The history of the horseradish plant (Armoracia rustica), its nutrition, medicinal and culinary uses.
Horseradish sauce is synonymous with the traditional British, Sunday roast dinner and the cooked leaves, as herbs, are historically associated with the Jewish festival of Passover. Yet before the 17th century this herb was primarily valued for its medicinal properties, and wasn’t generally considered as either a culinary herb, spice or vegetable.
Horseradish is a perennial plant thought to have originated from east and southeastern Europe, although some experts claim the herb hails from western Asia. Evidence suggests this old world herb may have been used medicinally by the ancient Greeks. Horseradish leaves and or root are one of the five herbs, and an intrinsic part, of the Passover Seder Plate, known as Maror, meaning ‘bitter’ in Hebrew. The herb symbolizes the harshness which the Jews endured in Ancient Egypt, according to the book of Exodus ( “with bitter herbs they shall eat it” (Exodus 12:8).
Up until medieval times horseradish root was a traditional folk remedy for a wide variety of ailments including, toothache, venereal disease, cancer, worms and asthma. A mixture of horseradish and white vinegar was even recommended for removing freckles, although applying horseradish to the skin actually causes an allergic reaction in some people. The English botanist and physician Nicholas Culpeper said of the herb, “if bruised and laid to part grieved with sciatica, gout or joint ache, it doth wonderfully help them all”.
The tradition of eating horseradish probably started in central Europe and Germany, then later spread to Scandinavia and England. The idea of the herb as food was no doubt made popular in the English speaking world by the Cheshire born herbalist John Gerard in his “Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes“, published in 1597. The book was basically a translation of an earlier botanical work by the Flemish Physician Rembert Dodeons. Gerard’s entry for horseradish reads; “the horseradish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eate fish with and such like meates as we do mustarde”.
by the 17th century horseradish sauce and pickled horseradish root had became a popular condiment in England, France and the American Colonies. As an added benefit, horseradish is also high in vitamin C so it was often taken on voyages by English and German sailors to prevent scurvy. Incidentally, the English word horseradish evolved over time from the German ‘meerrettich’, meaning “sea radish”. Not a reference to the herbs scurvy preventing properties, but to the incorrect notion that horseradish mostly grew near the sea. Horseradish is from the mustard or Brassicaceae botanical family and is also known as redcote, stingnose and German mustard.
Culinary Uses: Horseradish makes an excellent condiment that rivals mustard, although it is not recommended to cook the root. This plant is best known for its spicy, pungent root, but its leaves are also used. The roots should first be washed, cleaned and scraped (or peeled) of their rough, wrinkled skin. Underneath is a creamy white flesh which is usually grated, diced, sliced or julienned. Like potatoes, horseradish flesh turns dark with exposure to air and its flavor becomes bitter, so it should be tossed with lemon juice or vinegar immediately. Also, some cooks recommend to use a stainless-steel grater.
To prepare horseradish sauce combine grated horseradish with white wine vinegar (cider vinegar may fade the color), a little sugar, spices and cream. Yogurt and mayonnaise are also sometimes used instead of cream. Aside from roast beef, the sauce is good with seafood, smoked fish (particularly mackerel), cured meats and vegetable such as broccoli. It is also used spice up to cocktail sauces and bloody Marys. Just like the leaves of other cruciferous vegetable such as cabbage, turnip and mustard, horseradish leaves, which have an aromatic horseradish flavor, are eaten raw in salads or cooked like leafy vegetables.
Nutrition: Horseradish, botanical name Armoracia rustica is a better source of vitamin C than either oranges or lemons, although eating the herb in large amounts might not be a good idea as it is also a purgative (laxative). The second most abundant nutrient in horseradish is vitamin K. Vitamin K primarily helps maintain healthy bones, arteries and may also help prevent prostate and liver cancer. One tbsp of Horseradish contains 0.2g of protein, 1.4g carbohydrate, 9mg calcium, 5mg phosphorus and 6 calories. Also iron, potassium, sodium, magnesium, fiber and starch. Horseradish contains volatile oils, very similar to those in mustard.
- This herb helps stimulate the appitite, improve liver function, and aid digestion. It has antibacterial/antibiotic properties and can lower fever by increasing perspiration; it is a diuretic and stimulates blood circulation.
- An enzyme in horseradish known as horseradish peroxidase or HRP is used as an antibody based test to test individuals for HIV/AIDS and also SARS. It can also be used to track harmful pathogens in water, air and food.
- Those with weak thyroid function or are taking thyroxin should not consume horseradish because the herb contains chemicals which can interfere with the thyroids glands normal production of hormones.
- The entire horseradish plant, leaves and or roots should not be fed to pets or livestock as it can be fatal.
Other Uses: Horseradish is an excellent companion plant for root crops because it helps with disease resistance. A spray made from horseradish leaves, infused in water, is used to prevent brown rot ( Monilinia fructicola) on fruit trees, especially apple trees.
Primary image Armoracia rustica; Image credit.
Halibut with a horseradish-blue cheese sauce. Image credit.