Root vegetables are the underground parts of plants that we eat as food. They are a rich source of carbohydrate and are consumed as staple foods all over the world, particularly in tropical regions. Once harvested, they can also be kept well in cool conditions, sometimes lasting several months. They are often highly nutritious and tend to be packed with fibre and antioxidants.
A bitter root originally from the Andes, halfway between a carrot and celery. In South America it's a very important crop. It looks like a short, chubby carrot. Its flesh is yellow or purple, and once it's cooked it releases an aroma that recalls a blend of celery, cabbage, and roasted chestnuts. The dark green and purplish-blue leaves resemble parsley.
While botany distinguishes non-roots from true roots (like tap roots, one for all, such as carrots, and tuberous roots, like sweet potatoes), in agriculture and the culinary arts the same distinctions don't apply. The category 'roots' therefore also include some that technically are not, such as tubers, including the most famous, the potato, corms (tarro or konjac for example), and even rhizomes (turmeric, lotus, etc.) and bulbs (garlic, onion, etc.). In this context, we'll focus on true roots.
Root coffee: not only does it exist, but it was a popular surrogate for coffee at the beginning of the last century. 'Dandelion coffee' has a passable resemblance to the real thing in both flavour and appearance. Chicory coffee is growing increasingly popular for its detoxifying properties.
The 'big root', the Japanese radish, is a truly versatile winter vegetable. The secret to cooking it right? Use water rice was washed in (or to which a little rice bran has been added): it will keep the root white and will even remove its bitterness.
Eryngium (or sea holly) roots were popular in European cuisine in the past. They still appear occasionally, especially those of the species Eryngium campestre and Eryngium foetidum. It has a decisively unpleasant odour, but when used sparingly in soups it can confer a special and characteristic fragrance.
Various plants of the Tragopogon genus go by this name. The most important in cooking are Spanish salsify and purple salsify, which can also be sliced into rounds and dried like mushrooms.
It is a tuberose root also known as 'earth chestnut' because the underground 'nut' resembles a chestnut in colour, size, and even flavour, and has been associated with the taste of chestnuts, hazelnuts, sweet potatoes and Brazil nuts. Tasty and wholesome, it is very popular among collectors of wild herbs.
Ipomoea batatas is the scientific name for sweet potatoes, while Ipomoe costata is a plant that's indigenous to Australia, and is also called 'rock morning glory'. It grows the 'bush potato', still eaten today by the Aboriginal people who live in the desert.
This is a tropical climber cultivated largely for its enormous taproot, which can weigh up to 20 kg and whose white flesh can be eaten raw or cooked. It is crunchy and juicy at the same time, and even rather sweet: it can be compared to an apple.
This is a typical Japanese dish consisting of burdock root and carrots, julienned and cooked in the 'kimpira' style. Frequently used when cooking roots, this style is more or less 'sauté and simmer, stewing in soy sauce, sake or mirin, sugar, and sesame oil.
Large Indian breadroot
This is one of a variety of names for psoralea esculenta, the prairie turnip. It was a basic food for the native populations of the prairie, and opinions on its flavour range from delicacy to culinary nonentity.
It's very much in vogue for its multiple properties, from purifying to restorative, and even, some say, aphrodisiac, since it's said to improve the production of sperm and sexual performance. The 'ginseng of the Andes' was regularly consumed by imperial Inca warriors, and the part of the plant with these extraordinary powers is, of course, its root.
Hornstedtiascottiana is a large ginger with exquisite inflorescence, meaty pulp, and a pungent odour. It grows in the rain forests of the Maluku islands, New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Northern Queensland.
In this Mexican city, 23 December is the 'Night of the Radishes', where a popular art competition is held as part of Christmas celebrations, in which people sculpt giant radishes – weighing up to 3 kg – into religious figures and other objects.
The parsley root looks like a beige carrot, and its flavour is a blend of that and celery. Compared to parsnip, it is more delicate, sweet, and has a grassy scent. It is used in Central and Eastern Europe, and is especially popular with Jewish, Polish, and German cooks.
Horseradish root is worth its weight in gold. According to Greek mythology, that's what the Oracle at Delphi told Apollo.
Also called swede, from Swedish turnip, this is probably a cross between cabbage and turnip. Beloved in many English-speaking countries and extremely popular in Northern Europe, where it's prepared in many different ways, including as a purée, it tends instead to be associated with poverty and the two wars in countries like France and Germany.
This is 'turnip juice', a beverage prepared in Southern Turkey with the juice of red carrot pickles, salted, spiced, and flavoured with aromatic turnip. It is often served alongside an alcoholic drink and is rumoured to be fantastic after a hangover.
The turnip – the people's root, noble, praised, mocked, forgotten, rediscovered, always good – has even risen to the level of a top prize. Nailed to a piece of wood, it's the Turnip Prize, coined to satirise the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize, and with typical British derision rewards terrible works of modern art.
This is a trend in how to eat kohlrabi, coming from South American cuisine, and Peruvian in particular: the vegetable, still green, tender and flavourful, is eaten both raw and cooked.
The seventh essential food in the world, and the third most important source of carbohydrates in the tropics: it's yuca (not to be confused with yucca), also known as cassava or manioc, which, when dried and powdered, becomes tapioca.
Wars of the Roses
Tracing back to the beginning of the War of the Roses, we find this recipe from the The Boke of Nurture, from 1460: "Take skirret, parsnips, and apples, and blanch them. Make a dough with flour and eggs. Blend beer, saffron, and salt, and fry them in oil or fat. Serve with almond milk."
In some English–speaking countries, the UK and Canada in particular, it's a must at Christmas dinner: parsnips, the long white and meaty root. Native to Eurasia, it's an integral part of the Sunday roast. It's always eaten cooked, but in truth it's also excellent raw.
This is a yellow-petaled daisy that grows in New Zealand. Its root, roasted in a terracotta oven, was a common food among the indigenous people, who loved its sweet juice. Sheep grazing has noticeably reduced the numbers of this perennial plant.
That's the German name for skirret, which translates literally as 'sweet root'. Its name in English derives from the Middle English 'skirwhit', meaning 'white root'. The names reflect two characteristics of this vegetable, which is cooked and eaten like turnip and white salsify.