Sunday, 30 June 2013

What is a Rat Tail Radish?

Rat Tail Radish Pod (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

How many of us have started gardening and found plants of unknown origin appear in our gardens? At least one blog reader can relate. Nina Steen from Greenwood Lake, NY, sent this picture to my inbox in an email labeled Mystery Plant.

Nina's Rat Tail Radish plant in flower (courtesy of Nina Steen)
This plant was in her cilantro labeled pot, but, as you can see it looks nothing like cilantro. Nina contacted me as well as many others to figure out this mystery. Here is a pretty convincing response from Stacey Lawrence 

"This is definitely a rat tail radish or Raphanus caudatus. Where ever did you pick this up Nina? This fella isn't usually grown for its flowers but rather the eatable pods it produces in late summer. The taste similar to a radish flavour and are big in Asia cooking. Pick them while they're young or they get hard and nasty quickly."

Mystery solved, this plant is Raphanus caudatus, literally meaning radish with a tail. Thanks to Nina and Stacey, I learned this tail is edible! In fact, these radish pods may have more culinary uses than the well-known radish root. Pods can be used fresh in salads, steamed, boiled, stir-fried, or pickled. A recipe submitted to the Washington Post suggests crisping them up in olive oil; another food blogger suggests putting them in salad with tomatoes

Although this plant was unknown to Nina and I, it has been around a long time. The Missouri Botanical Garden reports that Greeks and Romans were the first to write about the culinary uses of these radishes. But just where did Greeks and Romans get their hands on these pods? 

Botanists believe that radishes that contain pods come from China because this is where wild varieties of the plant can still be found. From China and Greece radishes somehow made their way to Americas soon after Columbus. These tangy vegetables became so important in Mexico (in Oaxaca specifically) that this vegetable is celebrated there on La Noche de los Rabanos (The Night of the Radish) every December 23rd. This festival uses the radish root I'm more familiar with to carve sculptures and to make Mexican treats such as radish empanadas and tamales.

Nina confessed to me that she is looking to give away her rat tail because she does not like radishes. I agree that radish roots are pungent and not for everyone but some chefs claim that radish pods have a more delicate flavour. Either way, I am looking forward to tasting these pods because radishes are one of my favourite vegetables. I remember my grandfather used to put them out as summer snacks with salt, definitely a healthier treat then the chips and other crispy things I encounter more often as time passes. 

Please share any of your rat tail recipes in the comments section of this blog; if you have any pictures of your cooking, I would love to post them on the blog. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Bhutanese Butter Tea

Yak Butter used in Bhutanese Tea (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Tea is ritual. Preparing tea is a skilled tradition, drinking tea can cure illness, sharing tea is a form of celebrating friendship, and reading tea is a form of fortune-telling. There are two forms of tea that have always intrigued me: Moroccan mint tea and Bhutanese butter tea. Although I have no immediate travel plans to Morocco, my work will bring me to Bhutan in 2014. On the top of my Bhutanese to do list is tea-tasting. 

I began reading about Bhutanese tea this year in preparation for the International Society of Ethnobiology Conference in 2014. I learned that tea in Bhutan is different from tea I've heard about anywhere else in the world. What makes Bhutanese tea so special? Butter, also known as Suja. Butter is mixed into black tea with a little bit of salt. A fellow blogger, Dolro, posted some great pictures here of her family churning butter into tea. Dolro explained that the finished product is a creamy brown colour. 
Creamy brown butter tea (courtesy of wikimedia commons)
A friend of mine, Jigme Dorji, explained that butter tea is common all over Bhutan. On the other hand, Yak butter tea is only made by Nomad communities. I understand that the Yak is a very important being for Nomads. Yaks provide food, clothing, and are part of many nomadic rituals. Because I am in Bhutan for a conference, I may only get the chance to try regular butter tea, but I'll keep my fingers crossed in hopes to try tea made with Yak butter. 

So why put butter in your tea, besides the fact that it tastes good? Although I'm not entirely sure, one reason may be that butter tea is high in fat and important to keep people warm at high altitudes. In the Andean highlands mate de coca is another tea important to keep people warm at high altitudes. This Christmas I was feeling pretty cold myself after moving home from Costa Rica. In light of my new knowledge of butter tea I tried to make my own. I started putting coconut butter in my teas and indeed it warmed me up and tasted delicious. I'm sure there is a rich history of the origin of butter tea, if you have any leads please share them in the comments section here.