Radish Revisited

by Sarah West


Sprinter of the root vegetables, spring radishes can go from seed packet to salad vegetable in 3-4 weeks. Their bright hues of red, pink and violet are a welcome addition to market displays this time of year, heralding that the season of storage crops is waning. Radishes round the corner first, followed by a pack of tonic vegetables that freshen our palates.

Radishes personify the season. Their juicy crispness, sweet with a hint of spice, seems a direct translation of spring’s temperament: mild coolness, increasing day length, and frequent showers that unleash electric greenness into our hibernating imaginations. Radishes become more bitter and fibrous if their growth is interrupted by heat stress or inconsistent soil moisture, making summer-grown radishes often spicier and pithier. Spring offers nearly effortless conditions for this sumptuous crudité.

The radish has acquired its round shape and vibrant colors only with the help of gardeners. While its early history is largely unknown, the radish likely originated in northern China, from which it spread to India, the Mediterranean, northern Europe and eventually the Americas, where it was one of the first introduced vegetables, hot on the heals of Columbus.

Its original form, like so many domesticated root vegetables, was likely that of a wild annual with a pale, unremarkable taproot. Its four-petaled flower, like its cousin, arugula’s, tickled the tongue with peppery sweetness, its leaves with pungent bitterness. Radishes of all types have fleshy seedpods known as siliques that are edible when tender, tasting something like a spicy radish soul in the body of a green bean. Perhaps it was these curious pods that first attracted gatherers in search of nutritious forage.

We do not know where a journey will take us when we start. Those early gatherers and gardeners of wild radishes would be shocked to see the range of forms the modern radish takes, from cherry-red to green-shouldered, cylindrical to pointed to marble-shaped, bite-sized to 70-pound giants. Some varieties have been selected specifically for their large, tender pods. Radish diversity has been proliferated by the tastes and preferences of the cultures through which it has traveled.

The radish with which we are most familiar today—that bright red button of a root we slice onto salad greens—comes from the work of Dutch and Italian gardeners of the 16th century who began selecting for small, round roots. Up until that time, most European radish varieties looked more like parsnips or elongated beets. The black radish, a variety we see returning to popularity at local markets as a winter vegetable, more closely resembles these medieval European radishes.

Asian cuisines favored taproot shaped radishes, developing a diverse range of varieties that include daikon, a staple of the pickle jar and wok, and shunkyo, a purple, carrot-shaped radish for eating raw. Last season I grew Shunkyo Long for the first time, a variety I bought from Wild Garden Seed. Its root was surprisingly tender and mildly sweet, its leaves smooth (most radish leaves have the texture of worn Velcro) and succulent with a hint of radish flavor delicious cooked or added to salad mix.

Radishes were a revered vegetable in early America. Seed catalogs listed dozens of varieties for each growing season. The whole plant was eaten: young leaves from thinning the radish patch went into the salad bowl, mature greens into soups, sautés, or even pickle brine. From the breakfast table to the sack lunch to refined dinners, the radish’s noble root peppered American meals until the late 20th century relegated them to the category of garnish.

The association of radishes as a raw food has been hard to shake. Many of the old cultivars are coming back into fashion; seed catalogs again offer varieties that stretch a radish-growers imagination beyond the ubiquitous red globe. Chefs have begun to embrace their versatility. But at home (and at the grocery store), their fate still seems locked to the vegetable platter, forever orbiting a bowl of ranch dressing.

I sautéed a radish for the first time two years ago, tossed them briefly in a pan of hot oil, sprinkled them with salt and was charmed by their turnip-like flavor. Last summer, faced with a bumper crop of the cylindrical-shaped French Breakfast variety, I halved them, tossed them in oil and salt and spread them on the grill alongside carrots and scallions. The smoky heat caramelized their surface, gently softened their center, bringing out the distinct sweetness and subtle flavors of these vegetable platter standards, no ranch required.