Dig Up Great Taste

Roots and rhizomes provide flavor, medicine and more, from the ground up.

| December/January 2003

  • The warm bite of galangal (Alpinia galanga) commonly flavors Thai recipes. Photo by Steven Foster.

  • Bitters, such as turmeric, are the offshoots of ancient medicinal elixirs, forerunners of our present-day liqueurs.

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.

Hot Roots and Rhizomes

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.

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