taste with soy sauce. Sushi is assembled with a dab of wasabi paste spread between the rice and fish.
Folklore has long held that bitter food or drink stimulates the appetite and is good for liver function. That theory gave rise to a group of drinks called bitters or digestives. They are prepared with the aromatic essences of barks, roots, stems or seeds with a leafy herb infusion incorporated into an alcohol base. Bitters are the offshoots of ancient medicinal elixirs, forerunners of our present day liqueurs.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and chicory (Cichorium intybus) are two bitter roots said to stimulate liver function. The roasted roots of dandelion are ground as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee. Both leaves and roots are used as flavoring in cordials, beers and soft drinks. Chicory roots are also harvested for coffee, particularly in France. Early settlers brought it to Louisiana, where it became an honored tradition. The roots have a slightly bitter, caramel flavor when roasted and are used in extracts.
All parts of angelica (Angelica archangelica) are used, including the roots, to flavor ice creams, confectionery, cordials, vermouth, vodka and liqueurs. It gives the characteristic sweet flavor to Benedictine liqueur, a 16th-century liqueur named after the Benedictine monks who created it. Originally called an elixir, Benedictine was said to possess healing powers.
Roots of licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) yield a flavor most people associate with black, chewy, braided candy called licorice whips (although that flavor is actually extracted from other plants). In addition to confectionery uses, licorice is used in making the famous Irish ale Guinness and as a flavoring in the Italian liqueur Sambuco. The strong smell and taste of licorice is sometimes used to disguise unpalatable flavors in medicines.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) leaves are known as Chinese parsley, Arabic parsley and by the Spanish/Mexican name, cilantro. Yet many herb growers are not aware the roots are an important ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially Thai cooking. They are used in green curry pastes, soups and stews. The strong-flavored roots are also used in certain areas of Mexico, also in soups and stews. Coriander has been used both as a flavoring and as a medicinal plant since ancient times.
The roots of asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida) are called devil’s dung and contain a strong sulphurous resin that exudes when the root is harvested and cut. When dried, the resin is ground and used in very small amounts with vegetables, sauces and pickles in the cuisines of Northern India, Iran and Afghanistan. The resin is considered to have the foulest odor of any herb, but its sulphurous smell disappears when the powdered resin is heated in oil. The oil then takes on an onion- or garlic-like flavor. In India, it is popular with the Brahmin and Jain castes where the use of onions and garlic are prohibited. Asafoetida is one of many ingredients in Worcestershire sauce.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been used as a qi (vital essence) tonic in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The bittersweet roots are eaten raw, fried, candied or added to tonic soups and other dishes. Roots of ginseng aged in spirits are taken as an elixir. Ginseng, believed to improve resistance to stress, is found in food supplements, soft drinks, herb teas and chewing gum.
Chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis), commonly called dong quai, has the same bittersweet flavor of ginseng but is used primarily as a tonic herb. It is said to have some antibacterial activity. For instance, chicken soup cooked with dong quai is a popular Chinese folk medicine after childbirth. Other roots and rhizomes are used in soups and stews for their medicinal benefits in Chinese and other Asian cultures.
Select 6 to 8 perfect heads of garlic with no mold on bottoms. Break off loose skins but don’t peel or separate cloves. Rub heads generously with olive oil. Place in a small skillet or ovenproof pan and arrange small sprigs of bay, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme around garlic. Add white wine or chicken broth to a depth of halfway up garlic heads. Cover and cook over low heat on top of stove if using skillet; or cover and bake in 350-degree oven until very soft and cloves can be easily pressed. Baste often, adding more wine as necessary. Use immediately or freeze until ready to use. Roasted garlic is delicious spread on crusty bread or used along with juices in salad dressings, pesto, sauces, meats and vegetables.
After roasting, the cooked garlic heads should be very soft and easily mashed or pureed when ready. To puree, squeeze garlic out of skins and press with a heavy knife. It’s not necessary to blend or chop in a processor. If you come across a hard portion, chop it a bit with the knife.
Growing rhizomes is easy and rewarding. Ginger, galangal and turmeric rhizomes can be found in Asian or other ethnic markets in the larger cities, or they are available from specialty plant catalogs. In Zone 8 and higher, the whole rhizome can be planted several inches deep in a fast-draining, shady spot in the garden with some shade. Heavily mulched, they start growing when the ground warms in the spring. A small indentation on the skin indicates an “eye” from which the new growth emerges.
To grow in containers, fill a 10- to 12-inch pot with a moist planting mix. Cut large rhizomes into smaller pieces. Smaller rhizomes, such as turmeric, need not be cut. Place two or three pieces, or a single rhizome, horizontally on the top of moist soil, barely covering with soil; water well. As leaves emerge, more soil may be needed. Do not overwater. Too much water may cause rhizomes to rot even after sprouting. Place the container in a shady place during summer months. It may be kept in the home, garage or basement during cold winter months. Pot-grown rhizomes are less apt to blossom than those grown in the garden, but many have stunning foliage.
There are two ways to harvest rhizomes. One method is to dig into the soil and find a rhizome; cut or break off a piece. The other method is to repot the plant and separate the rhizomes. It likely will need a larger container by that time. If plants are kept in the home, they will do better in a cooler part of the house. These plants like warm air, but they need humidity. They originate from warm, humid areas.
Roots, such as horseradish, are generally grown in the garden. To harvest the horseradish root, it must be dug or pulled up. Replant any root not needed for the kitchen.
Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a mother/daughter team who live, garden and cook at the Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas, where Madalene serves as the curator of the gardens and Gwen is the director of food service.
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