Radish Knowledge: Pungency and Poetry

Do you know what a 4-methylthio-3-butenyl isothiocyanate is? Otherwise known as MTB-ITC? Nope, me neither. At least not until I began work writing about radishes for the upcoming edition of Crop StoriesNot only have I begun to realize the varied culinary applicability (that was a mouthful) of the radish, I've been able to dig into Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking"  and scholarly articles to learn more about the mustard oil produced by the enzyme reaction that makes those isothiocyanates. That's all just tricky wording to say what's behind radish pungency. Anyways, here's a bit of where I'm heading with the introductory essay for the next isse:

The Radish.

The perfect pink-ringed disc that chefs tweezer onto beds of frisee, microgreens and sungold tomatoes.

The crisp, heat-dampening crunch that tops a mound of Al Pastor on a corn tortilla at our favorite taqueria near the chicken processing plant.

The rigid wedge of white daikon made limp by fermentation and seasoned by Korean red pepper flake.

The Radish is a critical element to many a flavorful dish, yet, somehow, it remains overlooked, misunderstood and certainly underutilized. It seems to have two identities in the U.S. -- either ethnic or fancy -- and defintely not ubiquitous. Hopefully this edition of Crop Stories can help.

The Radish comes in a stunning array of colors, shapes and sizes that spruce up farmers market booths and home refrigerator crisper shelves with equal aplomb. It's rather practiced at being stunning; the Radish has been pleasing human eaters since antiquity, and has been a domesticated species in fields around the globe for thousands of years. The Radish is such a veteran crop that it's considered a cultigen, an altered species via centuries of selective breeding, making an accurate lineage impossible to trace.

We can say, with some surety, that radish varieties available to us today are far limited compared to 150 years ago. Writing in 1838, Englishman George Don compiled "A General History of the Dichlamydeous Plants," which lists radishes of multiple shapes, and hues like salmon, oblong brown, red-necked, scarlet and white russian.  

Early American seed catalogs contained a number of radish varieties, all sourced from England, according to famed gardening writer William Woys Weaver. But that soon changed. Mostly we quit eating them.


That there up above, that's the lemon ginger radish granita that Crop Stories' food editor Caitlyn Hardy put together. I shot it, of course, and I'm still brainstorming ways to pair this with mezcal in preparation for warmer weather.

During my research, I came across more than one poem dedicated to the radish. Read this one called, simply, "Radish," from the food literary journal Alimentum. 

You must forgive us— 
the name we gave you 
means quickly appearing
We think only 
of immediacy… 
stomach, eye, open palm. 
But you give yourself over 
as though it were your 
pleasure. How can we bite 
into your pinkish-purple skin 
and think of 
ancient history? Along 
with mustards and turnips, 
Caesar and Augustus fed on your 
but now we plant you 
in children’s gardens. They sing 
your other names: 
Cherry Belle, Snow Belle, 
April Cross…names like 
exotic dancers…Bunny Tail, 
White Icicle, Scarlet Globe… 
names like flavors 
or colors of lipstick, as if 
you could be anything 
we might imagine. We want 
every part of you: 
your rabbit-ear leaves, 
your curling tendrils, your seeds 
housed in siliques. Radish, 
we have given you a sandy loam. 
We have stirred 
and overturned, plucked the clods 
and stones. Still, 
you grow away from us, wild. 

Stay tuned for more in coming days.