Horseradish – Now that horse bites!!
In our short lives we are exposed to so many different stimuli and the sense of taste is the most powerful as it is based around the sense of smell plus a bit more. Taste and smell are such potent stimuli that they can move across time and years of memory. As well as this the pleasure we get from a great meal is surpassed by very few other activities. Most ‘tastes’ or ‘flavours’ are actually the blend of a series of essential oils that occur within a food. However there are some sensations that are not true flavours.
One of the most common ‘tastes’ that isn’t a true flavour is ‘chilli’. We all know what a chilli ‘tastes’ like but in reality it is in three forms. There is the ‘heat’ from the presence of capsaicin. This is the burning sensation we get from chewing on a fresh chilli. It can be neutralised by sugar and that leaves a peppery flavour. On top of this most chillis have their own flavour which is specific to the variety.
It is the range of flavours that makes life so enjoyable. Then there are the other ‘flavours’ that add some excitement to our food palette. Things like Wasabi, mustard, toothache plant and msg. They aren’t real flavours in the sense that it is not the blend of essential oils that control your reaction to them. Instead it is a particular chemical and how it reacts to saliva, air, starch or other common compounds. In Wasabi it is a chemical called isothiocyanate. This is the same chemical that gives horse radish its ‘bite’
In so many ways horse radish and wasabi are the same but different. They both have a similar appearance, both are eaten as a paste and both will blow out the sinuses. Mustard has a similar effect which is as a result of chemical reactions within the ground seed that produce the isothiocyanate. With mustard we eat the seed, with wasabi the stem and with horseradish we eat the root. They are all good for the health and are all members of that most important food family; Brassicaceae.
Horse radish has the Latin name of Armoracia rusticana and the synonym of Cochlearia armoracia. It is a classic perennial growing to 1.5 metre in height and dying back after the first winter frost. During the growing season it forms a large, deep tap root. If left alone this root will produce more side roots and then underground shoots in spring and can become quite invasive. In spring the new leaves are medium to large oblong blades. As the plant matures through the season it will produce heavily divide leaves and then large sprays of white flowers in late summer.
Horseradish will grow in almost any temperate climate. The ideal conditions are a long warm summer and a short cold winter. It prefers a full sun position in a good friable soil. Although it produces better roots if given moderate amounts of fish/kelp type fertilisers, if the leaves and roots are being removed each season it will need a reasonable application of a nitrogenous fertiliser in early spring. It will spread into the full area in which it is planted so should be treated a little like mint and give solid boundaries. It prefers a moist soil and will even tolerate a wet soil and likes a balanced pH.
If growing from root cuttings, they should be planted 5cm below the surface in early spring. If planting out potted plants, this can be done at any time. Either way it should be kept watered for the first few weeks after planting. Once established the plants will grow away and look after themselves until harvest time. For most Australian gardens it is possible to get a decent crop each year. Once the leaves have dropped off and whilst there is still some warmth in the soil the roots should be dug up and sorted out. Any small undersize pieces should be put straight back in the ground for the following year. Any unwanted bits should be disposed off in the bin or on the fire. Do not put them in the compost as they will come up all over the garden.
When harvesting the roots hold better if they are dug up after the leaves have dropped. Wash and clean the roots and place in a clean plastic bag. Best shelf life is gained by keeping them in the dark at 1-4C in relatively high humidity.
Unlike most other plants that have been grown for 3000 plus years there are very few cultivars. There is some selection for better storage and disease resistance but this is really of concern for commercial growers. It does however have a long history of medicinal use by most of the older civilizations. It is having a resurgence as useful food for control of respiratory disorders and as a tonic for overall health. It is low in energy but very high in Vitamin C and has good levels of dietary fibre.
Horse radish is primarily used as a condiment to strong meets. The fresh is root turned into a paste and mixed with vinegar and other additives. It is also taken as a tea or tonic on a daily basis. Many people confuse it with wasabi as they look, taste and are used in a similar manner. There are many western ‘brands’ of wasabi that are made with horseradish and food colour as a cheap alternative. The Japanese translate wasabi and horseradish as the same thing as there is no Japanese word for ‘horseradish’ and we don’t translate wasabi.
Get some of this ancient superfood in to your garden and then try using it in your regular diet.