Horseradish freshly grated and added to sauces can bring tears to a strong person’s eyes and take their breath away, at least for a moment. This amazing 3,000-year-old plant has been used as an aphrodisiac, a treatment for rheumatism, a bitter herb for Passover Seders, and a sharp complement for beef, chicken and seafood. Horseradish’s history is intricate and mysterious. Horseradish has won esteem for its medicinal and gastronomic qualities for centuries.
Egyptians wrote about horseradish in 1500 B.C. The ancient Greeks used it as a rub for low back pain and as an aphrodisiac. It is used in religious observances during Passover Seders as one of the bitter herbs. A few people used horseradish syrup as an expectorant cough medicine; other people were convinced it cured everything from rheumatism to tuberculosis. The Delphic oracle relayed to Apollo, “The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold.”
In the Renaissance period, horseradish consumption spread from Central Europe northward to Scandinavia and westward to England. It was not until 1640, however, that the British ate horseradish. Then it was consumed only by country folk and laborers. By the late 1600s, horseradish became the standard accompaniment for beef and oysters among all Englishmen. Horseradish was grown in kitchen gardens at inns and coach stations to revive exhausted travelers. Early settlers brought horseradish to North America and began cultivating it in the colonies. Horseradish grew wild near Boston by 1840.
Today, approximately 6 million gallons of prepared horseradish are produced annually in the United States. That amount of horseradish can generously season sandwiches that reach twelve times around the world.
Among the many distinctions that can be said about horseradish are:
- Horseradish is still planted and harvested mostly by hand
- Sales of bottled horseradish began in 1860, making it one of the first convenience foods
- In the South, horseradish was rubbed on the forehead to relieve headaches
- Horseradish is added to some pickles to add firmness.
- Before being named “horseradish,” the plant was known as “redcole” in England and as “stingnose” in some parts of the United States.
- Horseradish has only 2 calories a teaspoon, is low in sodium and provides dietary fiber.
- Researchers at M.I.T. claim that the enzyme “horseradish peroxidase” removes a number of pollutants from wastewater.
- Germans still brew horseradish schnapps and some Germans also add it to their beer
Horseradish is planted with root crowns and root cuttings. Of the two types of horseradish produced, the crinkled-leaf or common horseradish is considered the higher quality. However, it is more susceptible to disease than the smooth-leaved Bohemian type. The intense pungency and aroma of horseradish is the result of isothiocyanates released from the glucosinolates sinigrin and 2-phenylethylglucosinolate by the naturally occurring enzyme myrosinase. Pungency develops when the root is crushed or when grinding the root.
When used as a condiment, the horseradish root is usually grated or minced and mixed with vinegar, salt, or other flavorings to make the sauce or relish. Horseradish is frequently used with fish or other seafood or as an appetizer with meats. The plant material is used as an ingredient in some catsups and mustards. Horseradish is available in a dehydrated form.
The fresh root of horseradish has been used as an antiseptic, diaphoretic, diuretic, rubefacient, stimulant, stomachic, and vermifuge. Horseradish has also been used as a remedy for asthma, coughs, colic, rheumatism, scurvy, toothache, ulcers, venereal diseases, and cancer. The humble horseradish appears to be used for a wide variety of treatments and cures in every age.
The Japanese horseradish, Wasabia japonica, a perennial herb with creeping pungent rhizomes, is found wild along streams in Japan. As with regular horseradish, it is cultivated and used as a condiment. The horseradish tree, Moringa pterygosperma C. F. Gaertin is a fragrant, flowering native of India with edible roots and fruits that belongs to the Moringaceae family.
The root can be used as an expectorant. Horseradish contains so much sulphur that it is used externally as a rub in chronic rheumatism.. Scraped horseradish if applied to chilblains, secured with a light bandage, will help to cure them. For facial neuralgia, some of the fresh scrapings, if held in the hand of the affected side, will give relief to the hand within a short time.
Part Used. The root is the only part now used, and in the fresh state only. It is nearly cylindrical, except at the crown, where it is somewhat enlarged.
Constituents. When unbroken, horseradish has no odor, however it has a characteristic pungent odor when scraped and has a hot, biting taste, combined with a sweetness. Horseradish is very similar to Black Mustard seeds. It contains Sinigrin, which is identical with that in Black Mustard seed. This volatile oil, which is released by scraping the root when in a fresh state, does not pre-exist in the root. The reaction does not take place in the root under normal conditions.
Medicinal Action and Uses. Horseradish is a powerful stimulant, whether applied internally or externally as a rub, and has antiseptic properties. Taken with oily fish or rich meat, either by itself or steeped in vinegar, or in a plain sauce, it acts as an excellent stimulant to the digestive organs, and as a spur to complete digestion.
When infused in wine, Horseradish root will stimulate the whole nervous system and promote perspiration.
An infusion of sliced Horseradish in milk, by its stimulating pungency and the sulphur it contains, makes an excellent cosmetic for the skin. Horseradish juice mixed with white vinegar will help to remove freckles. Horseradish syrup is very effectual in hoarseness:
If eaten at frequent intervals during the day and at meals, Horseradish is most efficacious in getting rid of the persistent cough following influenza.
Horseradish is so versatile in cooking and in so many other uses. It would be difficult to imagine not using this hardy pungent root.